Alphabet in Ruins

The letter Z was removed from the Icelandic alphabet in 1974. What the…?!  No, really, the Icelandic alphabet no longer includes the letter Z. People who learned to read and write before 1974 still use it, according to the Guide to Iceland. The Guide further says the country has about twenty men named Zophonías, the most popular of the few names in Iceland that begin with Z.

For information, and because I am relatively certain anyone who happens upon this page wants to know, here is the Icelandic alphabet (32 letters):


LOWER CASE: а  á  b d  ð  e  é f  g  h  i í  j k  l  m  n  o  ó  p r  s  t u  ú  v y  ý  x þ  æ  ö

The letters C, Q, and W are missing, you might note, in addition to the letter Z, which was jettisoned forty-six years ago. But those other missing letters are used in foreign words and the Z is used in a few names, as mentioned earlier.

In spite of learning some moderately troubling aspects of Icelandic law and tradition (like removing letters from the alphabet and forbidding the use of unapproved names for newborn babies), I am fascinated by aspects of the culture about which, normally, I would pay no heed. Burials and cremation appear to be highly regulated. The vast majority (roughly 80%) of Icelanders belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland. Why on earth would I find such trivia of even passing interest? I cannot answer that with truth because I do not know the truth.

Truth. Is ‘truth’ a synonym for ‘fact’? If so, would Kellyanne Conway have us believe there is an alternative truth? There I go again. Off track. I blame Kellyanne; there is so much blame for which she can be held responsible.

Back to Icelandic church membership. I had hoped such an advanced civilization would have evolved spiritually, as well, becoming at least agnostics if not atheists. Hmm. My bias and judgmental nature is showing again. I thought I had evolve beyond such snide remarks. Yesterday’s post suggested I had. Yet here I am again. My flaws are beyond measure.

Speaking of Iceland (as I often will), I read an article that said a former First Lady of Iceland, Dorrit Moussaieff, revealed that she had COVID-19. Thanks to my narrow but quite shallow knowledge of Icelandic culture, I knew immediately from seeing her name that she was very likely not a native Icelander; had she been a native, her last name would have been her father’s given name, followed by “dóttir,” which translates as “daughter.” So, for example, if her father’s name had been Magnús Einarson, her last name would have been some approximation of Magnúsdóttir. Kind of cool, yes? Her first name probably would not have been approved by the Mannanafnanefnd, the Icelandic Naming Committee, either, by the way.

Though I find Iceland extremely interesting, I do not have much interest in visiting the country, at least not as a tourist. If I were invited to visit an English-speaking individual or a small family in Iceland, someone willing to help me learn to converse comfortably in Icelandic, I might go. But I have no interest in ogling the sites of the country as a tourist. My interest is much the same as I have in other countries; I would like to become a native, as if I were born there and grew up learning the language, the customs, and absorbing the culture and social structure. I realize I’ve visited plenty of places as a tourist. And, yes, I’ve enjoyed myself. But despite my enjoyment, I have always felt like a slightly boorish (and that’s being overly kind to myself) voyeur; a hopeless rube. I have always hoped that I would feel like, and be perceived as, an intelligent, curious foreigner who values and respects the culture to which I am being expose; but those hopes were the delusional dreams of a hick.

I realize, of course, I cannot become a native or even approach the knowledge of and familiarity with a country and its culture a native-born person probably has. But I want it, nonetheless. I don’t want to be an outsider, at least not in the cultures I find interesting and appealing. But I am an outsider. And an outsider can never feel comfortable in the knowledge that he is viewed with distrust, even if that perspective is subsurface and unintended.  As an outsider, I make too many social mistakes. I embarrass myself and others simply by being who I am. It’s all a matter of context, of course. I don’t often embarrass myself here in the USA simply by being myself; well, the frequency of embarrassment, at least, is lower.

No one in Iceland has ever given even a moment’s thought to me. Why should I, then, find myself absorbed by Icelanders? I mean in the aggregate; I know very little about individual Icelanders, with the exception of Jón Gunnar Kristinsson. You may know him as Jón Gnarr (he changed his middle name and apparently adopted it as his last name), a comedian who became mayor of Reykjavík. His wife’s name, by the way, is Jóhanna Jóhannsdóttir. See how that naming convention works? Her father was Jóhan; no clue what her father’s last name was, though. Anyway, Jón was a runaway favorite in Iceland, both as a comedian and as a politician. He is, by the way, a vocal opponent of Iceland’s naming conventions (and their accompanying laws), thus a critic of Icelandic culture, in a sense. Despite my ambivalence about the naming laws, I find his opposition to that bedrock of Icelandic culture more than a little disturbing.  Again, I’ve slipped off course; I was asking why I should find myself absorbed by Icelanders. I haven’t a clue. I think, perhaps, it’s because I have to find something unusual to cling to; something that might set me apart from the multitudes. Otherwise, I’m just another gathering of flesh; a piece of living, breathing meat of no more consequence than any other assemblage of fat and muscle. But aren’t we all vital and valuable? Did I not say, just yesterday, that I fervently believe in the principle that recognizes “the inherent worth and dignity of every person?” I did, indeed. But I vacillate with unwavering predictability.

Damn. I have wasted another forty minutes, more or less, writing about matters that don’t. Matter, I mean. I could have been productive. Instead, I’ve successfully kept my mind occupied by forcing it to steer clear of gravitas. There will be time for gravitas. That’s what we always say. “There will be time for that.” Even when that’s not necessarily true. We keep telling ourselves it is.

And so I’ll leave it with this: the Icelandic alphabet, thirty-three letters long until 1974, is now in ruins, having lost its Z. And voids exist where C, Q, and W should be.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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