Kristín M. Jóhannsdóttir

Changes in the Aspectual System of North American Icelandic 

This paper reports on preliminary results from elicitations carried out among speakers of North American Icelandic (hereafter NA Icelandic), with focus on the aspectual system of the language and the changes that have taken place in the past several decades. The findings are then compared to older data, elicited by Eiríksson and Franzdóttir (1972/1982; Sigurðsson 2012) and later Sigurðsson (1984).

This preliminary comparison of the data has already shown some interesting findings, particularly a clear simplification of the aspectual system of the language. For example, in Icelandic spoken in Iceland (hereafter Icelandic) there are several ways to indicate that an event is yet to happen were different verbal construction give different approximation in time to the event. So, er að fara að V ‘is to go to V’ indicates an event that is just about to happen, fer að V ‘goes to V’ is an event that soon will take place and mun V ‘will V’ represents an event that will take place even though no indication is given as to when. Preliminary results of the elicitations in May indicate that the verbal construction ætlar að V ‘intends to V’ now represents all those meanings. Similarly, the verb byrja ‘starts’ has become the predominant verb of choice to mark the beginning of an event. The example in (1), elicited in May this year, shows both verbs ætla and byrja, whereas the example in (2), elicited in 1972, shows the use of the verb fara ‘go’:

(1) Hann ætlar     að byrja að setja smjör á   brauðið,

He     intends to  start  to  put   butter on toast-the

‘He’s gonna put butter on the bread.’

(2) Og   hann fer   að fóna,   eða síma, í   allar   áttir,       hvar    hann geti fengið hey.

And he    goes to  phone or   call    in every direction where he     can get      hay.

‘And he starts calling everyone to see where he can get hay.’

Just like byrjar að ‘begins to’ marks the beginning of an event in modern day NA Icelandic, the verbal compound búinn að ‘finished to’ has become more or less the only way to represent a completed event (see (3)), whereas in Icelandic and older NA Icelandic the perfective is frequently used (4):

(3) Hann er búinn     að klæða hann.

He     is finished to  dress   him

‘He has dressed him.’

(4) Hann hefur klætt     hann.

He     has    dressed him

‘He has dressed him.’

All the speakers interviewed this year used the progressive construction vera að V ‘be to V’, which is the most common way to represent an event in progress in Icelandic. This construction, as shown in (Gunnarsson 2010 and Jóhannsdóttir 2011), has been changing in Icelandic, where it is increasingly being used for habitual and stative situations. In this paper I examine whether the use of vera að has developed in the same way in NA Icelandic as in Icelandic and to what extent it has been influenced by English.

It is to be expected that heritage speakers of a language limit the variations in how events are related to time and to one another without actually simplifying the tense and aspectual system so much that it becomes confusing. This paper will present evidence that show that this is indeed the case with NA Icelandic as it is spoken in Canada today.

Eiríksson, Hallfreður Örn and Olga Franzdóttir. 1972/1982. Ethnographic interviews with some 145 speakers of North American Icelandic.  Recordings and transcripts at the Árni Magnússon Institute of Icelandic.

Gunnarsson, Gunnar. 2010. Ástandssagnir í framvinduhorfi. B.A. thesis, University of Iceland.

Jóhannsdóttir, K.M. 2011. Aspects of the progressive in English and Icelandic. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Britisch Columbia.

Sigurðsson, Gísli. 1984. Viðtöl við Vestur-Íslendinga. Tekin og skráð af Gísla Sigurðssyni. Orðasafn úr vesturíslensku. [‘Interviews with North American Icelanders … Plus a NAmIcel lexicon.’] Ms., Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, Reykjavík.

Sigurðsson, Gísli (ed.) 2012. Sögur úr Vesturheimi [Stories from the New World]. (Stories and poems collected by Hallfreður Örn Eiríksson and Olga María Franzdóttir in 1972-1973.) Háskólaútgáfan, Reykjavík.