Jóhannes Gísli Jónsson

Preserving innovative forms: Strong masculine ia-stems in North American Icelandic

An interesting characteristic of North American Icelandic (NAI) is how it has preserved certain innovative linguistic features that were prevalent in Icelandic during the time of the migration to North America (approximately 1870-1914) but lost ground in 20th century Icelandic. The best documented example of this is the so called flámæli, the phonological merger of i/e (front lax unrounded vowels) and u/ö (front lax rounded vowels) (see Arnbjörnsdóttir 2006). The fact that flámæli receded significantly in 20th century Icelandic is usually ascribed to the fact there was a strong prescriptive pressure against it around the middle of the last century, especially in the elimentary schools were children using flámæli were systematically trained to speak standard Icelandic. The sociolinguistic conditions for speakers of NAI were markedly different from their peers in Iceland (e.g. they received no education in Icelandic) and thus there were no forces working against flámæli in NAI.

In this talk, I will discuss another linguistic phenomena showing a similar divide between NAI and Icelandic, the use of innovative forms with strong masculine ia-stems, i.e. nouns ending in –ir in the nominative singular (cf. words like endir ‘end’, hellir ‘cave’ and læknir ‘doctor’).  In Old Norse, the final consonant was the ending for the nominative singular but the –r began to be renalyzed as part of the stem in the 15th century. This abstract change in the nominative singular lead to a gradual change in the actual forms in other parts of the paradigm. According to Benediktsson (1969), this change went through the four stages shown in (1):

(1)   Old Norse (A) (B) (C) (D)


nom. helli-r hellir      

acc. helli-Ø hellir      

dat. hell-i   hellir   hellr-i

gen. helli-s hellir-s      


nom. hell-ar     hellir-ar hellr-ar

acc. hell-a     hellir-a hellr-a

dat. hell-um     hellir-um hellr-um
  gen. hell-a     hellir-a hellr-a
      (15th cent.) (16th cent.) (early 17th century) (17th cent.)

Presumably, this reanalysis was triggered by the fact that many strong masculine nouns have a null ending in the nominative singular, including disyllabic nouns ending in –ar (e.g. bikar ‘cup, medal’, humar ‘lobster’, and kamar ‘toilet’) as well as various monosyllabic nouns (e.g. bjór ‘beer’, fugl ‘bird’, her ‘army’, and ís ‘ice’) . By contrst, the ending –r in the nominative singular had become restricted to a small class of masculine nouns by the 15th century.

The changes illustrated in (1) seem to have reached its peak around the middle of the 19th century, by which time the new forms were more common than the traditional forms (Heimisdóttir 2008). However, the old forms replaced the new forms in the 20th century, especially in the plural. This reversal of a diachronic change is rare in the history of Icelandic morphology and it is often attributed to language purism, which became a strong force in the first half of the last century.

Using innovative forms with ia-stems in the strong masculine is a well-know feature of NAI (see e.g. Bessason 1984). A search through the electronic corpora of spoken NAI (compiled by Hallfreður Örn Eiríksson and Olga María Franzdóttir (1972-1973) and Gísli Sigurðsson (1982-1984)) reveals various examples of this kind but also many cases of the tradional inflection. For instance, the corpora mentioned above have 95 examples of the word læknir, the most common member of the class of strong masculine ia-stems. Of these examples, 60 (63,2%) are ambiguous between the old and the new inflection, 21 (22,1%) are standard forms and 14 (14,7%) are innovative forms. Some examples of the innovative forms are shown in (2):

(2)                   a. Ég var búin að fara til læknira og þeir gerðu mér ekkert gott

I was done to go to doctors.gen and they did me no good (‘I had gone to doctors…’)

b. Þar fann hann læknir, en aungvan túlk

there found he doctor. acc but no interpreter (‘There he found a doctor…’)

c. Og alveg læknislaust af lærðum læknirum

and completely doctor.free of learned doctors. dat

The speakers of NAI in these corpora are mostly second generation immigrants borne around 1900 and they do not hesitate to use inflectional forms that had by the time of the recordings become rare and stigmatized in Icelandic. Importantly, the data show that there was no further development beyond 19th century Icelandic as the traditional forms survived in NAI along with the new forms. Thus, speakers of NAI show preservation of innovative forms that were common in the 19th century and this is clearly parallel to their use use of flámæli. In both cases, it is reasonable to assume that the absence of prescriptivism in NAI played a crucial role.



Arnbjörnsdóttir, Birna. 2006. North American Icelandic: The life of a language. The University of Manitoba Press, Manitoba.

Benediktsson, Hreinn. 1969. On the inflection of the masculine ia-stems in Icelandic. Afmælisrit Jóns Helgasonar 30. júní 1969, (eds.): Jakob Benediktsson, Ólafur Halldórsson, Stefán Karlsson, Jónas Kristjánsson, and Jón Samsonarson, p. 391-402. Mál og menning, Reykjavík.

Bessason, Haraldur. 1984. Interview in Morgunblaðið, February 12th, page 64.

Heimisdóttir, Linda Ösp. 2008. Yfirlit yfir beygingu karlkyns –ija-stofna frá 19. öld til nútímamáls. [An overview of the inflection of masculine ija-stems from the 19th century to modern times.] B.A.-thesis, University of Iceland, Reykjavík.