Höskuldur Þráinsson

North American Icelandic: Some Elicitation Experiments

As is well known, one of the major decisions facing those who want to study heritage languages is which methods of elicitation to use. The choice will inevitably depend on various factors, e.g.:

  •    demographic properties of the population
  •    the speakers’ proficiency in the heritage language
  •    linguistic properties of the heritage language that may be of special interest to the investigators

This paper reports on elicitation experiments that were carried out among speakers of North American Icelandic (henceforth NA Icelandic) in Manitoba, Canada, in April and May 2013. The purpose was obviously to test certain methods which we believed might help us elicit information about linguistically interesting properties of NA Icelandic, especially in comparison with Icelandic in its native context (henceforth Icelandic). To make systematic comparison easier, we wanted to try out methods that were maximally similar to methods used in recent studies of Icelandic and in previous studies of NA Icelandic (see especially Arnbjörnsdóttir 2006 and references cited there).

In addition to attempts at eliciting spontaneous speech in casual conversations about the subjects’ life stories, the methods included the following:

Spontaneous speech:

  •    Eliciting a narrative based on the book Frog, Where Are You? by Mercer Mayer. (Often used in child language studies, see e.g. Slobin 2004 and references cited there.)


  •    Sentence-picture matching task to study the understanding of syntactically complex sentences (Topicalization, Clefts/Relatives, Passives, wh-Questions …). (The test was originally used by Sigríður Magnúsdóttir 2000. Studies among other things to what extent speakers can make use of morphological clues when interpreting syntactically complex sentences.)
  •    Choice between two (or more) alternative structures  involving reflexives vs. personal pronouns, subject case marking, positioning of adverbs vs. verbs. (A method used extensively in the so-called IceDiaSyn project, cf. e.g. Thráinsson, Angantýsson and Sigurðsson (eds) 2013.)
  •    Fill-ins, e.g. to study the use of reflexives vs. personal pronouns. (Also used in IceDiaSyn and previous studies of Icelandic syntax.)
  •    Presentation of various syntactic structures eliciting syntactic judgments. (A method extesively used in IceDiaSyn and other parts of the ScanDiaSyn project, cf. http://websim.arkivert.uit.no/scandiasyn/index.html%3fLanguage=en.)


  •    Pictures eliciting different inflectional forms of verbs and auxiliary constructions. (A test originally developed to use in work on acquisition and aphasia. Has also been used to elicit data on verbal inflection in Faroese.)
  •    Pictures eliciting plural forms of nouns. (A test originally developed for work on acquisition. Based on the famous wug-test by Jean Berko Gleason.)


  •    Pictures eliciting words containing selected speech sounds or clusters of sounds. (A method developed for a study of phonological variation in Icelandic in the 1980, cf. e.g. Árnason and Thráinsson 2003. Also used by Birna Arnbjörnsdóttir in previous research on NA Icelandic, cf. Arnbjörnsdóttir 2006, and more recently in the project

“Real-time linguistic change in Icelandic phonology and syntax” (cf. http://malvis.hi. is/malbreytingar_i_rauntima_i_islensku_hljodkerfi_og_setningagerd).

  •    Reading of a short text for the same purpose. (Text developed for the studies mentioned above.


  •    A study of the development of the progressive construction in NA Icelandic (cf. the description of the study of verbal morphology and auxiliary constructions above).
  •    Using pictures to study semantic categorization: containers (kinds of objects), body parts (parts of objects), spatial relations (how objects are related to one another) — testing speakers of North American Icelandic and speakers of (Canadian) English. (This built on work already conducted as part of a large European project studying the semantics of Indo-European languages, including Icelandic: the Evolution of Semantic Systems project (EoSS, cf. Majid, Jordand and Dunn 2011) and the test material was used by permission of the Max Planck Institute. )

Some of these methods worked quite well (e.g. the frog story, the sentence-picture matching task, choice between alternative syntactic structures, the semantic study), others need to be modified (e.g. the fill-ins, the morphological tasks, the reading passage) and still others will probably not be used again (e.g. the sentence judgment tasks). This will be demonstrated in our paper (and hopefully also in various other papers at this conference).

We believe that our results are of general methodological interest for those interested in the study of heritage languages. In addition, some of the (preliminary) results obtained in this study are also linguistically interesting in and of themselves.


Arnbjörnsdóttir, Birna. 2006. North American Icelandic – the Life of a Language. University of Manitoba Press, Winnipeg.

Árnason, Kristján, and Höskuldur Thráinsson. 2003. Fonologiske dialekttræk på Island: Generationer og geografiske områder. Gunnstein Akselberg, Anne Marit Bødal og Helge Sandøy (eds): Nordisk dialektologi, pp. 151–196. Novus, Oslo.

Magnúsdóttir, Sigríður. 2000. On Grammatical Knowledge in Agrammatism. Evidence from Icelandic. Doctoral dissertation, Boston University, Boston.

Majid, Asifa, Fiona Jordan and Michael Dunn. 2011. Evolution of Semantic Systems Procedures Manual. Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen.

Slobin, Dan I. 2004. The many ways to search for a frog: Linguistic typology and the expression of motion events. In Sven Strömqvist and Ludo Verhoeven (eds): Relating Events in a Narrative. Vol. 2. Typological and contextual perspectives, pp. 219–257. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ.

Thráinsson, Höskuldur, Ásgrímur Angantýsson and Einar Freyr Sigurðsson (eds). 2013. Tilbrigði í íslenskri setningagerð. I. Markmið, aðferðir og efniviður. [Variation in Icelandic Syntax. Vol. I: Goals, methods and material.] Málvísindastofnun Háskóla Íslands, Reykjavík.