Kristján Árnason

Analysing varieties and norms in West-Nordic: Formal and functional considerations

According to the eminent 20th century German scholar Hans Kuhn, Iceland is both factually (tatsächlich) and fundamentally (grundsätslich) without dialects (Mundarten) (see: ‘Die sprachliche Einheit Islands’, Zeitschrift für Mundartforschung 1935, p. 24). According to this dictum there is a basic difference between Iceland and many European countries, where dialects are recognised as part of linguistic life. This includes its closest relatives, Faroese and Western Norwegian, and the question is where the difference lies (if indeed there is a fundamental difference). I want to discuss the issue in the light of modern sociolinguistic terminology. There are two sides to the definition of dialect, a formal one based on “purely linguistic criteria” and a functional one referring to external conditions. This distinction corresponds to Heinz Kloss’ reference (1952) to Abstand (formal difference) and Ausbau (elaboration called for by external needs in separating linguistic varieties and languages). There is an interesting difference between traditional Icelandic usage on the one hand and Norwegian and Faroese usage on the other. The Icelandic word mállýska typically refers to form and can be translated as ‘way of speaking’; the word can refer directly to formal characteristics such as aspiration on stops (called ‘hard speech’), whereas Faroese málføri and Norwegian målføre are typically defined functionally, referring to varieties spoken in geographical locations. The Icelandic term mállýska can thus not be translated as ‘dialect’ (German: Mundart), whereas this works well for the Norwegian and Faroese words. It seems that this reflects a cultural difference which may have been what Kuhn was referring to: the idea of separate locally defined varieties is not a clear one for Icelanders. But this does not prevent normal forces in linguistic variation to have their effects in Iceland. There are thus relatively clear (functional) distinctions between formal and informal, good (vandað) or not so good (óvandað) usage, and in recent electronic channels of communication new varieties seem to be developing.