Invited Speakers

KÁ og HÞ

Höskuldur Þráinsson — Kristján Árnason


Höskuldur Þráinsson

There is no “Icelandic A and B“ nor “Faroese 1 and 2”

The so-called Principles and Parameters approach to linguistic variation (cf. Chomsky 1981) has had a very important and positive impact on linguistic thinking about how languages can and cannot vary. But it has also led to a common but unwarranted assumption about linguistic variation, which can be described as follows: If Speaker A finds Sentence X acceptable but Speaker B does not, then Speaker A speaks the A-variant of the relevant language and Speaker B speaks the B-variant and these are discrete and clearly distinct variants. Thus it has sometimes been maintained that Icelandic A and B are distinct syntactic dialects of Icelandic (see e.g. Jóhannes Gísli Jónsson 1996, Gärtner 2003) and Faroese 1 and 2 are separate dialects of Faroese (see e.g. Jonas 1996, Bobaljik and Höskuldur Thráinsson 1998). But recent research on language variation suggests that this is not a typical situation. Intra-speaker variation is much more prevalent in language than often assumed and in that sense suggested “dialects” blend into each other. In this talk I will first demonstrate this by presenting data from research on variation in Icelandic and Faroese syntax. Then I will show that similar intra-speaker variation is also found in phonological “dialect” features in Ielandic, often independent of linguistic situation or style of speech. Finally, I will comment on the relevance of these facts for the way we think of language acquisition and knowledge, referring in particular to ideas proposed by Yang (2002).


  • Bobaljik, Jonathan D., and Höskuldur Thráinsson. 1998. Two Heads Arenʼt always Better than One. Syntax 1:37‒71.
  • Chomsky, Noam. 1981. Lectures on Government and Binding. Foris, Dordrecht.
  • Gärtner, Hans-Martin. 2003. How Icelandic Can You Be if You Speak Icelandic B? In Lars-Olof Delsing, Cecilia Falk, Gunlög Josefsson and Halldór Ármann Sigurðsson (eds): Grammar in Focus. Festschrift for Christer Platzack 18 November 2003, vol. II, pp. 115–122. Department of Scandinavian Languages, Lund University, Lund.
  • Jonas, Dianne. 1996b. Clause Structure and Verb Syntax in Scandinavian and English. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
  • Jóhannes Gísli Jónsson. 1996. Clausal Achitecture and Case in Icelandic. Doctoral dissertation, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Amherst.
  • Yang, Charles D. 2002. Knowledge and Learning in Natural Language. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Höskuldur Þráinsson is professor emeritus of Icelandic linguistics, University of Iceland.


Kristján Árnason

Internal and external effects in the linguistic history of Scandinavia: a view from Iceland

Haugen (1970) defines three problems in Scandinavian language history: the problem of the beginnings, the problem of the dialects, and the problem of the languages. The problem of dialects refers to inherent development with a set of characteristics, some of which arise in “Inner Scandinavia”, and are “rejected by the outer parts”. A case in point is the tonal distinction, lacking in the west and east. But recent metrical investigations suggest that some such distinction may have survived in Iceland down to the 16th century (Haukur Þorgeirsson 2013). And there are obviously some West Nordic innovations, which do not gain ground in the east, cf. a list of features common to West-Norwegian, Faroese and Icelandic.

The “problem of beginnings” and the “problem of languages” are of a different sort, in fact socio-historical, as much as linguistic. They define a split from a common ancestral “language” or norm into seven modern “languages”, each with its own standard, and as the case may be, dialects. These norms have a clear effect on the development of morphology and syntax, and the central problem is how these norms arise. Where do “Old Norse”, “Danish”, “Swedish” etc. come from? The initiating factor in the “Disintegration of the Danish Tongue” (Karker 1977) was the decision by the Danish authorities to commission Saxo Grammaticus to write the history of the Danes in Latin. And then came the Hansa …

Referring to Labov’s distinction between internal and external effects in linguistic change, and borrowing some insights from socio-historical linguistics (e.g. Auer 2005, Kloss 1952), I will be looking at the scene from the North-West, using as a starting point some phonological changes occurring in Icelandic and Faroese and parts of Norwegian (Kristján Árnason 2011).


  • Auer, Peter. 2005. Europe’s Sociolinguistic Unity, or: A Typology of European Dialect / Standard Constellations. Nicole Delbecque, Johan van der Auwera & Dirk Geeraerts (eds.): Perspectives on Variation (Trends in Linguistics 163), pp. 7-42. Berlin: De Gruyter.
  • Haugen, Einar. 1970. The Language History of Scandinavia: A Profile of Problems. In Hreinn Benediktsson (ed.). The Nordic Languages and Modern Linguistics. Proceedings of the International Conference of Nordic and General Linguistics, University of Iceland, July 6-11, 1969. Reykjavík: Vísindafélag Íslendinga. Pp. 41-86
  • Haukur Þorgeirsson. 2013. Hljóðkerfi og bragkerfi. Stoðhljóð, tónkvæði og önnur úrlausnarefni í íslenskri bragsögu ásamt útgáfu á Rímum af Olmari Fraðmarssyni. Reykjavík: Hugvísindastofnun.
  • Karker, Allan. 1977. The disintegration of the Danish tongue. Sjötíu ritgerðir helgaðar Jakobi Benediktssyni 20. júlí 1977. Reykjavík. Stofnun Árna Magnússonar.
  • Kloss, Heinz. 1952. Die Entwicklung neuer germanischer Kultursprachen von 1800 bis 1950. Pohl, München.
  • Kristján Árnason. 2011. The Phonology of Icelandic and Faroese. Oxford: Oxford university Press.
  • Labov, William. 1994. Principles of Linguistic Change. Volume 1: Internal Factors. Oxford: Blackwell. Labov, William. 2001. Principles of Linguistic Change. Volume 2: Social Factors. Oxford: Blackwell.

Kristján Árnason is professor of Icelandic linguistics, University of Iceland.