miðvikudagur, október 26, 2005

skíta og pissa

For those of you who don't know, the Icelandic language is a brother language to Old English (and Old German, too). This is because Icelandic is basically Old Norse, little changed in over 1,000 years. The three old languages share a common parent language. As such there are many words in Icelandic that are similar to English (bók/book, hús/house, borð/board, grænn/green) and many more that are the same as Old English words that have since fallen out of favor. (My favorite example of this is the word for barrel in Icelandic: tunna. Old English had tun, which I only ever saw in "Moby Dick".) These similarities make it easy to learn a lot of Icelandic vocabulary as an English speaker. But there is a dark side to this convenience.

Old English had some names for bodily functions that became "dirty words" once new spring-fresh Latin words came in via French. These old words used to be the workaday nonoffensive words, but went downmarket with the advent of newer, "cleaner" expressions. Many of these words, however, remain in Icelandic where they are still used today in polite company.

These words can be jarring to an English speaker. Today on the walk down to lunch my coworker was talking about housetraining her family's new puppy, and using the verbs að skíta (to shit) and að pissa (to piss): the puppy was pissing on the newspaper in the foyer, but he was now able to shit outside. I was trying my hardest to stifle a laugh because my English mind kept interrupting with bathroom-humor images. But she carried on as if nothing was the matter. In Icelandic, after all, these have always been the everyday words.


Blogger EnuhCorK said...

In beer brewing, 'they' still refer to the holding tank where heated water and grains do their magic as the 'mash tun'...pretty sweet.


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