Friday, June 8, 2012


From the Language Log again
(apw palin oikwi glossees)

·  Dan Lufkin said,
April 22, 2012 @ 11:46 am
I was flummoxed when I read on my Kindle William Miller's excellent book Losing It, a meditation on getting old and the Icelandic sagas (the concept works out better than you would think), to see that Brennu-Njál was rendered as "Njdl" and Hávamál as "Hdvamdl". Not only that, every ð became a "5″.
I reported this outrage to the author, who checked and told me that (as I'd expected) the fault lay with Amazon's OCR processing. I suggested challenging the editor to a hólmganga. Alas, we have no word in English for an axe fight with both contestants standing on a islet in a stream. I haven't heard yet how that came out.

You could question the need, in modern English, for a single word to refer to this concept. Nevertheless, it tells us a great deal about Old Norse culture that they had such a specific name for the standard way of resolving dispute. I suppose you could translate it roughly as ‘binding arbitration’, but the cultural baggage would have to be explained as well, or important nuances would be lost.
Mrs Hickory is studying Old Norse, in order to read the Sagas, and although she didn't remember this word, she confirms that they are largely concerned with plotting how to smite those who get in your way and display the pile of bones where interested parties can best see them and learn from them.
Politics at its most dramatic and poetic.

Update: I cut and pasted the comment from Dan Lufkin, and then wrote the atribution to Language Log above it. For some reason it came out in Greek letters, so in brackets below it I wrote the same attribution in Greek but with Roman letters. When I posted, however, the first line came out in the Roman alphabet, making the phrase in brackets pointless. Oh well, I thought; stet). Then I happened to look at the blog in Chrome, and the first line was suddenly in Greel characters. In short, if you read this in Chrome, Safari or IE you'll see Greek, if you use Firfox you'll see Roman. Why, I have no idea. That's t'internet for you.


Sackerson said...

Hólmganga: I'm trying to work out the etymology.

Walk to the island?
Walk to the oak?

I suppose it might mean to go to the rocky outcrop (island) to get judgment from the Lawspeaker?

James Higham said...

Mrs Hickory is studying Old Norse

Wonder how many have that on their CV?

CIngram said...

It looks as though it should mean 'a walk to the island' and apparently that is indeed the origin. There is one reference in the literature to an actual duel on an island. Otherwise it seems to be at a crossroads or some such symbolic spot.

CIngram said...


Not many, I should think. Her degree was in Germanic philology, and one day a few years ago she decided to expand into Old Norse, as you do. Very entertaining, she says it is.