Geek Trivia

The Iceland Word For Computer Literally Translates To?

Number Prophetess
Lightning Calculator
Calculation Farmer
Babbage's Engine
Before The Apple Store, There Was A Chain Of Unofficial Apple Retail Locations Known As?

Answer: Number Prophetess

To understand the curious state of some Icelandic words, you first need to understand the approach the culture takes to language. In contrast with, say, English speakers, Icelanders are a bit more reserved about adopting loan words (words borrowed from other languages with no translation). English speakers are used to the idea that it’s perfectly normal to siphon up words from another language instead of trying to bend existing English words to fit. We borrowed the word “bagel” from Yiddish, “ski” from Scandinavian, and whole host of words from Native American cultures like “tobacco”, “chocolate”, and “hammock”.

Icelanders, however, are a smaller and more isolated community than the diverse array of native English speakers around the world and they take a more careful approach to preserving their language. Rather than adopt loan words hand over fist like English speakers are prone to doing, there is a concerted push to use Icelandic words first before adopting a loan word. With that in mind, when computers came to Iceland, they created a new word out of a contraction of two existing Icelandic words rather than adopt the English word. In Icelandic, a computer is a “tölva”, which is a contraction of the words “tolur” (number) and “völva” (prophetess).

Not only did such a measure preserve a little bit of Icelandic culture in the face of new technology but, frankly, we think it’s a perfectly appropriate way to capture the technology-as-modern-magic vibe of computing. This pattern of mixing old words with new technologies plays out in many other equally poetic ways, too. For example, the word for telephone is “simi”, which is derived from an ancient word for thread, hinting at how the telephone was connected by a network of wires and how it linked people together.