Jökull of the year

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Another volcano in Iceland is erupting. But the projected effect on air travel is less serious than the disruptions caused by last year's Icelandic eruption:

University of Iceland geophysicist Magnus Tumi Gudmundsson said this eruption, which began Saturday, was Grimsvotn's largest eruption for 100 years.

"(It was) much bigger and more intensive than Eyjafjallajokull," the volcano whose April 2010 eruption shut down airspace across Europe for five days, he said.

"There is a very large area in southeast Iceland where there is almost total darkness and heavy fall of ash," he said. "But it is not spreading nearly as much. The winds are not as strong as they were in Eyjafjallajokull."

He said this ash is coarser than last year's eruption, falling to the ground more quickly instead of floating vast distances.

The projected disruption of newsreader self-confidence is also less serious this time, since the names involved are shorter and less confusing to non-Icelanders — the glacier that the vocano is erupting through, for example, is Vatnajökull rather than Eyjafjallajökull.

Still, that final 'll' in jökull "glacier" is tricky, so you might want to point your newsreader friends towards "A little Icelandic phonetics", 4/19/2010, as well as "Eyjafjallajökull fail", 4/16/2010. And courtesy of Ben Zimmer and Chris Waigl, a demonstration of the pre-aspirated /t/ and voiceless final /n/ in Grímsvötn:

An audio clip and spectrogram of the speaker's first rendition of Grímsvötn (in IPA roughly ['griːms.vœhtn̥] or ['griːms.vɞhtn̥]):

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Since we don't have pre-aspirated stops in English, with or without voiceless syllabic nasals, my recommendation would be to anglicize Grímsvötn so as to make it rhyme with "seams-button".

Note that the vatna- in Vatnajökull is apparently the same morpheme, meaning "water" or "lake", as the -vötn in Grímsvötn: "Glacier of Lakes" vs. "Grímur's Lakes".

For the latest Vatnajökull seismology, see here.


  1. Viktor said,

    May 22, 2011 @ 12:08 pm

    And if the public learned to pronounce "jökull" the last time around then at least "Vatna" is easy to pronounce. Not so sure about Grimsvötn though, that may still trip people up.

  2. sarang said,

    May 22, 2011 @ 12:25 pm

    Vatnajökull makes a brief appearance in W.H. Auden's "Letter to Lord Byron" (I'm quoting from memory):

    The Haig-Thomases are at Myvatn now;
    At Hvitarvatn and at Vatnajökull
    Cambridge research goes on, I don't know how;
    The ghosts of Asquith and of Auden Skökull
    Turn in their coffins a three-quarter circle
    To see their son, upon whose help they reckoned,
    Being as frivolous as Charles the Second.

    (I don't remember if the prev. guide to Icelandic phonetics discussed the -tn form but it seems that to scan the first two lines you have to pronounce it as a single syllable in the first line and as two in the second.)

    [(myl) Good memory! And the book this poem came from is an interesting one: W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, Letters from Iceland.]

  3. Christopher Sundita said,

    May 22, 2011 @ 4:27 pm

    I think the "g" should be [k] since there is an aspirated/unaspirated distinction in Icelandic rather than voice/unvoiced.

  4. Thor Lawrence said,

    May 22, 2011 @ 5:02 pm

    My daughter and I, discussing the pronunciation, wonder how the [expurgated] you got a [k] from G in Grimsvötn. It is hard, as Grimoire or Grim reaper. It is di-syllabic: Grims being the possessive of Grimur, a bloke's name, and vötn being lakes [plural].
    As an aside, comparing the English and Icelandic Wikipaedia entries, the Icelandic version cites an old manuscript for the origin of the name, whereas the English version focuses on the scientific parameters of the geological phenomenon. Interesting cultural emphases.
    Thor & Gunnella

    [(myl) Given the context of the example provided above, it's not really possible to distinguish between [g] and [k] (interpreting the latter as voiceless unaspirated), since the preceding [s] (from English "it's") will naturally cause the stop closure to be unvoiced.

    If we had an example with a preceding vowel, then we could tell the difference, since [g] would be voiced throughout the closure, while [k] would not be.

    In the later example, where he says "So Grimsvötn", there's a preceding vowel and then again a voiceless closure. However, there seems to be a slight silent pause before the stop closure. But anyhow, in this clip we don't really have any evidence against phonetic [k]. On the other hand, we're not trying to use the IPA in a terribly detailed way here. So I think that it's OK to stay with [g].]

  5. Trond Engen said,

    May 22, 2011 @ 5:55 pm

    Minor points, and I'm usually wrong about Icelandic, but still: I'm pretty sure that vötn is nom./acc. plural while vatn is singular. Thus, Grimsvötn is "Grimur's lakes". And vatna- is the genitive plural. Hence "the glacier of lakes". Here's where I'd be better off checking my facts, but I think the name Grimsvötn may refer to basins of meltwater on the surface of the glacier (due to the volcano). I don't actually know if it's these particular bodies of water that gave the glacier its name, but, since I'm sort of imagining a recollection of something I may have heard, I'll put it forward forcefully.

    [(myl) The Wikipedia article suggests that these lakes are "at the northwestern side of the Vatnajökull ice-cap and are covered by it", i.e. are beneath the ice.

    In summer 2004 scientists found bacteria in the water of the Grímsvötn lakes under the glacier, the first time that subglacial lake–dwelling bacteria have been found . The lakes do not freeze totally because of the volcanic heat.


  6. Eiríkur said,

    May 22, 2011 @ 5:58 pm

    To my (native speaker's) ears, this sounds something like ['krims.vœhtn̥]. Vowels are never (supposed to be) long preceding two or more consonants, and Icelandic stops are usually voiceless, even though they may occasionally become (partly) voiced in intervocalic position.

  7. nanette furman said,

    May 22, 2011 @ 8:27 pm

    This guy is beyond cute, and I STill can't pronounce Eyafy….. etc.
    but it is a delightful challenge.

  8. old_maltese said,

    May 22, 2011 @ 10:04 pm

    Meanwhile, on the grammar front:

    Shouldn't 'Grimsvotn's largest eruption for 100 years' (i.e., not 'in' 100 years) mean 'Grimsvotn's largest 100-year eruption' [so far]?

    (I know the story didn't mean that, but still ….)

  9. Oop said,

    May 23, 2011 @ 1:09 am

    And now, for something completely different: it is interesting to see "Wikipaedia". Could be even "Wikipaideia".

  10. Trond Engen said,

    May 23, 2011 @ 6:52 am

    Yes, sorry, I was thinking of the historical usage, so I should have said "might have referred" rather than "may refer". Since the lakes in question are beneath the glacier, I doubt anyone knew about them when the saga of Grímur was collected. But I can't find anything about the reattribution of the name in either the English or the Icelandic Wikipedia article — or even in the German one, which is remarkably better than both of them.

    The article from Lesbók Morgunblaðsins (link provided by the Icelandic WP article) seems to be saying (in my admittedly shaky interpretation) that the name was used by 19th century mapmakers, but that they didn't agree on what the name originally referred to. One myth has it that before the growth of the glacier during what we now call the Little Ice Age, there were thriving settlements around Grímsvötn, another tradition that the lakes were situated right in the middle of the volcano. But stories of fertile farmland being swallowed by the ice are probably told of every glacier there is, so I wouldn't necessarily put too much weight on that.

    Since I can't remember where I picked it up, my contention that the name may have referred to meltwater lakes on the ice is unsupported.

  11. Bill Walderman said,

    May 23, 2011 @ 1:01 pm

    Is the nasal release at the end of Grímsvötn syllabic? And is it possible to see the syllabicity or non-syllabicity in the spectrogram?

  12. Chandra said,

    May 24, 2011 @ 1:26 pm

    Interesting discussion on the history of the name. Can't vatna also mean "water"? Although I suppose the plural vötn would be more likely to refer to bodies of water, i.e. lakes.

    [(myl) From the post:

    Note that the vatna- in Vatnajökull is apparently the same morpheme, meaning "water" or "lake", as the -vötn in Grímsvötn: "Glacier of Lakes" vs. "Grímur's Lakes".


    @nanette furman: Don't feel bad. As a person who once bragged to my friends that I knew how to pronounce "Eyjafjallajökull", I discovered when I visited there last summer that despite theoretically knowing all the necessary phonemes, I also still couldn't get it right. Somehow they manage to squeeze all of the sounds of the last three syllables into about 0.001 second's worth of breath.

  13. Chandra said,

    May 24, 2011 @ 1:50 pm

    Oops, missed that.

  14. Coulter George said,

    May 24, 2011 @ 4:04 pm

    Regarding vatn (nom.sg.) vs vötn (nom.pl) vs vatna (gen.pl): the Icelandic ö is generally caused by u-umlaut, with stressed a > ö, unstressed a > u, when u follows later in the word. My favorite example of this is the borrowed word (yes, even Icelandic has them on occasion) nom.sg. banani, with dat.pl. bönunum – or, as I've just learned from double-checking on-line, banönum. I assume that the different spellings are due to different ways of dealing with the accent on the borrowed word (stress on the penult in the source language vs initial stress accent from adaptation to Germanic stress patterns). Icelanders out there, is that correct?

    Anyway, at this point, you're probably saying, "But vötn hasn't got a u!" Well, it used to. It just lost it along the way; cf. Old English scip (also neuter nom.sg.), pl. scipu. Incidentally, fjall "mountain" belongs to the same neuter strong declension, with nom.pl. fjöll.

  15. Alex Rotatori said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 9:46 am

    Mark, your readers might be interested in taking a look at my post, here:


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