Island Words, Island Worlds: The Origins and Meanings of Words for ‘Islands’ in North-West Europe

Iceland by Gerhard Mercator

celand by Gerhard MercatorIsland Words, Island Worlds: The Origins and Meanings of Words for ‘Islands’ in North-West Europe

Owe Ronström (University of Gotland Visby, Gotland Sweden)

Island Studies Journal: Vol. 4, No. 2, 2009, pp. 163-182


This paper proposes the notion that words mirror ideas, perspectives and world- views. Etymologies and meanings of general words for ‘islands’ in a number of languages in North and West Europe are then discussed. Here, islands are shown to be etymologically constituted by the interplay between land and water, and which of these two is emphasized varies. In the third section, a number of Swedish island words are surveyed, in an attempt to illuminate the principle of linguistic relativity. Finally, the implications of these findings for island studies are discussed. 


What is an island? The obvious answer: a word. What are words? Beautifully small and magically tensile forms, tools for thought and emotion. By expressing ourselves, we give form to the world. By defining and delimiting the conceivable, words give form to the knowable. When we make words our own, the world moves into us. We connect with those who lived before us, and our world-views and life-worlds are remade. Words are storehouses for knowledge and experiences accumulated over centuries, thereby practical entries to vast and elusive knowledge. In ever growing semantic clouds of accumulated meanings, we may find clues as to how seemingly disparate worlds are related, and to how people in distant places and times have understood their life-worlds.

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