I’ve always had a great interest in Iceland, stemming from my studies of Old Norse in graduate school, when we homed in on the sagas and immersed ourselves in a language that has changed surprisingly little for a thousand years. There’s much modern vocabulary, of course, but the Icelandic of 1000 AD is much closer to the modern variant than Shakespeare’s English is to our own. Syntactically and morphologically, Icelandic is a survivor, and a fascinating one.
New Horizons’ journey to Kuiper Belt Object MU69 occasions this reverie because the mission team has named the object Ultima Thule, following an online campaign seeking input from the public that produced 34,000 suggestions. The word ‘thule’ seems to derive from Greek, makes it into Latin, and appears in classical documents in association with the most distant northern areas then known. In the medieval era, Ultima Thule is occasionally mentioned in reference to Iceland, and sometimes to Greenland, and may have been applied even to the Shetlands, the Orkneys and, probably, the nearby Faroes. Northern and on the edge, that’s Ultima Thule.
The new Ultima Thule is a natural coinage, as New Horizons’ principal investigator Alan Stern (SwRI) has noted:
“MU69 is humanity’s ...