The Icelandic language
I have tried hard to learn Icelandic, I really have. For two stints of several months each, I spent three-quarters of an hour every morning listening to audio files and reading grammar and teach-yourself books. I'm currently several months in to a lockdown-inspired third attempt.
At first it seemed easy. Many words, especially the simpler ones, are close to English. For example, sokkur is sock, takk is thanks and blár is blue. Easy, right?
Wrong. The grammar is a killer. Everything has to agree with everything else. There are cases, moods, tenses, genders. It’s like Latin, but more complicated. And the natives really care if you get it right. For example, the words for the first four numbers are significantly different depending on the gender of the thing you are counting. In French you only need five words to count to four: un, une, deux, trois, quatre. In Icelandic you need twelve: einn, ein, eitt, tveir, tvaer, tvö, thrír, thrjár, thrjú, fjórir, fjórar, fjögur. I mean, really. And should you ever need to say ‘the four blue tables’, you need to make ‘four’ and ‘blue’ agree with tables. And you need to use the correct form of ‘the’ and stick it on the end of the table.
If you do ever find yourself in a restaurant, one with multicoloured furniture, and have a desire to say ‘the four blue tables’, my advice is hold up four fingers and point.
A nation of English speakers
Or just say it in English. They all speak English.
You see, in one important way, Icelandic is about the most futile language to study. Not only are there only three hundred thousand speakers (compared to over a billion Mandarin Chinese speakers, for example) but almost all of them speak English.
On my first visit to Iceland, when I proudly tried my gódan dag – good day – in shops, nearly everyone replied in English. And after a couple of days, I realized that the ones who did answer in Icelandic were Poles who hadn’t cottoned on that I was a foreigner.
Just about everyone under the age of sixty, and most of those older than that speak English, and often extremely good English. Linguistic theory suggests that in this situation the less widespread language will die out.
I am not so sure. Everyone is proud of their language, but Icelanders are really proud of theirs. In a country with no ancient architecture, but with a rich literary history, language is important.
Bilingual Icelanders write massive amounts of poetry and prose in Icelandic. They have spelling wars: there was an epic struggle in the Great Spelling War of 1941, followed by a rematch in the Second Spelling War of 1974, with the Nobel Laureate Halldór Laxness taking on the Icelandic literary establishment in a fight to make spelling more phonetic. Rock bands, such as Sigur Rós, sing in Icelandic (of a sort) rather than English.
Icelanders are infuriatingly pedantic when it comes to their medieval grammar; the Icelandic language is not something they will let go of lightly.
But there is a point to learning a little Icelandic. It’s fascinating.
The roots of Icelandic
Icelandic is a lightly modified version of Old Norse, the language of the sagas, and of those Viking tourists I described before. Hence the complicated grammar.
Its relationship to Danish, Swedish or Norwegian is similar to that of Italian or Spanish to Latin: possible to make out individual words, difficult to understand complete sentences rapidly spoken. Norwegian and Danish are much simpler.
The pronunciation is phonetic and mostly follows consistent rules. They roll their ‘r’s wonderfully, and the ‘g’s disappear somewhere in the back of their throat. There are some weirdnesses, for example ‘Keflavík’ becomes ‘Keplavik’. The word for yes, ‘já’ pronounced ‘yaw’ is often sucked rather than spoken.
It’s just about possible to speak and understand individual words and short sentences; after years of practice, I can now say the name of the volcano Eyjafjallajökull. Auden has a useful tip. He wrote: ‘We are going around a thing called the Langjökull (Long Glacier); if you want to pronounce it you must move your mouth both ways at once, draw your tongue through your uvula and pray to St David of Wales.’
Icelandic has two great little letters. Thorn is like a p with the line on the left sticking up higher, and is pronounced like the ‘th’ in ‘thing’ (see the letter at the top of this post on the left).
Eth is like a d, with a curved line, and is pronounced like the ‘th’ in ‘this’ (see the letter on the right at the top). Both letters come from Old English, and were introduced by the monks from Britain who first tried to write in Icelandic. Unlike Old English and the monks, thorn and eth have survived.
Writing these in English is tricky. These days digital technology means you can now type the Icelandic letters themselves, but it’s counterintuitive for English speakers: the god Thór becomes something that looks a lot like Pór, which seems much less mighty.
The convention often used, and which I have used in this blog, is to write ‘th’ for thorn and ‘d’ for eth. The major difficulty with this is that half the time ‘d’ is therefore pronounced ‘th’, for example the word bord, meaning table, is pronounced ‘borthe’.
The English writer of Icelandic crime novels, Quentin Bates, is so irritated by this that he bans any characters from his books whose names include this letter: no Davíds, no Sigurdurs, No Gudrúns. I think if I had my druthers, I would write the letter ‘eth’ as ‘dd’ like the ‘th’ sound in the Welsh county of Gwynedd. That would make it ‘drudders’. Hmm.
There are no ‘c’s, ‘w’s or ‘z’s in Icelandic, but they do have one other letter, ‘ae’, which is an ‘a’ and an ‘e’ squished together, and sounds like ‘eye’.
Accents are very important, vowels with accents are entirely different letters, with their own place in the alphabet. They are also pronounced differently, so ‘a’ is short as in ‘happy’ and ‘á’ is painful as in ‘now’. Never leave them out because it will make Icelanders grumpy. I have intentionally left a couple out in this blog to prove my point.
I sought out some colloquial Icelandic phrases to insert into my novels. There are some great ones.
My favourite is ‘Hvalreki!’ which means ‘Beached whale!’ It’s an expression of joy at good fortune, and refers to the glee an Icelander in times past would feel if he woke up one morning to find an enormous whale lying on the beach in front of his house. Whales provided massive quantities of meat and oil, which was very valuable before petroleum was discovered. It’s the Icelandic equivalent of striking gold, and is used in a similarly metaphorical way as that expression.
Here are some others:
- Laugardagur – Saturday, literally hot tub or washing day
- The big salmon – the big cheese
- Teaches the naked woman to spin – necessity is the mother of invention
- Every man likes the smell of his own fart
- Men do not limp while their legs are the same length – don’t fuss over my health
- Good to have a falcon in the corner – who knows? Interior design tip?
- To play chess with the pope – go to the toilet
- It is better to be without trousers than without a book – obvious, right?
- The dead lice are falling from my head – what a surprise!
- Seventeen hundred and sauerkraut – a long time ago.
One phrase that is often heard in Iceland is ‘Thetta redast’, which means something between ‘everything is going to be OK’ and ‘it will sort itself out in the end’. It sums up Icelanders’ optimism in the face of volcanoes, avalanches, financial meltdowns, and their entry not making it through to the final stages of the Eurovision song contest.
And, by and large, everything does turn out OK.