The Icelandic Language

Talar þú ensku?

Learning Icelandic

Those of you who live, work, or play volleyball near me know that I tried to learn some Icelandic before my trip. In fact, you probably were forced to learn some as well, as you were repeatedly subjected to me fumbling through the Icelandic names for vegetable toppings at Subway, parts of the body, and colors. Not many people in the world speak Icelandic, particularly in the greater Grand Rapids area, so even when I slaughtered “Where are the suitcases?” (“Hvar eru ferðatöskurnar?”), it probably still sounded pretty Icelandic.

The Icelandic alphabet has 28 characters, including a few that English does not have- the most visible of which are the thorn [þ] which sounds like “th” in “think”, the eth [ð] which sounds like “th” in “the”, and the ash [æ] which sounds like “i” in “time”. Icelandic also pronouces the “j” like the English “y”, and all of their “r”s are trilled. Good luck with that.

Here are some of the more common words we heard and used while in Iceland:

Já -Yes (sounds like “yow”)
Nei – No
Takk – Thanks
Skál – Cheers
Halló / Goðan daginn – Hello / Good day
Ég skil ekki – I don’t understand
Talar þú ensku? – Do you speak English?

One of the most interesting things about Icelandic is that it has remained virtually unchanged since the Viking settlers arrived nine centuries ago. As a result, any Icelandic speaker could pick up one Iceland’s oldest literary works and read it fairly easily. Iceland’s literary history and folklore play a strong part in the culture, and the Icelandic sagas are cherished for their academic and historical value, but also as a matter of national pride.

Icelandic grammar is pretty overwhelming, and I barely know any of the rules. I do know that words change depending on how they’re used and where they are in a sentence. But hey, I figured, I’m a fairly intelligent person. I can learn a little Icelandic. So I bought myself an Icelandic-English dictionary and some children’s books to translate. The first one was for 2-4 year olds, so I was actually overshooting it by a good 26 years. That seemed fair enough.


langammaThere were a few books in this series in the bookstore- The series title (in yellow) means “I recognize and understand words.” That sounded like a good place to start, because I would like to recognize and understand words. It had bright, festive pictures and attractively short sentences when I flipped through it. My dictionary is small but has 354 pages in it, so I felt fairly well-prepared.

As a bonus, if I needed to buy any meat or deli products while in Iceland, I could bring this book along as a visual aid.langmeats

Well, look back at the cover of the book. See that subtitle in the blue bar? I couldn’t translate it. I managed to figure out that it was SOMEONE’s birthday (also used my towering intellect and deductive reasoning and looked at the pictures of cake, candles, paper crowns, and gifts), but the fact remained that I could not get past the title page of this book for 2-year-olds. Talk about humbling. I tell you what, they’ve got some smart tots over there in Iceland.

As it turns out, it was Grandma’s birthday. She had a very fun party. At least, she looks pretty happy in the pictures…
langariasaThe other book I bought was called “Ari og Ása leika sér” and this one went much better for me. Ari and his little sister Ása and their dog Hvatur play games, sing songs, and play dress up. Shannon looks up words, squints at her dictionary, and asks Icelandic park rangers for help.

Nearly everyone in Iceland speaks English, and most speak it extremely well, so learning Icelandic isn’t really necessary to appreciate the country, but it’s still a challenge and an interesting way to keep my brain active.langkrafla

If my Icelandic gets really fantastic, or I become really masochistic (or perhaps bedridden), I can work on translating a brochure about the Krafla geothermal power plant. I took one brochure in Icelandic and one in English, so at least I’ll have something to help me when I got stuck.

August 13
Landmannalauger was beautiful. On our morning off, I climbed a little mountain overlooking our campsite and the lava flows. On the way back down, I started chatting with an older Icelandic couple. They asked where I was from, and when I said America, the guy immediately said, “Did you know the first European to discover America was Icelandic?” I laughed and said yes, I knew about Leifur Eriksson, and he nodded and said, “Some say after he found it, he had the good fortune to lose it again.” They were very nice. They’d been to America once, to Iowa City… quite a contrast. The man had been a surveyor in the area, so he was sharing the names of the mountains and places he used to work. He pointed to the mountain next to the one we were descending and said, “This mountain is called Barmur. It means woman’s breast,” (he thumped his hands on his chest as he said this, then gestured to a taller mountain) “and that one over there is called Hár Barmur – Bigger breast! Ha ha!” When we reached the bottom, he said that he worked there for years but had never had time to hike the mountain because work had kept him busy. “Now I am retired, and I have hiked Blue Mountain, so we can go home.” And he and his wife started walking back to their car.

Before today, I’m not sure I could’ve imagined a scenario where a man I didn’t know could teach me the Icelandic word for breast without creeping me out. Life is full of surprises.


Back to Iceland 2005