Transcending the Language Barrier: Icelandic Edition

Snorkeling Between Tectonic Plates: Thingvellir National Park, Iceland
Visiting Oak Alley Plantation

The absurdly magical language of Iceland.

Halldor Laxness - Under the Glacier

I sat in the back of the cab and gave the driver a smile.

Hvað segir þu?” kvath sekhir-u?

‘How are you?’–literally, ‘what say you?’

“You sound like you’re from Sweden, when you say it like that,” said the cab driver, in perfect English.

Did I?

I wasn’t sure just how my tongue had wrapped around the fluid intricacies of the Icelandic language, but I was determined to try my best to speak in this beautiful mixture of words–even in a country where adopted English is ubiquitous. So common, in fact, that it is almost expected.

“The Swedish tourists, they always make it sound like music.”

Wasn’t this language of stark beauty, of volcanic fire and windswept ice, already musical?

Moments like this really make me think about our perception of language, and my own perception of English. Maybe it’s the familiarity and fluency I have with English; maybe it’s the flat-out inundation with English that so many non-English-speaking cultures have; but I find the moments when other people comment on their own language really fascinating.

“Icelandic?” smirked a waitress in the fantastic and quaint Cafe Loki, just in front of the famous Hallgrimskirkja church. She blew a small raspberry. No one wanted to learn Icelandic. Why would they? It was useless. Only the 300,000 some-odd inhabitants of Iceland and a smattering of ex-pats spoke it. It was a relic of an older time, with ancient letters and lyrical flow that lent itself beautifully to reciting epic poetry.

Well, people of Iceland, I respectfully disagree! When Jessi and I visit another country we love making at least a bare bones attempt to speak the lingua franca of the place. Otherwise, it feels like we miss out on some of the magic. What better way to understand a people than to understand its language? You find yourself saying totally new things, in completely new ways.

It is a form of reinvention.

Now, I’m a total beginner with Icelandic, and I absolutely welcome native speakers or those familiar with the language to correct me in any portion of this post.

But I will say that I am smitten. This language is just too cool not to write about, and I encourage visitors to Iceland to give the language a fair chance. You’ll see it and hear it everywhere, and speaking even a few words will help give you a powerful sense of place and culture.

Brand new letters, and new ways of looking at the familiar

Icelandic isn’t a very old language, but it is a relatively untouched language, branching off from other North Germanic relatives and settling in the broiling stew of geothermal activity in its isolated setting for over a thousand years.

That being said, Icelandic has adapted to totally modern usage, so it sits nicely between the old and the new. You can discuss computer programming in Icelandic as easily as you can pick up a thousand-year-old saga or Edda and read it fairly easily.

The English equivalent?

That’s like picking up Beowulf in Old English, and reading it like it was a piece of cake.

See? Piece of cake.
See? Piece of cake.

Yeah. It’s pretty incredible.

In being so untouched, Icelandic has a few letters that no other language uses in modern context. Other letters are used in a totally different way from my familiarity with them in English.

In my brief time in Iceland I learned the following:

Ð / ð – eth. One of two “th” sounds in Icelandic, soft and sometimes omitted, voiced like in English “the”.

Þ / þ – thorn. The other “th” sound,  like in English “through”.

Those two letters aren’t used in a modern language, though they derive from the ancient usage in Old English and Old Norse, among others.

Æ / æ – ash. A holdover from Latin and Greek, this letter is peppered throughout a couple other Scandinavian languages. It’s pronounced ‘ai’.

Hv – The combination of ‘h’ and ‘v’ in Icelandic produces a curious ‘kv’ sound.

G – The letter ‘g’ is sometimes pronounced like the hard ‘g’ in ‘gold’, but at times Icelandic is spoken so fast that the ‘g’ blurs into a soft ‘kh’ or even ‘h’ sound. I’d love to get the opinions of native speakers on this, because I found myself breathlessly expressing my ‘g’s in speech without a real sense of correctness.

Ll – This double-l combination has a ‘tl’ sound, as in the infamous ‘island mountain’ glacier Eyjafyallajökull (how do you think this is pronounced? You can find the answer here!)

Here’s a pretty cool example of eth and thorn in an Icelandic eye chart. Too cool, eh?

Icelandic Eye Chart
My eyesight is still terrible!

 ‘Yes’ and ‘no’, ‘hi’ and ‘bye’!

In five days, I was able to pick up the very basics of Icelandic and garbled my way through in an attempt to pronounce the words.

I found myself saying hvað segir þu, a shortened form of hvað segir þu gott (kvath sekhir thoo got), quite a lot. But even if the language sped too fast for me to grasp, I was pleased to pick out (and be able to use) these staples:

Já – Hold on, German speakers. The word for ‘yes’ in Icelandic is pronounced ‘yao’.

Nei – Like the sound a horse makes, ‘no’ is useful.

Takk – An informal way of saying ‘thanks’, we found ourselves using this all the time, along with ‘takk fyrir’ (thanks very much!) The ‘r’ is just slightly rolled.

Hæ / Halló – It was really easy as a native English speaker to pick up on ‘hi’ and ‘hello’.

Bless or Bless bless – At first I thought perhaps Icelanders were very religious, but they were just wishing me ‘goodbye’!

When all else fails…help! I don’t speak Icelandic!

There was a neat chain store called ‘I don’t speak Icelandic’, so this phrase cropped up around Reykjavik whenever we were looking for wool socks or scarves!

The phrase is ég tala ekki íslensku – yekh tala ek-ee eeslenskoo

Help! I don't speak Icelandic, and I need some mittens!
Help! I don’t speak Icelandic, and I need some mittens!

Have you ever had an experience abroad that allowed you to hop over that pesky language barrier? Let us know in the comments below! You know you want to. Takk fyrir!

Want more practice? Check out this fun Icelandic phrase game!

Snorkeling Between Tectonic Plates: Thingvellir National Park, Iceland
Visiting Oak Alley Plantation