The Icelandic Language

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An Outlander in Iceland

The Icelandic word for foreigner is “útlendar”, literally “outlander”, which neatly encapsulates their distinct island mentality.

The following piece is one of a series of observations from an “Outlander in Iceland” intended to run consecutively as a column.

In the parts of my youth that were not so misspent, I learnt some languages. French mainly, a bit of Spanish, Latin to a fairly high standard and some ancient Greek. Not being a science boffin most of my education was centred around literature and languages and at one stage, surprisingly, I was considered to have an “aptitude” for languages. Sadly, and not so surprisingly I also had a considerable aptitude for winding up my French teacher and the standards I attained were not that impressive.

I have discovered I certainly do not have an aptitude for Icelandic, having listened intently to my “Teach yourself Icelandic” tapes, usually in the car, telling my steering wheel “Ég heiti Clement” and “Hvar er salernið?” with the occasional “Hun er skvísa” since the steering wheel does not have the view that I do. Sadly in conversations not involving inanimate objects in my car I have only managed “Takk” and “Góðan dag” with any confidence.

The Icelanders are proud of their language and rightly so, since it resisted Danish attempts to extinguish it. I am fond of telling Icelanders about the Irish language, which was sadly not so successful in standing up to empirical forces. The Icelanders seem genuinely interested to learn that Ireland has a second language, which should be its first, and presumably this is because of an inherent sympathy for countries formerly known as colonies.

So it’s a tricky language – tricky to speak, tricky to understand and also tricky to listen to. It is certainly not lyrical like say, Italian;
Icelanders chatting sound like they are fighting. The language seems sharp and to the point (a bit like the people), and a casual bit of banter comes out as a cacophonous conversation with guttural words ricocheting like bullets. A wonderful poem about the language describes it thus:

In an air-conditioned room you cannot understand the grammar of this language,
the whirring machine drowns out the soft vowels,
but you can hear these vowels in the montain wind and in heavy seas,
breaking over the hull of a small boat.
Old ladies can wind their long hair in this language,
and can hum and knit and make pancakes.
But you cannot have a cocktail party in this language,
and say witty things standing up with a drink in your hand.
You must sit down to speak in this language.
It is so heavy, you cannot be polite or chatter in it.
For once you have begun a sentence the whole course of your life is laid out
before you,
every foolish mistake is clear, every failure, every grief moving around the inflections from case to case and gender to gender,
the vowels changing and darkening,the consonents softening on the tongue
till the other sound of a gull’s wings fluttering as he flies out in the wake of a small boat drifting out to open water.

However, despite the complexities of Icelandic, the language barrier is not
a problem because everyone speaks English (indeed they speak better English
here than in some parts of England), but the Icelanders bring their quick fire, rat-a-tat-tat accent to the task which makes it fiercely entertaining.

For instance the first syllable of words is often long, and vowels are pronounced with particular length and emphasis. Obviously the best example of this is the word Iceland itself and happily “How do you like Iceland?” is probably the best example of a sentence. I say happily because it is a
question every single outlander, without exception will be asked. Guaranteed. What is a fairly straightforward question comes out as:

“So…(pregnant pause)….. How do you liiiiiiiiiiiiike IIII………….celand?”

Which obviously leaves the outlander in no doubt that the correct response is “Magnificent.”

This vowel fetish works well with “Ireland” as well, as in:

“Aaaaaaah. I………..rrrelaaaand. Yooooouuuuuuu’re

You’ll have noticed the word Ireland is particularly pleasing to listen to because it has the added bonus of multiple rolled Rs coming immediately after a vowel. Priceless.

“Yes” is a word every traveller should know, no matter the language. “Yes” in Icelandic is “Já” which at first glance looks a bit German for most tastes, but the “á” is long as in “ou”. Think of “out” and then triple it as in “ouuuuuuuuut”. If you’re the type who has a list of “Things to do before I die” then you must add offering to buy an Icelander a drink:

“May I buy you a drink?”
“Já, Já!!”

The language, combined with the Icelanders enthusiasm for alcohol, results
in “”Já, Já!!” becoming “YOW YOW” (pronounced wow with an “Y) and it is one
of the most infectious sounds you will ever hear.