November 16 is a special day in Iceland. It is the birth date of one of Iceland’s most influential poets, Jónas Hallgrímsson, who essentially introduced romanticism (and all that entails, like the pentameter) to Iceland. This is exactly why Icelanders decided it would be a good time to celebrate their language, which is why November 16 is also known as “Dagur íslenskrar tungu” (literally “Day Of The Icelandic Tongue,” i.e. “Icelandic Language Day”), a day that celebrates the potential and beauty of the Icelandic language, raising awareness for Icelandic education and conservation. It’s great (or, if you want to practice some Icelandic, “æði”)!
Dalalæða (a grounded mist)
“A very romantic, misty word.”
Bylsnæðingur (a snowstorm)
“You can feel the cold, and you kind of want to crawl under a blanket as soon as you’ve said it.”
Derringur (a cold wind. Also, an arrogant person)
“It’s weather with an attitude.”
Amra (a slow breeze)
“It doesn’t have to be just a good breeze, just a breeze. It can be a little cold, but it’s never a horrible one.”
Blálogn (very calm weather)
“Like blue skies, when the wind is very still, but not necessarily hot.”
Rjómablíða (literally, “creamy fair weather”)
“It’s one of the best weather words. It’s warm, it’s nice; you’re sunbathing. It’s when you would sit outside and eat cream.”
Hundslappadrífa (literally, “dog-paw drift”)
“It means very large snowflakes, very soft.”
To learn more about it all, we spoke with one of this year’s event organisers, Hjördís Erna Sigurðardóttir, who’s currently working on her MA degree at Árnastofnun, the University of Iceland’s Institute for Icelandic Studies.
The Dagur íslenskrar what now?
In 1995, the Minister of Education declared that Jónas Hallgrímsson’s birthday, November 16, would be dedicated to celebrating the Icelandic language. The first iteration of Dagur íslenskrar tungu occurred in 1996, and it’s been ongoing ever since. Traditionally, there are events in schools and libraries around the country celebrating the language. The Minister also awards the Jónas Hallgrímsson Prize for the special promotion of the Icelandic tongue, to an honoree chosen by a special committee.
The event has nothing to do with the people or the culture—there’s no nationalistic aspect to it. It’s just meant to emphasise the Icelandic tongue and its many uses. How words are used in poems, literature, things like that.
Hjördís participates in communication and promotion for the day, raising awareness with schools and businesses. “I try to find fun things that people can do with the language. I sometimes make my own riddles, like: ‘Það er í upphafi efa, enginn hefur það, ekkert heldur því, og frelsi geymir það’ (‘It’s at the beginning of doubt, nobody has it, nothing contains it and freedom stores it’). It’s wordplay, based on an English riddle. The answer is ‘E,’ which is at the beginning of ‘efi,’ and also found in ‘enginn,’ ‘ekkert’ and ‘frelsi,’” Hjördís says enthusiastically.
“Events include poetry reading and writing, concerts, and Menntamálastofnun often stages a poetry competition. A poet writes the first two lines of a poem, and then the children write the last two lines to the poems. We encourage children to play with the language,” she continues. This year’s theme for the day is words for the weather, “veðurorð.” While Icelandic used to have an incredible variety of words for weather, modern technology has rendered many of them obsolete, while others have taken on a different meaning altogether.
As part of her interest in Icelandic, and for this year’s Language Day, Hjördís has been researching these words that have fallen out of favour, and she showed me a file that was over forty pages long. “I could understand most of them, but in my research I came across some compounds I’d never heard of,” she happily shares with me. “That’s why I like throwing them out there, to see what people like and relate to. For me, ‘hundslappadrífa’ is a very normal word for a type of snowfall, but it’s apparent that people are starting to use ‘jólasnjór,’ ‘Christmas snow,’ in its stead. That’s a fine compound word, but I would rather we have both.”
Many words that are not thought of as related to the weather originally had different meanings, though they might still be used. “One example of the ‘lost’ words that are somewhat related to weather is ‘afæta’ [basically: ‘moocher’],” Hjördís explains. Afæta used to also refer to water that had eaten through ice and softened it—a very dangerous condition. “You’d never want to be called an afæta—likewise, you’d never go out on ice that’s called afæta.”
Caring about dog-paw drifts and mooching ice
The richness of the Icelandic language allows for the variety of expression that is part of its appeal. Words like “creamy fair weather” and “dog-paw drifts” give Icelandic an unusual charm, as Hjördís emphatically agrees. “There’s something powerful and charming about having good command of a language. With each word you add to your language, your language becomes bigger, more fluent. You can describe your feelings, your wants, more accurately,” she says.
Therefore, today, November 16, be sure you lament the derringur as it blows over the dalalæða, while you look forward to the hundslappadrífa that’s sure to fall in December. It would be the worst kind of shame if people of the future couldn’t enjoy dog-paw snow, and YOU can prevent that.
The Jónas Hallgrímsson prize will be awarded on November 16 at the Mosfellsbær library at 16:00—all are welcome. There will be poetry readings, songs, and an address by the Minister of Education, Illugi Gunnarsson. Also in the area, Hundur í óskilum will play a free show at Gljúfrasteinn, the Halldór Laxness Museum, at 17:00.