Just the other day I listened to two Radio X presenters (einasta radióið sem rokkar, in case you have forgotten) as they spent considerable time pondering over the variety of ways people greet each other in different languages. They seemed to enjoy particularly the French ‘Ca va?’ – ‘Ca va.’, with its mere exchange of punctuation marks, and the impossibility of battling the ultimate full stop of ‘Iamfinethankyouhowareyou.’, a sentence which might pretend to be a question, although neither the person asking nor the person asked is likely to give a damn.
I remember quite distinctly my first encounter with the Icelandic ‘how are you’. I was an autodidact who had started learning the language because I liked the funny Icelandic characters my computer had such a hard time coping with, no matter what encoding I used. At that point I had never in my life been to Iceland or even near it, so the first time a genuine Icelander asked me ‘Hvað segir þú?’ [How are you, translated literally: What do you say], I was totally confused and thought he was either deaf or not very clever, and in all my innocence I answered ‘Ég segir ekki neitt’ [I am not saying anything]. It was his turn then to wonder which of us was dumb.
Icelanders are secretly proud of their complicated language. Textbooks of Icelandic will of course brag about the four cases and weak and strong declensions on their opening pages, to scare students of a less masochistic nature off. Nowhere in the books, however, will you find the few words that are the true foundation stones of spoken Icelandic.
The very first thing you have to do if you want to conquer the language is to take some breathing exercises. In Icelandic, it is not enough to say ‘yes’: you have to take a deep breath at the same time. The result is a ‘yaah’ which to an unsuspecting ear sounds like a futile attempt to gasp for air, as if you were choking on cocoa powder, drowning, or had just gotten the shock of your life, catching your macho boyfriend wearing your bra.
Having mastered the physical aspect of Icelandic, you may proceed to vocabulary building. By far the most frequent Icelandic word seems to be ‘heyrðu’. Quite flexible in its application, translating sometimes as ‘listen’ corresponding to ‘well’ but often has the weight of ‘now thou shalt listen (for there is a great idea coming)’. When addressed with ‘heyrðu’, you must not only turn to the speaker and await further instructions; you are also to establish audial contact, and you can do so with number two in the Icelandic corpus, the popular ‘ha?’ [What?]. The word will prove particularly useful at the beginning of your studies, when you will need each Icelandic sentence repeated three to four times then eventually translated into English.
‘Heyrðu’ and ‘ha’ will see you through 99% of all your Icelandic communication. They seem to be expressions unique to Iceland; I can only think of one equivalent outside Icelandic and it is a crying shame the two syllables of ‘heyrðu’ prevent the word from appearing where it belongs, especially when other languages have to make do with lame substitutes such as ‘Hear! or ‘Lo!’. I therefore strongly recommend that, metric constraints or not, the Icelandic translation of Beowulf open the way it does in Old English: ‘Heyrðu!’