Published June 11, 2004


The idiosyncracies of learning Icelandic are not restricted to the grammar – the curious habit you may have noticed of inhaling words or even whole sentences to indicate something is clear, or mutually understood, was a feature I wasn’t keen on when I first came to Iceland nearly three years ago. Now this inhalation is so prevalent in my speech that it even affects my English, leading friends at home to believe I’d developed some bizarre form of asthma.

To indicate a simple lack of comprehension, Icelanders normally exclaim ´Ha?´ in a tone more often reserved for confrontation in other languages. It is another trait that doesn’t import well to English.
One advantage of learning Icelandic is that there are far fewer words in the language than in English (one estimate I recently heard suggested English contains about a million words compared to approximately 400,000 in Icelandic), indicating that mastering a basic vocabulary at least should not be too taxing.

As my understanding of Icelandic increases, I realise the beauty of this ancient language – who can fail to be moved for example by the greeting ‘komdu sæl og blessuð’ – literally ‘Come to me joyfully and blessed’ – an everyday way of saying ‘hello’ here. I also discover words I only wish had English equivalents – for example, ´dugleg´ – a versatile, common adjective for anyone who has done a job well. It is well known that Icelanders protect their language fiercely, with a special board appointed to create new words for products like computers (tölvur) rather than borrowing from English like many other languages. It is also forbidden here to give your child a name that is not on the official list of acceptable Icelandic names, overseen by the Name Committee (Mannanafnanefnd). Personally, this strikes me as a rather fascist and limited system, coming from a country where people are free to name their children at will. But, in a world where minority languages die out at astonishing rates, Icelanders hold proudly to their roots – although almost everyone you meet here speaks excellent English and some adverts now even appear with English text, there is no sign of a decline in the importance of the native language in this isolated community.

Icelandic is certainly a unique challenge for the language-learner, but with a rich heritage and a future hopefully secured by protective measures, it seems it’s definitely time, for me at least, to be ´dugleg´ at learning more…

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