It’s one of the nation’s great mysteries, but not one that Icelanders are keen on investigating. Sometimes they find it insulting, but mostly they just don’t get what’s so funny.
It’s the old switcheroo, the tendency of Icelanders to replace the ‘v’ in any English word with a ‘w’ sound. Many argue that the common phonetic mishap doesn’t matter one bit. They can’t hear the difference, and anyway, no meaning is lost through this small alteration.
I’ve tried to explain why this substitution is funny, noting that it gives the speaker a very special sound that just happens to be comical to the American ear. But I’m actually not certain what it is; all I know is that for native English speakers, the first time they hear an Icelander make the v-to-w substitution, there is no going back.
I hear it everyday: awailable, wolleyball, wericose weins, and of course, the old favourite, wery. The latter is incredibly common and has now become part of my English-speaking life. Although there is sometimes a mutual switch in a v-for-a-w way (“How is the veather today?”), the ‘w’ replacement is by far the favourite.
To try to be fair, foreigners are not without their common and (I guess) uproarious mistakes. Has any foreigner out there ever done the good ol’ double-L sound where it was not needed, like in gallabuxur (jeans)? The conversation is brought to its knees.
Actually, no Icelander really cares when things like that happen. It’s not that funny to them, which is why it seems even worse to laugh when an Icelanders tells you that, for example, it’s wery nice to see you.
But there are times when the magic ‘w’ simply cannot and, for the sake of humour, should not be ignored. I recently stayed in Borgarnes, opting to spend an evening at Motel Venus. This one was unbeatable as far as bang-for-your-buck action with the w-switch. I mean, we’ve got the word weiner, and we’ve got the word penis…how has the word “wenus” been awoided until now? It’s headed for the W Hall of Fame.
Sometimes I just slip the ‘w’ in for entertainment value. I can’t stop. And I’ve been told time and time again that no one will notice, which makes it the perfect harmless amusement. If there’s another native English speaker around, even better.
Sure it sounds faintly wicked and, okay, not that exciting as far as practical jokes go. But foreigners need some way to entertain themselves at parties where everyone is speaking that crazy island language.