From Iceland — Learning Icelandic the Easy Way. Can It Be Done?

Learning Icelandic the Easy Way. Can It Be Done?

Published February 11, 2005

Learning Icelandic the Easy Way. Can It Be Done?

The very first phrase I learned in Icelandic was “the gramophone is on the table.” It’s not something I have had much cause to say in Iceland, or indeed, anywhere. The reason I know this sentence is not because my lessons began thirty years ago or because I work in a retro hi-fi shop with an unusually large Icelandic clientele; it’s down to the fact that I first dipped my toe into this vast linguistic ocean of declension, gender and endings courtesy of Linguaphone.

The company famed for teaching millions a new tongue by asking them to “listen, repeat and understand” first published its Icelandic course in 1965. That’s a remarkable fact given that very few people chose to visit the country back then, and even fewer sought to learn its language. Nonetheless, the books and tapes have been published ever since and have presumably sold in increasing numbers; unfortunately (and despite my course having been reprinted in 1994), not much has really been updated since those early days when new speakers were asked to proudly locate their record players.

Can Casual Conjugation Lead to Anything More?
The Linguaphone course, consisting of two course books, fifty lessons and four cassettes (cassettes!) is as dense as it is thorough. For a native English speaker like myself, technically untutored in the ways of grammatical terminology, being asked to determine the difference between the nominative, genitive and accusative on more or less the first page is disheartening. Horrifyingly, it took nearly as long to determine what those terms meant in English as it did to start casual conjugation. So, my efforts to find the ultimate tutor continued.

The Terrifying Undergrowth
Icelandic for Beginners is by Stanislaw Jan Bartoszek and Anh-Dao Tran (if two individuals with such apparently non-Nordic names can master the language well enough to teach it, then I should be able to manage more than a fractured “talar þú ensku?”). This book acknowledges from the outset that Icelandic has “a lot of grammar”, and does its best to lead you through the terrifying undergrowth of irregular verbs and possessive pronouns. There’s an accompanying recording too, offering practice on the finer points of pronunciation.

Modern and Proudly Ancient
Better still is Daisy L. Neijmann’s Colloquial Icelandic, a much-respected book and CD package which does a fine job of untangling the rules and exceptions of this unique language, as modern as it is proudly ancient. Why ég tala but við tölum? This book explains the “U-shift” almost poetically: “a’s in Icelandic are allergic to u’s, and break out into ö’s or u’s as soon as any u gets too close!” Armed with this charming metaphor, Icelandic peculiarities soon appear less strange than some of the oddities that we don’t allow to trouble us in English; why “goose” and “geese” but not “moose” and “meese”?

Going Native
Useful as Colloquial Icelandic is, it was somewhat eclipsed when I found a real life genuine Icelander of my very own. At the hairdresser’s here in Edinburgh one day, I found my locks being cut by someone with an accent that I placed vaguely as Scandinavian. Upon further investigation, I discovered that Áslaug was here from Reykjavík for a couple of years, and yes, she would be delighted to help me learn her language. She may be Scotland’s only hairdressing linguist, and I am delighted to report that she performs each role extremely well. Takk fyrir, Áslaug!

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