From the Archive: The Awful Icelandic Language Skip to content

From the Archive: The Awful Icelandic Language

Words by
Brendan Glacken

From the archive: This article was published in Iceland Review magazine in 1973. Archival content is presented in unaltered form and may not necessarily reflect the current editorial standards of Iceland Review.

People set out to learn Icelandic for various reasons, most of them highly dubious. Some people, not content with their own back gardens, come to Iceland for the sake of adventure, and fall to learning the language for no better reason than an idle curiosity to know what other people are saying. Others will tell you that they wish to read the famous Icelandic sagas in the original, which is hard to believe, since anybody who knows anything can tell you that they are quite sufficiently incomprehensible in translation. Some people of course are not satisfied with being mystified in their own language.

Many other people who attempt to learn Icelandic do so because, as they will proudly tell you, it is “related” to their own tongue; it belongs, they claim, to the same language family. All I can say to this is that in every family there are some very suspicious characters, and the less said about them the better. At heart I suspect all learners of Icelandic of being no better than a sort of literary mountaineers. They are interested in it only because it is there.

Cod-fish is masculine

Icelandic is a “Germanic” language. This fact alone should serve as sufficient warning for most people, but not so. Icelandic grammar is so complicated as to make it more Germanic than German itself. Consider, for instance, the question of grammatical gender. In Icelandic, a man is masculine and a woman is feminine. So far so good. But after this, common sense disappears. A pork chop is male, while a Mars bar is neuter. A barber is masculine but his shop is feminine. A cat is masculine, a catalog feminine, and a child neuter. A Coca-Cola, presumably because of the shape of the bottle, is feminine. A bus is masculine, and presumably you understand by now why I often feel like leaping on him and letting him take me as far away as possible from where the Icelandic language is spoken.

Last week I visited the main post office in Reykjavik. My errand was a very simple one, and I spoke entirely in Icelandic. The conversation went as follows: “I would like to post a dainty little parcel to my Aunt Caramelia.” “I see. Where is he, and where is he going to?” A long pause ensued at this point, while I looked vacantly around the office. At last I gave up: “Who?” “The little parcel, about whom you have spoken.” Another pause, and finally understanding dawns. “Oh, him! Why, here he is!” I almost forgot to collect my change (masculine plural).

But to continue: an aerodrome is masculine, while an aeroplane is feminine. Coffins — and oil — are feminine, but a cod-fish is masculine. A leg, if unspecified, is masculine, but a leg of mutton is neuter. Shoe-laces are feminine, as are vacuum-cleaners, but shoes and vacuum-flasks are masculine, and trousers are feminine plural.

Consider, then, the difficulties that face you as you sit down to order your Icelandic breakfast. Though a chicken is masculine, and a hen feminine, an egg — of either fowl – is neuter. Now, while both coffee and bread are, by a totally unexpected stroke of grammatical logic, completely sexless, a cup of coffee is masculine, and a slice of bread is feminine. Furthermore, after the best Icelandic traditions, all these items are of course grammatically declined. Now I have no intention of lowering the tone of this article by an unnecessary discussion of Icelandic grammatical declensions, but I will say this, that in a friendly land, I consider it an unpardonable breach of hospitality that anyone should be asked to decline a cup of coffee, or even an egg — regardless of its gender — before 2 p.m. at least in the afternoon. It is enough to give one indigestion before even beginning one’s meal.

Six or sex?

But there is an even more hair-raising problem involved in the superficially simple act of ordering breakfast in Iceland. As if it were not enough to have to decline every adjective, noun, pronoun, personal name and place name, every man, woman and child, every single piece of toast, every pork-chop, and every bowl of skyr; the devilish inventor of the Icelandic language has ordained that for good measure, the numbers from one to four, inclusive, shall also be declined. Nobody who has never tried to speak Icelandic can conceive of the traumas for which this playful little rule is responsible. Picture yourself sitting at the hotel table. You have carefully learned the Icelandic words for toast and coffee, and the simple discovery that the word for an egg is “egg” has renewed interest in comparative linguistics, and put you at peace with the world. Along comes the waiter: “Egg,” you say firmly, taking care to follow your book by putting the stress on the first syllable. “How many?” says he.

You are trapped. How were you to know that “egg” can mean more than one egg? So if all you want is one, is it “einn,” “ein,” or “eitt” egg? Two cups of coffee — do you ask for “tveir,” “tvaer,” or “tvo”? “Thrir,” “thrjar” or “thrju” slices of toast? Well, which is it? You don’t know? Of course you don’t. I don’t know either. In fact, at this stage I don’t even care. I assume the appearance of a deaf mute, and I use my fingers for counting, as sensible people did before the invention of outrageous languages like Icelandic.

If, however, you possess a little more nerve than does the ordinary individual, there is another method of crashing the barrier of Icelandic declension of numerals. This consists of avoiding completely the numbers from one to four, and simply asking for five of everything. The Icelandic word for five is “fimm,” and apart from being easy to pronounce, its great advantage is that it never changes at all.

“Cup of coffee, sir?” “Yes, five,” you answer, firmly. If this exchange is followed by a short pause, and the waiter then repeats his question, a little more slowly, then you merely repeat your answer, a little more firmly.

“Plate of toast, sir?” “Yes, five.”

Admittedly, when you are eventually confronted by five cups of coffee, five plates of toast, five glasses of orange juice, and five boiled eggs, you may get the feeling that people are looking your way. You may even be right. But take no notice. Console yourself with the knowledge that had you attempted to grammatically decline any of the items in front of you, you would doubtless have suffered the fate already referred to, namely that of indigestion before even beginning to eat; now, however, you can tackle your meal with relish, and worry about indigestion later on.

A point of honour

While not practicable everywhere, this method of ordering is a singularly effective one in Icelandic hotel bars. I have noticed that even in the most crowded establishments, a space is quickly cleared for the individual who orders his drink in the manner outlined above. If nothing else, the five-fold order in Iceland at least engenders respect.

Icelandic is no language for the fastidious. A friend of mine, who has been studying the language for close on ten years, has informed me privately that it contains more common nouns and irregular verbs than he would care to mention. I myself heard used, in the presence of ladies, some highly irregular verbs, and some of the commonest nouns imaginable. I have now made it a point of honor with myself, when in mixed company, to leave the room immediately on the utterance of any of these words, and to return only when some semblance of respect for female company has been restored. (In small gatherings my frequent exits and re-entrances scarcely cause any disturbance at all, but at larger affairs, where I have to be formally announced, or rather re-announced up to twenty or twenty-five times, I regret to say that I have occasionally noticed a certain weariness of expression on the face of the butler to whom this duty falls).

Icelandic presents another problem of an even more delicate nature. Now I do not consider myself a prudish person, nor do I easily flinch; but though the Icelandic word for six is a very simple one, and indeclinable, I have never yet been able to bring myself to ask in Icelandic for six of anything. If it is essential that I have, for example, six blood puddings, I ask for five, and then, as casually as possible, I ask for another. I do not attempt to explain this behaviour.

Suffice it to say that where I come from, six has one meaning, and sex another meaning altogether.

Just say "fimm"

Lest anyone think at this point that Icelandic possesses no virtues at all, let me hasten to show that this is not true. In the first place, the Icelandic language displays, as English does not, a healthy contempt for euphemism. For example, when an Englishman speaks of the “denudation” of the countryside, the process referred to sounds no more objectionable than the process of undressing for bed; but when an Icelander speaks of “uppblastur” we are not only given a mental picture of the process but also a hint of how the man feels about it. Again, if you didn’t know what “diabetes” was, you could never discover its meaning from the word itself without knowing Greek; but “sykursyki” is “sugar-sickness,” and no Icelander could mistake it for anything else. Anyone might be forgiven for thinking the English term “casuist” to be a complimentary one, but a breakdown of the corresponding term in Icelandic shows that an “ordaflaekjumadur” is precisely that — “a word-ravelling man.”

Some Icelandic words and phrases contain a great deal more meaning than their length would suggest. Such a word is “ha,” which translates loosely to English as “I beg your pardon. I’m afraid I didn’t quite catch what you just said, and would you mind repeating it?” Clearly, this is a very handy word to have at one’s disposal, and has the advantage of being easy to learn. I myself mastered it within a week. Equally useful is the phrase “thad er nefnilega thad.” Literally, this means no more than “that is namely that,” but in conversational style, it is used to signify complete agreement with what the other person is saying, usually when what the other person is saying is of no consequence whatsoever. Armed with this phrase and the word “ha,” the learner of Icelandic is adequately prepared for any conversational emergency that may arise.

Icelanders speak very fast. In fact, in this respect they are as bad as the French, and everybody knows what they are like. For the person who is unprepared, the speed at which Icelandic is spoken can occasionally lead to highly embarrassing situations. Only last week, for example, a friend of mine was sitting in a Reykjavik restaurant studying the menu when a particularly attractive Icelandic waitress approached, smiled, and said “Kata.” At least, that was what it sounded like to him. In fact, of course, as anyone who had studied the language for only a couple of years or so could easily have told him, the waitress said “hvað var það?,” meaning “what was that?,” meaning “may I be of some assistance?” But how could my friend have known all this? Under the circumstances, he reacted only as a gentleman could do: without a moment’s hesitation he leaped up, proffered his hand to the young lady, and shouted “Harry.”

The Icelandic language displays a highly ambiguous attitude towards the human body. Whereas, for example, in most languages the parts of the human body are accorded the dignity of being governed by Possessive Pronouns, in Icelandic they are governed by that most ignominious of all grammatical terms, the Preposition. Again, Icelandic nouns are differentiated not only on the basis of gender, but also – with just as little discrimination on the basis of whether they are “strong” or “weak”, so that no matter how healthy you are, the Icelandic doctor inspecting your tongue will always see it exactly as he sees his grandmother — Feminine and Weak. And if nothing else will teach you humility, consider the following: in Icelandic, your eyes, ears, lungs, and kidneys are lumped together into the tiny class of nouns derisively referred to as Weak Neuters, where to my knowledge they have for company only “hnodu” and “bjugu”, or balls of yarn, and sausages.

Icelandic grammar affords more consolation to the afflicted than to the healthy. Though a man be in the final stages of some devastating disease, let him come to Iceland and take heart (no joke intended): his knees, his liver, and his legs remain Strong.

Oh, dear Lord

Oh, but see the clock! She lacks only ten minutes to eight, and I must fly! My dinner waits, he grows cold, quickly must I eat him. Then comes my friend, together shall we see the film — she must be good! Homewards intend I then, to read the Icelandic book, hardly indeed can I wait. So entertaining she is, my Icelandic grammar, so full of funny things, of outrageous constructions like these for example, and nothing thinks she at all of appropriating a sex to an inanimate log of wood or a sheepskin or a carrot. Oh, I must study her more, must practice myself, as she so engagingly puts it. And so finally will come the day, or so she promises, when the Icelandic language I shall speak like a native, though a native of what country she declines to specify; when I shall speak it so well and so fast that Icelanders will understand me perfectly, and I shan’t know at all what I am saying myself; when at last— oh happy day — I shall have completely mastered the Icelandic language; but oh dear me, oh, my poor nerves, oh dear Lord — oh Christ — at what cost, at what cost?

Brendan Glacken is an Irish student at the University of Iceland.

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