Deep North Episode 67: A Different Story

Karitas Hrundar Palsdottir

Icelandic, it is often said, is an impossible language to learn. Beyond the the cases and declensions, however, lies a simple fact – there are not many resources for learning the language. Karítas Hrundar Pálsdóttir is trying to change this with a series of books aimed at adult learners of the Icelandic language.

Read the story here.

Icelandic 101: Learn Basic Phrases and Sayings in Icelandic

Icelandic language education course

Iceland is the home of a language as unique as its natural wonders: Icelandic. The Icelandic language is rooted in the Old Norse and has a strong literary heritage. It has changed little from the country’s settlement in the ninth and tenth centuries, maintaining its linguistic purity and is therefore considered a cultural treasure. 

Icelandic has a reputation for being an especially difficult language to learn, with challenging grammar and linguistic complexity, which does, however, add a poetic depth to the language. A few words and phrases can go a long way for tourists travelling to Iceland, as locals greatly appreciate the effort. Although, there is no need to worry as most Icelanders understand and speak English.

Nevertheless, below, you will find a crash course in the language to help you learn basic phrases and sayings in Icelandic.

 

Learn basic words in Icelandic

 

Thank you/Thanks: Takk fyrir/Takk

Yes:

No: Nei

Please: Vinsamlegast

Little: Lítið

A lot: Mikið 

Cheers: Skál

Good: Gott

Help: Hjálp

 

English Word

Thank you/Thanks

Yes

No

Please

Little

A lot

Cheers

Good

Help

Icelandic Word

Takk fyrir/Takk

Nei

Vinsamlegast

Lítið

Mikið

Skál

Gott

Hjálp

Icelandic Pronunciation

Tah-k fih-r-ih-r / Tah-k

Y-ow

Ney

Veen-sam-leh-gahst

Lee-tith

Mih-kith

Sk-eow-l

Goh-t

H-eow-lp

Learn basic phrases in Icelandic

 

Excuse me: Afsakið 

My name is: Ég heiti

Nice to meet you: Gaman að kynnast þér.

How are you: Hvernig hefur þú það?

I’m good thank you: Ég hef það gott, takk.

How much does this cost: Hvað kostar þetta?

I’m sorry: Fyrirgefðu 

I’m looking for: Ég er að leita að 

Can you help me: Getur þú hjálpað mér

I don’t understand: Ég skil ekki

English Words

Excuse Me

My name is

Nice to meet you
 

How are you?

I’m good, thank you

How much does this cost

I’m sorry

I’m looking for

Can you help me

I don’t understand

Icelandic Words

Afsakið

Ég heiti

Gaman að kynnast þér

Hvernig hefur þú það?

Ég hef það gott, takk

Hvað kostar þetta

Fyrirgefðu

Ég er að leita að 

Getur þú hjálpað mér

Ég skil ekki

Icelandic Pronunciation

Af-sah-kith

Yeh-gh hey-tih

Gham-ahn ah-th kihn-ah-st th-yeh-r

kveh-r-nih-gh heh-f-ih-r th-uh th-ah-th

Yeh-gh heh-f th-ah-th goh-t, tah-k

Kv-ah-th coh-stah-r theh-tah

Fih-r-ih-r-gef-thu

Yeh-gh eh-r ah-th lay-t-ah ah-th

Gay-th-ur th-uh h-eow-lp-ah-th m-yeh-r

Yeh-gh skee-hl eh-k-ee

Learn basic greetings in Icelandic

Hello: Halló  

Hi: 

Good morning: Góðan daginn

Good evening: Gott kvöld 

Goodbye: Bless

Bye: Bæ 

English Word

Hello

Hi

Good morning

Good evening

Goodbye

Bye

Icelandic Word

Halló

Góðan daginn

Gott kvöld

Bless

Icelandic Pronunciation

Hah-low

Hi

Go-thah-n die-in

Goh-t kv-eu-ld

Bleh-s

Bi

What language is closest to Icelandic?

Icelandic is a North Germanic language, meaning it’s related to languages like Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, and Faroese. Icelandic is further rooted in the Old Norse and remains closest to Norwegian and Faroese.

Are there Apps or Websites that Can Help Me Learn Icelandic?

Whether you reside in Iceland, plan to visit, or simply hold an interest in the Icelandic language, numerous online resources are accessible to aid your learning journey. Here you can find a list of resources to help you learn Icelandic.

 

A summary of the Icelandic language

Overall, the Icelandic language is unique, with a rich cultural history and background. The preservation of the language is a point of pride for Icelandic people, and despite it being challenging to learn, many foreigners have been able to grasp it. The above words provide a good starting point for learning the language. Still, to fully immerse yourself in learning Icelandic, many schools offer classes, such as Mímir language school and The University of Iceland.  

Icelandic Language Resource BÍN Launches App

Edda Centre for Icelandic Studies

The free Icelandic online language resource BÍN has recently released an app: BÍN-kjarninn, created by William Stewart.

BÍN is an online inflection reference for modern Icelandic. Though not an Icelandic dictionary, it is an essential resource for native Icelandic speakers, in addition to those who have learned Icelandic as a second language.

The new app, BÍN-kjarninn, features a simplified subset of the BÍN database. Árnastofnun, the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, states that the app will be particularly useful for learners of Icelandic.

The simplified BÍN-kjarninn database is also accessible via an API connected to the BÍN database.

The vocabulary in BÍN-kjarninn covers both basic word forms in Icelandic and a selection of recognized word forms adhering to grammar rules and conventions. It aligns largely with the word list in the Íslensk nútímamálsorðabók (Icelandic Contemporary Dictionary), which contains approximately 50,000 words. Additionally, common non-inflected words (including prepositions, conjunctions, etc.) are included in BÍN-kjarninn in limited numbers.

The app is available both on the Apple App Store and the Google Play store.

Icelandic language learners can find more resources here.

PISA: Icelandic Students Lagging Behind Nordic Peers

OECD

The 2022 PISA results show a decline in literacy and other skills among Nordic countries, particularly in Iceland. Professor Emeritus Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson has suggested that the growing influence of English in Iceland’s linguistic environment may be a key factor affecting reading comprehension.

Declining literacy across the Nordic countries

The results of the OECD’s 2022 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) were published yesterday. The assessment measures the proficiency of 15-year-old students in reading comprehension, science literacy, and mathematics literacy.

As noted in a press release on the government’s website yesterday, the results indicate a decline in student performance in participating countries compared to previous assessments. This decline is observed across all of the Nordic countries, with a more significant decrease having occurred among Icelandic participants.

Iceland ranks below the average of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in all three categories, and a lower percentage of Icelandic students possess basic and exceptional skills compared to the Nordic and the OECD average.

Signs of increasing inequality

Among other notable findings in the assessment is that students with parents in lower socio-economic positions fare worse in the survey across participating countries. As noted on the government’s website, there are — similar to other Nordic countries — signs of increasing inequality in educational achievement in Iceland over time, especially in reading comprehension.

A lower percentage of Icelandic boys achieve basic competency in science literacy (61%) compared to girls (68%), with the most significant gender gap in basic competency in reading comprehension (53% for boys versus 68% for girls).

“It is clear from the PISA 2022 results that authorities, municipalities, institutions, and organisations need to unite in understanding the reasons behind the negative trends in reading comprehension and literacy revealed in the survey and respond accordingly,” the government website notes.

It all comes down to reading comprehension

Having published an article entitled “The Bleak PISA Findings” (Kolsvört PISA-skýrsla), Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson, Professor Emeritus of Icelandic and Linguistics at the University of Iceland, discussed the PISA results on the evening news yesterday.

“I think it all comes down to reading comprehension, although there are three aspects to the test: reading, science, and mathematics, both the mathematics and science portions of the assessment are based on reading comprehension. These are text-based tasks,” Eiríkur remarked.

“Reading comprehension is deteriorating, and that’s linked to the status of the Icelandic language in society. We are faced with a drastically changed linguistic environment where English has become a much larger part of teenagers’ linguistic surroundings than it used to be.”

Eiríkur also noted, as he had done in his article, that the Icelandic translation of the PISA tests had not always been adequate. Referring to a 2020 research paper by Auður Pálsdóttir and Sigríður Ólafsdóttir — which demonstrated significant discrepancies in word frequency categories between the original texts and their translations (meaning the Icelandic words in the tests are often rarer than their English counterparts) — Eirikur suggested that the Icelandic translation of the assessment may simply be too heavy when compared to the assessment in other languages.

Eiríkur noted, however, that he had not examined the texts of the latest PISA survey.

Alarming trends

Eiríkur observed that these two considerations were not the only causes for concern. The latest assessment, as previously noted, indicated that children from poorer social and economic backgrounds performed worse in the assessment. Eiríkur characterised this trend as being particularly “alarming.”

“It’s a major concern. It means that these teenagers are highly likely to drop out of school and then be trapped in low-wage jobs that require little education when they enter the job market,” Eiríkur stated.

When asked what he would do if he were in the shoes of the Minister of Education, Eiríkur replied: “I don’t think it would be enough to just be the Minister of Education because this isn’t just about the school system. It’s about the entire society; we need to change the status of the Icelandic language. Parents and homes play a significant role, and society as a whole needs to prioritise Icelandic much more.”

Pandemic effects

As noted on the government’s website, the pandemic had various impacts on school operations, teachers, and students in the OECD countries. Two-thirds of the countries participating in PISA 2022 closed schools for three months or longer. The overall performance trend of countries from 2018 to 2022 suggests the pandemic’s impact, particularly in mathematical literacy and reading comprehension.

Edda Centre for Icelandic Studies Wins Design Award

Edda Centre for Icelandic Studies

The University of Iceland’s new Centre for Icelandic Studies, called Edda, has won the 2023 Icelandic Design Award in the “Place” category. The jury called the building “characteristic and impressive” and praised the attention to detail in its design. Edda will soon house an exhibition of Iceland’s most valuable manuscripts that will be open to all.

“Edda, the new Centre for Icelandic Studies, is a characteristic and impressive building,” the jury statement reads. “The project was carried out with professionalism, artistry, and attention to every detail inside and out. The oval shape and unique texture of the exterior suggest the value of its contents. The building stands in a shallow, reflective pool and the outside is clad with a copper shell with stylized copies of text from manuscripts, which both decorate the walls and spark curiosity about what lives within. Edda is a bright and open building where beautiful courtyards give the interior spaces air and light.”

Open Books: The New Centre for Icelandic Studies

Edda was designed by Hornsteinar Architects. It was built to house The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, several University of Iceland departments concerning Icelandic language and literature, and an exhibition of the Árni Magnússon Institute’s manuscript collection that will be open to all.

 

Give Icelandic a Chance

icelandic language education

As ever more tourists stroll around downtown Reykjavík, a debate has intensified within Icelandic society about the changes they bring with them. Minister of Tourism, Trade, and Culture Lilja Dögg Alfreðsdóttir has been especially outspoken in her critique of the increasing visibility of English in public life. Much signage in Keflavík International Airport, Reykjavík shops, and even rural restaurants is not even in Icelandic and English, but, increasingly, just English.

Many Icelanders, who pride themselves on a linguistic and literary legacy that reaches far back into history, are understandably upset. And tourists ought to be as well. After all, they travel to experience the specificity of a place, the collection of things that makes it here, and not there. Language is, of course, a major part of this. 

While there’s much to be said from a policy perspective regarding the accessibility of Icelandic language learning, some have already rolled up their sleeves and gotten to work. Not content to abandon the defence of this old and beautiful language to nationalist cranks, a small programme in the Westfjords is trying to give Icelandic a chance.

Growing up with a German father and Icelandic mother, I developed a fascination with languages and history from an early age. You can picture it easily enough: Tolkien and Beowulf were early touchstones, culminating in graduate work in mediaeval literature and historical linguistics. Icelandic is sometimes compared to Latin, a fellow Indo-European language, because of its retention of a highly developed declension system, in addition to several other conservative tendencies. Long after it ceased to be a vernacular language, Latin led an afterlife as a scholarly language, written and read, but not spoken outside the church. But unlike Latin, Icelandic survives, spoken daily by a nation of some 375,000. My Icelandic, however, has unfortunately developed into the scholarly kind, my studies leaving me more able to parse a manuscript than to chat over coffee. Languages need to be spoken to live, and when I recently had the opportunity to truly immerse myself in Icelandic in no less beautiful a setting than the Westfjords, I knew I had to head West and dive in.

Peter Weiss

peter weiss ísafjörður

Peter Weiss, or as he’s sometimes known, Pétur Hvíti, has called the Westfjords home for many years, having directed the University Centre of the Westfjords since its founding in 2005.

“We originally began the language program here in 2007,” Peter tells me in his office which overlooks the Ísafjörður harbour. Originally, the programme was intended for exchange students, mostly on Erasmus and Nordplus grants. “In the beginning, the goal was just to help students be able to order a beer in town,” Peter explains. “Most of them wouldn’t go on to stay in Iceland, but it brings so much more to the experience to live like a local while they were here.” The approach was more hands-on, with less emphasis on grammar. A typical homework assignment for an exchange student that wanted to join the university choir, for example, might simply have been to call the choir director and ask to join. Due to changes from Brussels, students across Europe no longer receive Erasmus grants to study in Ísafjörður. While enrolment has declined slightly, it’s had the side effect that more and more students living in Iceland seem to be interested in coming to the Westfjords to learn the language.

ísafjörður

A language can survive some mistakes, but it dies in silence.

Peter firmly believes in simply getting students talking, even taking out classified ads in the local newspaper to remind locals to speak Icelandic with the students here. As he likes to say, “a language can survive some mistakes, but it dies in silence.” A major part of this philosophy is getting the community involved through programmes like Gefum íslensku séns (Let’s Give Icelandic a Chance), a series of events including lectures, concerts, art exhibits, and “speed dating” meant to bridge the gap between the classroom and the world outside. 

Spearheaded by Ísafjörður resident and Icelandic teacher Ólafur Guðsteinn Kristjánsson, Gefum íslensku séns is breathing new life into Ísafjörður. In response to the cruise ships which often flood the small community with more passengers than residents, Ólafur (who goes by Óli), began a poster campaign in 2021. Shopkeepers could place a poster in their window to identify as “Icelandic friendly,” somewhere locals could go and still feel at home. By 2022, the poster campaign had turned into a lecture and event series known as Íslenskuvænt samfélag: Við erum öll almannakennarar (Icelandic-Friendly Society: We Are All Teachers). This year, the programme has grown and changed yet again into its current form: Gefum íslensku séns. And although the University Centre of the Westfjords has always taught Icelandic with these principles in mind, the degree of community involvement that accompanies the new initiative is a game changer.

icelandic language learning
ísafjörður language learning

“What we really want to do here,” Peter tells me, “is to work against this reflex to always start a conversation in English. We want the entire community to also act as teachers. The easiest thing, for everyone, is of course to just stay in their mother language. What’s second-hardest is to just stay in their second language, at work for example. But we’re asking the hardest from people, to navigate a way between Icelandic and their native language, to stay in Icelandic for as long as they can, to ask questions, to ask people to repeat, and so on.” 

The Westfjords also represent a good learning environment, far away from the English signs and menus of downtown Reykjavík. In a Reykjavík filled with “brunch” and “happy hours,” where stores are increasingly “open” or “closed,” rural Iceland may become not just a tour destination, but also a language-learning destination. “I think it’s a very positive development,” Peter tells me. “The population in the Westfjords has decreased significantly since the Second World War, by around 30%. So whenever something new starts, there’s excitement in the air. Life is coming back to the Westfjords.” 

Of course, it isn’t just Icelandic that’s taught at the University Centre of the Westfjords. There are also international MA programmes in Marine Management and Rural Development on offer. “Obviously, we’re happy to see the region beginning to grow again, and having these other programmes is an important part of that,” Peter continues. “But we also think that the Icelandic courses here and Gefum íslensku séns are just as important in building up the image of the Westfjords. I think that people are often surprised by how much the Westfjords have to offer –maybe that’s why we see more and more creative people moving here.”

Inga Daníelsdóttir

“I’m retired, but I still think it’s good to give something of my time to people,” Inga Daníelsdóttir tells me. “And coming to these events is fun, too.”

The event that we attend is a presentation on contemporary immigrant literature in Iceland. Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl, internationally recognised author and native son of Ísafjörður, is also in attendance. Inga enjoys popping in to some of the events hosted by Gefum íslensku séns, especially “Icelandic speed dating,” in which locals and language learners convene at the local brewery to meet, greet, and practise Icelandic. Past events have proved popular enough that there were too many locals per language learner, locals having to wait their turn to chat. Admittedly, the event may be popular among locals for the possibility of getting a beer on the house.

inga daníelssdóttir

Always start in Icelandic. Have a little patience, and talk clearly. And it’s fine if people switch to English sometimes. Let them switch back to Icelandic when they want. It doesn’t need to be either or.

“I used to work in the music school here in Ísafjörður,” Inga continues. “But most musicians in Iceland move to Reykjavík.” She mentions a notable exception, the internationally acclaimed Mugison who is based here in Ísafjörður. “So often we had to hire music teachers from abroad,” Inga explains. “If you’re teaching small children, then of course you should learn some Icelandic. Not all teachers will learn immediately, but even phrases like well done, first finger, and practise at home make a difference. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but you have to start somewhere.”

Inga admits that the creep of English into everyday life in Iceland can be frustrating. She notes that when she recently travelled near Húsavík, a destination popular with tourists for its prime whale watching, she was hard-pressed to find a restaurant with an Icelandic menu. She was also in the market for a new front door recently: “I went to a couple different stores for an estimate. Only one of them sent it to me in Icelandic! It’s one thing to use loanwords for some technology, but we have perfectly good words for price, delivery, installation, and so on. I just don’t understand it sometimes.”

Gefum íslensku séns

Although the events have proven a success, Inga thinks that the way forward is through less formal relationships. “People can meet for coffee, for instance,” Inga tells me. “I have a friend in the Westman Islands who helps children learn Icelandic. She’s a ‘reading grandmother’ who helps a child that doesn’t have native Icelandic parents.”

Inga has been impressed with the success of Gefum íslensku séns and thinks that Icelandic learners should “get themselves a nice shirt from Óli.” The shirts, and matching buttons, state simply: I Want to Speak Icelandic.

Of course, the matter isn’t as simple as immigrants and language learners practising more. Inga also has advice for her fellow Icelanders: “Always start a conversation in Icelandic. Have a little patience, and talk clearly. And it’s fine if people switch to English sometimes. Let them switch back to Icelandic when they want. It doesn’t need to be either or.”

Helen Cova

Helen Cova is a Venezuelan writer who moved to Iceland in 2015. She now lives in Flateyri, a small village in the Westfjords, and she’s come to Ísafjörður to give a talk on how the personal experience of immigrants is affecting modern Icelandic.

When Helen first moved to Iceland, she was interested in entering a book in the annual Icelandic Literary Prize. “But when I found out they don’t accept works in translation,” she tells me, “I thought, ok, if you want a book in Icelandic, I’ll give you one!” Since those days, Helen already has two original books in Icelandic under her belt, Snulli Likes Being Alone and Snulli Learns to Say No, in addition to a translated collection of short stories entitled Autosarcophagy: To Eat Oneself

helen cova

You wouldn’t guess it from speaking to Helen in her adopted language, but she also had her own struggles in learning Icelandic. “It can be very difficult for learners to find opportunities to speak and practice,” she explains. “Especially in Reykjavík.” Indeed, simply being able to speak Icelandic with her neighbours is one of the aspects of living in Flateyri she appreciates most: “It’s always the same people you see everyday, in the pool, for example. It’s much easier to have a rapport with people when they know you as someone who speaks Icelandic.”

Not even the most trenchant of prescriptivists would find much fault with Helen’s Icelandic, but she also thinks it’s for the best that the language has gotten some fresh perspectives lately. “I think we’re all carrying our own personal experiences,” she elaborates. “And it’s these experiences that will change contemporary Icelandic. I speak Spanish, for example. How does that influence how I speak Icelandic? Some things I’m conscious of, but there are definitely times when I express myself differently from how a native Icelander might. But we’re still speaking the same language. Or when I’m writing, I’m definitely thinking about how I might say this or that in Spanish. I don’t write in ‘pure’ or ‘perfect’ Icelandic – if something simply comes to me in Spanish, I just go with it and return to it later.” 

helen cova author

When I found out they don’t accept works in translation, I thought, ok, if you want a book in Icelandic, I’ll give you one!

Helen also happens to be something of a tabletop game fanatic, with over 400 board and card games crammed into the shelves of her Westfjords home. “I worked on this game with my friend, Fan Sissoko,” Helen tells me. “She was learning Icelandic and she experienced what so many of us have experienced: it can be very hard to practise speaking with others. She wanted to change this, and there weren’t any native resources. So as usual, it was up to the people who needed these resources to make them.”

Next year, Helen and Fan will be releasing B.EYJA (a play on the words for island and inflection which I am tempted to render as Destination: Declination). Play tested with Icelandic language learners, B.EYJA takes place in a dreamy land filled with coffee and sleeping babies and challenges players to tell stories and describe things in Icelandic, without the fear of making mistakes. Helen and Fan also plan on touring Iceland with the game upon its release next year.

In addition to more resources like B.EYJA, Helen also thinks that a shift in attitude is important, both for native Icelanders and language learners. “Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that Icelandic is a hard language,” Helen cautions learners. “I think so often we get caught up in this negativity, and it becomes self-reinforcing. I think we all need to be less shy. It’s ok to just ask people to speak Icelandic with you.”

Regarding native Icelanders, Helen says it’s important to allow learners to practise, but also to not push or judge when they can’t. “I’m so lucky to be able to speak this language,” Helen says. “But not every hour needs to be class time for learners. You might need to explain something important in English sometimes, but you should still try as much as you can. I love Icelandic, but sometimes language is just a tool for expression, and it’s the message that matters, not the packaging.”

Vaida Bražiūnaitė

“The first winter I ever spent in Iceland was in a yurt near Þingeyri with my husband,” Vaida tells me. After meeting her husband while studying visual anthropology in Norway, she fell in love with Iceland as well, skipping Reykjavík and moving right to the Westfjords.

When Vaida first met her Icelandic in-laws, there was a little confusion about her name. Væta in Icelandic can mean damp, drizzle, or showers, and her mother-in-law kindly teased her about a name that she was sure to get her fill of in the Westfjords.

Vaida Bražiūnaitė

Now, Vaida has lived in Iceland for 10 years, working on a variety of creative projects including the Ísafjörður Museum of Everyday Life and Gefum íslensku séns. When she was chosen in 2022 as Ísafjörður’s Fjallkona, the feminine personification of Iceland chosen during National Day celebrations, she composed the following poem about her first experience with the Icelandic language and landscape:

Intermittent showers here and there, expect cooler weather.

Slight showers in the forecast.

Cloudy across the country, and showers now and then.

 

Showers, væta, was my first Icelandic word.

For good reason.

Vaida is a name I carry from my homeland, Lithuania.

Could I have asked for a sweeter name here in this land?

ísafjörður

Once we put someone in an English space in our minds, it can be very difficult to change. That’s why I think speaking Icelandic is so important when you form a new relationship. We associate a person with a language, even if it’s not their native language. You can have an Icelandic relationship with someone, even if neither of you speak Icelandic natively.

“I think it’s a little bit sad that some people feel they have to come all the way to Ísafjörður to just come together, to talk, and learn Icelandic,” Vaida tells me. “But at the same time, I think it’s exciting to have something like this happening outside the capital area.” The Westfjords are a beautiful region of Iceland, and moving to a small community outside the capital region has much to recommend it for a language learner. There are, of course, still some difficulties. “There were definitely some hard times,” she continues. “With my education and interests, it was hard to find the kind of work I like doing. Everything is very practical out here, but as a visual anthropologist, I’m more likely to step back and ask questions like ‘what is this?’ and ‘who are these people?’”

After 10 years of living in the Westfjords, Vaida speaks excellent Icelandic, coming to teach guest lectures at the University Centre of the Westfjords. But she’s still learning, too. “I think I still speak English too often,” she admits. “My husband and I met each other in English, studying abroad in Norway. It was an international programme, so of course you use English to get around. But once we put someone in an English space in our minds, it can be very difficult to change. That’s why I think speaking Icelandic is so important when you form a new relationship. We associate a person with a language, even if it’s not their native language. You can have an Icelandic relationship with someone, even if neither of you speak Icelandic natively.”

This is why Vaida thinks that, in addition to learning a language through living in a community, it’s still important to take classes. “We often have these bubbles in our daily lives, we settle into our routines and habits,” Vaida continues. “Learning in an environment like the one we have in the Westfjords is so important because it allows you to switch over, to become a new person.”

Vaida is herself still continuing to learn Icelandic, and she’s been enrolled in the Icelandic as a Second Language Programme at the University of Iceland since 2021. Despite all the work that learning Icelandic requires, Vaida says it’s important to not let the memorisation of charts and paradigms get in the way of the joy of learning. “Learning Icelandic is so creative and fun,” she tells me. “It’s good to not dwell on the hard things.”

ísafjörður

A new chance

As Helen Cova and I get up to say goodbye from our brief conversation, I cannot help but wonder at what just took place. That Helen, a Venezuelan writer, and I, can talk about such things in a language that neither of us have as a mother tongue represents a minor miracle.

One of the words that came up regularly in these conversations was móðurmál, or mother tongue. In English, mother tongue has a romantic resonance, but in Icelandic, it’s simply the word for one’s native language. I admit the word fills me with a certain sadness. Icelandic, after all, was in fact my mother’s native language. Growing up in an international family, I was filled with a wonder and love for languages at a young age that I still carry with me today. Long before I learned what umlaut mutation was, I felt something natural about the way mamma bends to mömmu, and how this might have to do with a deep history.

Perfect Icelandic still eludes me, and when I think of this word móðurmál, it is not simply a sadness for what I never had – it’s a loss that runs deeper, more like of a parent or beloved. That, perhaps, is why I came to Ísafjörður: to deepen a connection with my mother’s tongue. Though I missed the chance for a móðurmál, Icelandic might yet be my ömmumál, my mother’s mother tongue.

A Hurricane Called “English” Is Sweeping Across Iceland – Bubbi

Bubbi Morthens

In an op-ed in Morgunblaðið yesterday, musician Bubbi Morthens criticised the government, the tourism industry, and restaurateurs for pandering to English speakers. It was one thing for the tourism industry to make a profit, Bubbi observed, but another to wage war against the Icelandic language.

A hurricane called “English”

“A hurricane called English is sweeping across the country and uprooting our language,” musician Bubbi Morthens wrote in an article published in Morgunblaðið yesterday.

In the article – which is entitled The War on Language, in reference to an article authored by Nobel Laureate Halldór Laxness, the War on Nature (wherein the latter criticised the government’s plans for the construction of power plants) – Bubbi criticised the growing influence of the English language within Icelandic society.

Reykjavík, he noted, was filled with English signage, restaurants opted for English as their first language, and local interest groups had begun to write letters to the government in the English language.

Roll up your sleeves

While encouraging the tourism industry to “grab a hold of itself,” Bubbi also urged the government, members of parliament, and artists to roll up their sleeves: “We’ve come to a point where all of us who live here have to ask ourselves: Do we want to speak Icelandic? Do we want to read Icelandic? Do we want to sing our Icelandic songs with all the words that we understand with our heart and soul?”

According to Bubbi, if the answer is “yes,” people could no longer sit idly by; the time had come to fight for the mother tongue. “Government of Iceland, parliamentarians of our country, artists, all citizens, wherever we may find ourselves: let’s get a hold of ourselves.”

Bubbi also noted that the tourism industry had to take action. Making a profit was one thing, but waging a war against the Icelandic language was quite another: “Without our language, we are nothing but a fine-natured rock in the North Atlantic. As opposed to an independent nation residing in its own country.”

Everyone welcome

As noted by Vísir, Bubbi concluded his op-ed by clarifying that “everyone was welcome” in Iceland. “The people who want to live in Iceland enrich our country and our culture, but it is important to help them by teaching them to speak our language.”

“Icelandic is the glue that binds us all together, our mother, our father, in fact, our higher power. In Icelandic ‘you can always find an answer,’ the poet observed – and we must, now later than now, find an answer to this war against our mother tongue. Our lifeline. We must all as one, put our foot down and take a stand in defence of our language.”

Home Goods Store Rúmfatalagerinn Changes Name to JYSK

jysk rúmfatalagerinn

Rúmfatalagerinn, the Icelandic franchise of the Danish home goods store JYSK, will be changing its name.

The store, whose name means “the linen warehouse,” will now simply be known by the original Danish JYSK.

What’s in a name?

The name change has occasioned discussion on the role of Icelandic in the public sphere.

In an interview with Vísir, professor emeritus Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson stated: “One name at a time doesn’t matter per se, but we have to look at this in context and what such a name change indicates about our ideas regarding Icelandic and foreign languages. Why do we always avoid Icelandic?” Although Eiríkur admits that this name change in particular seems relatively inconsequential, he remains concerned about the usage of Icelandic as a public language. Additionally, he stated that the name JYSK does not conform well to Icelandic pronunciation or grammar.

Notably, the Danish store is also known by the German “Dänisches Bettenlager” in many other nations throughout Europe, including Germany and Austria, and also Spain, France, and Portugal.

According to representatives from Rúmfatalagerinn, the name change is intended to reflect that the store offers much more than bed linens.

“Such isolated examples don’t matter much,” Eiríkur stated. “It makes no difference even if someone like Toppur [an Icelandic beverage company which recently changed its name to Bonaqua] or some company like Rúmfatalagerinn changes their name. What I am much more concerned about is what lies behind it. This attitude, or idea, or belief that foreign names are somehow better and that Icelandic names are awkward is what worries me.”

A larger context

The recent debate over the name change is just one part of a larger conversation taking place in Iceland. As mass tourism and shifting demographics change the face of Icelandic society, some have expressed concern that the Icelandic language is slowly being supplanted by English.

Minister of Tourism, Commerce, and Culture Lilja Dögg Alfreðsdóttir has recently spoken out against the increasing prevalence of English on signage in downtown Reykavík, saying that “we have gone off track.”

“All signs must have Icelandic first,” continued Lilja. English has become increasingly common as a language of commerce not just in the capital, but throughout Iceland, in the wake of the tourism boom. Indeed, some establishments, especially those oriented towards tourism, may only have signs and information available in English.

Lilja has also stated that visible usage of Icelandic is especially important for immigrants who are learning Icelandic: “We are collaborating with the tourism industry and business sector to take steps to make the Icelandic language more visible.”

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“Icelandic as a Second Language” University’s Most Popular Subject

Háskóli Íslands University of Iceland

The University of Iceland received nearly 9,500 applications for undergraduate and graduate programmes for the 2023-24 school year. This is an increase of over 6% from last year. Icelandic as a second language proved the most popular subject, with over 640 applications received, Vísir reports.

Almost 9,500 applications received

The application deadline for the 2023-2024 school year to the University of Iceland expired on June 5. Nearly 9,500 applications were received for undergraduate and graduate programmes, with the number of applicants having increased by over 6% year-on-year.

An announcement from the University of Iceland notes that the university received a total number of 5,357 applications for undergraduate studies (up by over 6% year-on-year); a total of 4,115 applications for graduate studies (up by over 7% year-on-year); and nearly 100 applications for doctoral studies.

As noted by Vísir, the number of foreign applications received by the University of Iceland continues to increase in parallel with the school’s growing foreign cooperation and the increased diversification of Icelandic society. The number of foreign applications increased by 20% year-on-year, amounting to nearly 2,000 (compared to the approximately 1,000 foreign applications received in 2016).

“Icelandic as a second language” the most popular subject

The Faculty of the Humanities received the most applications of all departments, or nearly 1,390. Among the subjects offered by the department, Icelandic as a second language is by far the most popular, with more than 640 applications having been received for either a BA programme or a shorter practical one-year programme. This is a year-on-year increase of just over 33%.

“It’s a real pleasure to see that Icelandic as a second language is a very popular subject. This is where the University of Iceland fulfils its social role. This is a subject that we will continue to promote,” Jón Atli Benediktsson, President of the University of Iceland, told Vísir.

As noted by Vísir, there are no restrictions on the number of students accepted into the subject and there is no intention to impose such restrictions. Jón Atli speculated that the increase in applications was to be explained by a greater diversity of university students and the increase in the number of immigrants.

“Regarding the increase in the number of foreign applications in general, diversification, of course, plays a role, alongside the good reputation that the University of Iceland enjoys abroad.”