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.

“Give Icelandic a Chance” Wins Language Prize

gefum íslensku séns

The language programme “Give Icelandic a Chance” has been awarded the European Language Label, an award that encourages new initiatives in language pedagogy.

A new initiative

The recognition was granted by the Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture and The Icelandic Centre for Research (Rannís) in cooperation with the European Union. Give Icelandic a Chance is an Ísafjörður-based educational initiative, which hosts events intended to bridge the gap between the classroom and the community. Taking advantage of the small community in Ísafjörður, the initiative helps learners of Icelandic begin speaking the language while removing the stigma of imperfect Icelandic. Events hosted by the initiative include conversational coffee hours, “speed dating” in Icelandic, talks, lectures, and more.

“This recognition is very important for our effort,” stated University Centre of the Westfjords teacher and organiser Ólafur Guðsteinn Kristjánsson to Iceland Review. “It’s an encouragement to us to keep going and to keep doing better. And the prize money is important as well – 500.000 ISK will allow us to do a lot.”

Ólafur also stated: “The award is also important for us because more people will see what we are doing and realize that they can do various things to help people learn the language. Hopefully, more participants will attend future events and take advantage of it, both native speakers and those learning Icelandic.”

Important recognition

Ólafur stressed the importance of raising awareness for the issues that the initiative seeks to address. This includes understanding what learning Icelandic entails and how Icelandic society can help language learners by ensuring that people have opportunities to use the language in as many situations as possible.

According to Ólafur, the goal of the initiative is to promote increased opportunities for people to use Icelandic in the broadest and most diverse ways possible so that those learning the language receive support and understanding. The initiative is coordinated in cooperation with the University Centre of the Westfjords, the Educational Centre of the Westfjords, and the municipality of Ísafjörður.

The European Language Label is awarded across EU member states and nations associated with Erasmus+ education initiatives.

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Deep North Episode 52: The Awful Icelandic Language

icelandic flag

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming for this different and fun archival piece for the annual Icelandic Language Day. In this 1973 article, an Irish student at the University of Iceland laments the difficulties of learning Icelandic. We dust off this article and see what’s changed, and what hasn’t, about learning Icelandic.

Read the original archival article here.

From the Archive: The Awful Icelandic Language

icelandic flag

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.

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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Deep North Episode 36: Open Books

icelandic literature

Iceland’s Medieval manuscripts, dating back to the 12th century, are often cited as the country’s most valuable cultural heritage. For the general public, however, chances to view these priceless tomes have been few and far between. For the past decade or so, if you wanted to lay your eyes on them, you’d have to head to Reykjavík, to the University of Iceland’s Árnagarður building, and be buzzed into a locked corridor. If you’re granted permission to see the rare and valuable tomes, you’ll be escorted down to the basement and into a cramped room. The door will be locked behind you – in order to protect the artefacts. It’s hardly a welcoming or accessible environment, but that’s about to change.

Read the story here.

Open Books

edda icelandic manuscripts

The Arnamagnæan Manuscript Collection, located at two institutions in Iceland and Denmark, is on UNESCO’s Memory of the World register. It was established by Árni Magnússon (1663-1730), who travelled widely across Iceland collecting vellum manuscripts and books stretching back to the 12th century. On his deathbed, he bequeathed his collection to the University of Copenhagen in […]

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