The Icelandic language has a reputation for being difficult.
Actually, all languages are difficult, I suppose. The whole notion of using one’s ingestion apparatus to produce local fluctuations in barometric pressure in order to transmit thoughts from one brain to another seems sort of haphazard. But it works better than anything else we’ve tried.
There is no Rosetta Stone course for Icelandic, but there are some widely-recommended texts, including Beginner’s Icelandic by Helga Hilmisdóttir and Jacek Kozlowski, and several courses offered online through the University of Iceland.
Automated translators are primitive: the Google Translate application for iPhone is close to completely nonfunctional, but the desktop browser version works reasonably well. Microsoft’s Bing translation tool doesn’t even recognize Icelandic as a real language, though it does include two dialects of Klingon.
Icelandic shares some common heritage with English: they’re both part of the Germanic family of languages. It mostly uses the same alphabet as English, and if English is your native tongue the letters represent mostly the same sounds you’re familiar with. This means that on occasion, you can figure out what Icelandic words mean simply by sounding out the words as though they were in English, as in this ad for the “Endless Summer” concert last weekend:
On occasion, though, that method will yield weird results, as the Icelandic word for “slush” demonstrates:
But the alphabet itself still has some rules that throw me for a loop. The first is the importance of diacritical marks, which for some reason don’t seem to register with me even when I look at them. The letter á, for example, is different than the letter a: it sounds like ou as in loud, so the word blár (blue) is pronounced “blour” – no matter how much I want to say “blahr.” All of the vowels have at least two different forms, and actually seeing the difference has been a major challenge for me.
The letters c and z aren’t in the alphabet, and the ph and gh forms used to represent the “eff” sound (as in phone or enough) don’t exist either. We don’t need to dwell too long on the letters ð and þ, except to note that they are not misshapen d’s and p’s, but rather the two different forms of the “th” sound, as found in ninth and thorn, respectively.
Some sounds depend on surrounding letters: in Icelandic the letter f can represent the sound “eff,” but it sounds like the letter v when it appears between two vowels, so the word “sofa” is pronounced “sova.” When f appears before the letters l or n, it sounds like the letter p … meaning that the international airport, Keflavík, is pronounced “KEP-lah-veek” rather than “Kef-lah-VIK.” (Did I mention that the emphasis on multi-syllable words pretty much always falls on the first syllable? It’s a simple rule that I hope someday to master – I keep throwing the stress around to other syllables as if I was trying to pronounce the words in English.)
The Icelandic language has been purposefully kept fairly true to its original form, meaning that it’s possible for a speaker of modern Icelandic to read texts from the earliest days of the language, including the Viking-era sagas and eddas that are almost a thousand years old. Although it contains many words derived from common roots with words in English and other languages, it borrows very few. Instead, it recycles older words or cobbles new ones together out of existing words. The Icelandic word for telephone, “simi,” is a derived from an archaic word for “cord,” while the word for computer, “tölva,” was constructed out of the words for “number” and “fortune-teller” (or “seer”).
And yet it doesn’t seem to me that Icelandic, for all its unfamiliarity and isolation, is inherently more difficult a language than English. The haphazard rules and exceptions to rules that run throughout English, along with its tendency to borrow sounds and words from other languages and to invent and rely on acronyms but then ignore their original meaning (how many people do you know who talk about using the “ATM machine,” for example?) … frankly, it’s a wonder sometimes that anyone can speak the language at all.
But the people here do. Having mastered their own language, Icelandic children learn English. It’s quite common to be able to carry on a sophisticated conversation in English; in fact, it makes picking up on Icelandic something of a challenge, because most people can and do simply switch to English to speed things up and as a matter of kindness. I hope someday to be able to learn the Icelandic language; but for now, ég er nám auðmýkt – I’m learning humility.
As my friend Karen would say, betra seint en aldrei.
Images: Icelandic flag; Christopher Lloyd, Back to the Future (Aftur til framtíðar) (Universal, 1985); screen capture; Endalust Sumar 2015 logo; some guy with a bunch of Krap; Safnahúsið.