Dagur Ìslenskar Tungu is a day celebrating the Icelandic Language and culture on the 16th November. In it’s honour I’d like to share with you some of the interesting things I have learned about the Icelandic language.
As with any language, Icelandic has it’s own rather bizarre turns of phrase that need some explanation to a foreigner like me.
A couple of years ago I took a group of students to Iceland to prepare for their GCSE Geography examination, and I made them small laminated cards that they kept on their person at all times with the teachers’ phone numbers on in case of emergency. I also translated a few useful phrases should they need help, or even just to make friendly conversation with Icelandic students. On the first day my colleagues were telling the tour guide that I was learning the language and had taught our students some before we left (she was also head of IT for a large company in Reykjavik, it’s apparently not uncommon for Icelanders to have multiple jobs – I guess the tourism boom is too lucrative to pass up). We had a little chat and she helped me with my pronunciation, and then I showed her some of the language cards I’d made the students. She cracked up laughing, and then showed the driver, who also started laughing. Nb. I hadn’t seen an Icelander properly laugh before, I considered them a fairly stoic lot. So here’s what they were laughing at:
Kemur af fjöllum
Translation: comes from the mountains
Meaning: doesn’t have a clue
I put this on the card in case there was some confusion about the broken Icelandic my students were speaking. A light-hearted poke at our amateur language skills. The tour guide and driver approved, saying that knowledge of this national idiom would actually warm the locals to us, because it isn’t in normal language textbooks and showed that we had done some research into the language.
I learned about this (and others) from the wonderful book ‘The Little Book of Icelandic’ by Alda Sigmundsdottir. She explains that it used to be common that Icelanders would travel for many days cross country, or spend ages in the mountains looking for lost sheep:
“They’d get back to the farm and be completely oblivious about what had transpired while they were gone – after all, they had just come from the mountains, where there was no-one to inform them of anything”
Another idiom that resonates with me on a spiritual level is:
Að pissa ì skònn sinn er skammgòður vermir
Translation: pissing in your shoe won’t keep you warm for long
Meaning: don’t look for short term solutions
This is great. Right? I bet you’re sounding this one out right now, trying to get it into your memory to drop into conversation. I bloody did. But since I learned it, I have used it twice, and both times the person looked at me blankly. It makes sense, they don’t speak Icelandic. Neither do I either I guess. Then I give it to them in English, and something like the following conversation happens:
Them: yeah the situation isn’t great, but right now it suits me just fine
Me: [concerned they aren’t looking at the big picture] Ad pissa i skonn sinn er skammgodur vermir
Me: it means that pissing in your shoes won’t keep you warm for very long
Me: I mean its a phr-
Me: it’s an Icelandic idiom, it means ‘don’t focus on the short term’
Them: pissing in my shoes? What’s that got to do with anything?
Me: well… [I give the explanation I learned from Sigmundsdottir’s book]
Them: Right. [finishing drink, points to bar] your round.
There’s a genuinely interesting reason why this phrase works [pats knee] sit yourself down and get comfy.
Icelanders back in the days of turf houses and pneumonia were hardy souls, but their shoes were shite. Thin, sheepskin slipper type things. They weren’t waterproof. So their feet got soaking wet very quickly. Sigmundsdottir says:
“Hence you can imagine how cold people’s feet got, say, if there was a frost and cold on the ground. On such occasions it might have been tempting to do a little wee in your shoe just to warm your feet – but alas, as we know, you would have been considerably worse off in the long run”
Now just in case you have been trying to say some of these words, and you aren’t sure if you’re getting it right – I’m not going to help you.
Instead, have a watch of this hilarious compilation of newscasters trying to pronounce the name of the volcano called Eyjafjallajökull.
I can’t pronounce it either. Apparently if you can say this perfectly at the Icelandic embassy they give you citizenship. I’m working on it.
The history of Dagur Ìslenskar Tungu
It’s actually not that old a tradition. Twenty-three years old to be precise. In 1995 the Icelandic minister for education proposed a day where the Icelandic language could be celebrated. November the 16th was chosen because it was the birthday of their most famous poet, Jonas Hallgrimsson.
Who was Jònas Hallgrìmsson?
Born in 1807, Hallgrimsson worked in law before moving to Denmark. There he wrote poetry, and began translating Danish and other foreign works into Icelandic. For some reason, if you look him up on Wikipedia it says he got married aged 14. I don’t think he did seen as he actually asked someone to marry him in 1832 and was rejected, possibly causing his move to Denmark in the first place.
Anyway. Hallgrimsson helped to popularise Icelandic prose, as well as bring poetry and literature home to Reykjavik through his translations. Much like his Viking ancestors, but with less bloodshed and beard growth.
Here’s an example of his work, entitled ‘Island’:
Island! farsældafrón og hagsælda hrímhvíta móðir!
Hvar er þín fornaldarfrægð, frelsið og manndáðin best?
Allt er í heiminum hverfult, og stund þíns fegursta frama
lýsir, sem leiftur um nótt, langt fram á horfinni öld.
Iceland, fortunate isle! Our beautiful, bountiful mother!
Where are your fortune and fame, freedom and virtue of old?
All things on earth are transient: the days of your greatness and glory
flicker like flames in the night, far in the depths of the past.
This was considered a rousing piece of patriotic prose, but you’ll notice he was actually kind of having a dig at the ‘modern’ Icelanders at the time. A man who is still deeply respected and venerated, even if he sometimes called his countrymen to task for their perceived shortcomings.
Also if you’re ever in Reykjavik, check out the large church in the centre of town. It’s named after him.
Please check out Hallgrimsson’s collected works here.
Thanks for reading!