I’m not normally one to back down from an intellectual challenge, but I may have met my match in the Icelandic language. In attempting to skim a magazine or read a menu, nothing about it looks familiar…in Icelandic text I can’t find any words adopted from other languages. According to David, our tour guide today, if the Icelanders need to use a foreign word (think Internet, for example) they will import the meaning, but will create their own new Icelandic word for it. Talk about dedication to not diluting your language!
Here’s what else I gleaned from David’s explanation of the language today (for reference, David is an Englishman who’s been living in Iceland for twelve years–it took him four solid years to learn the language): Icelandic is descended from old Norse languages, as the Vikings were the ones to settle the country. There are 32 letters in the alphabet (including multiple versions of vowels and at least three different characters for the “th” sound) and each one has one and only one very distinct pronunciation. If you saw a “c” in a word (which you wouldn’t, because they don’t have them–they don’t have a “w” either, but they did consent nevertheless to use the internationally accepted WC to let folks know where the toilets are) there would be no confusion about whether it was a hard c or a soft c like in English. When tourists attempt to pronounce Icelandic words (like street names) using the pronunciation rules from their own native language, the Icelanders have no idea what they are saying. Apparently they found great amusement in the world’s news anchors trying in vain to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull, the name of the volcano that erupted in 2010 and practically brought European air travel to a halt for weeks; the American military gave up hope of ever saying it right and dubbed it E15 because it was spelled with an E followed by fifteen other random letters.
Another reason I would hesitate to learn Icelandic is the grammar. Apparently, each noun, pronoun, and adjective has a gender, and is declined in four cases based on that gender, and whether it is singular or plural. (Check out all the ways to spell chicken [underlined] in the above photograph of a Subway menu board.) Verbs are conjugated for tense, mood, person, number, and voice. I’m not sure I know enough about my own English grammar to even know what all those terms mean. The sentence construction is then further affected by whether the person to whom you are speaking is a male or female, young or old. In the end, each word ends up having between 12 and 35 different spellings. That’s a headache I just don’t need at this point in my life.