The True Transformative Power of the Icelandic Language

Imagine having the ability to have spoken with your ancestors from 500 years ago. Imagine what you would learn from them, what sort of insights you would have about the way you and your family viewed the world, and even how minor things like their mannerisms and body language made you what you are.

From a physical standpoint regarding living beings, as far as I can tell, this is impossible.

But one language in my journey stood out, even more so than the dead languages I had studied and forgotten (namely, Ancient Greek and Latin), as one that was like that ancestor. Upon talking to him/her, it brought all of my interactions with the rest of its family members into place.

I am of course, speaking about the Icelandic Language. And this post is, of course, in honor of Iceland’s National Day.

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It goes without saying that the contemporary language of Iceland, while in name the exact same language that Leif Erikson spoke, is now a lot different.

For one (and NOT a lot of articles about Icelandic will mention this!) Icelandic took not only English loan words from recent times, but also Danish, French and Spanish loanwords from even further back. What more, a lot of the purist words from the Icelandic Language Academy did not end up sticking with the general populace (the exact same thing happened with the Hebrew Language Academy in Israel).

That said, it goes without saying that Icelandic is significantly more purist than many other languages that have had to deal with the same “dance” that they did (translate internationalisms vs. use them straight outright).

In fact, this is one aspect in which Faroese differs from Icelandic, by virtue of the fact that more Danish loanwords, many of them internationalisms, found their way into Faroese and not into Icelandic. (Although Faroese has significant fewer internationalisms than any of the mainland Scandinavian languages of Danish, Norwegian or Swedish).

Anyhow, I’ve come to write about what made the Icelandic language so transformative for me.

  1. It caused me to think about language evolution and what can happen to versions of a language over time.

 

The Norwegian of a thousand years ago would have been mutually intelligible to an Icelandic speaker. In fact, that same Old Norwegian was actually used in the latest “Civilization” game, with an Icelandic voice actor, no less!

 

Icelandic was (and is) very heavily grammatical, with a lot of case endings, three genders, verb conjugations and very much unlike what the mainland Scandinavian Languages are today.

For those unaware: a language like Swedish or Danish does not even change verb endings for person. It would be like saying I is, you is, he is, she is, etc.

The Mainland Scandinavian Languages did away with case endings although a small amount of idiomatic expressions survived that use them (hint: look for a preposition and then a “u” or an “s” at the end of a noun that follows!). Most Norwegian dialects kept the three genders, although Swedish and Danish reduced them to two, not unlike Dutch, in which the Masculine and Feminine became the “common” gender.

This also glosses over completely the fact that French and German words found their way into the Scandinavian Languages on the mainland while usually passing Iceland by.

What exactly accelerated language evolution? Perhaps low population densities and a lot of contact with foreigners, as well as heavily centralized authorities caused these simplifications to happen.

Given what happened to Icelandic’s immediate family members, it really makes me wonder what sort of language changes the next stages of human history will hold. Already we are witnessing an increasing amount of English content throughout almost all languages on the globe, much like the French and German languages impacted the languages of the Scandinavian mainland.

It’s truly a humbling perspective to have.

 

  1. It made me think about what language purity really what (and wasn’t)

To some degree, I’ve also had a very similar experience with Hebrew as well. Like the people of Israel, the people of Iceland have had prolonged contact with English-speaking armies, who brought along their music, television and, most infamously, their profanity.

For those unaware, Iceland had an American army presence throughout most of World War II, because the allies wanted to ensure that Hitler could not reach Canada from the Danish overseas territories (which could have been Hitler’s rationale behind invading Denmark in the first place). Ensuring a presence on Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands was of the upmost importance to the Allies.

Many, many articles have been in awe about the purity of the Icelandic language, and which is a little bit funny when you end up listening to Icelandic Rap and easily lose track of how often English words (as well as Anglophone cultural references) are used!

Purist language or not, every language has to share the world with somebody. Israeli Hebrew is the language of Abraham and David – with limitations. Modern Icelandic is the language of Leif Erikson and the first European-Americans – with limitations. That’s not a bad thing in the least, it just serves to show that true purism, especially for smaller nations, is not always within reach.

 

  1. Icelandic made me think about what smaller languages can be

 

Ask people about whether or not the Icelandic language has a future, and you’ll get many answers.

A few months ago, there was a well-publicized article about Icelandic being underused in technology (and I’ll have you all know that, while I’m writing this article, my Windows 10 system is in a [complete] Icelandic translation!) It told horror stories about 14-year-olds in Reykjavik choosing to chat to each other in English rather than in Icelandic, and that the world should be very worried indeed!

But at the Endangered Language Alliance meetings, I heard a different story: those holding up a language like Icelandic as THE success story for smaller languages. In all of recorded history there have been about 1,000,000 Icelanders tops. And yet, all of Disney’s animated canon is dubbed into Icelandic with all of the songs translated and rhymed! (Disney does this to a lot of other languages as well, no doubt, although obviously most of them are from the developed world. Also, the song translations are not thoroughly accurate reflections of the original English song lyrics, there are liberties taken but that doesn’t make it any less fantastic!)

With a language like Breton, I’m concerned for its future. I can’t always find a continuous stream of content, often a lot of people from Brittany have only a rudimentary knowledge of the language (if any at all). Comments on the internet written in Breton can be sparse, even when you know where to look. Breton seems to have been relegated to a niche environment, thanks largely to French governmental policy. That saddens me but that just simply means that I have to keep on maintaining my knowledge of Breton even more strongly.

But with Icelandic, I can easily hop onto almost any website in the country, and the comments sections will be teeming with Icelandic, the menus will be fully in Icelandic and unchallenged by the presence of any translations (most of the time). Anywhere in Icelandic settlements, even in the most touristy areas, I find that Icelandic is the dominant language I hear on the streets.

Thousands upon thousands of people throughout the globe have a desire to learn it, and many of them get permanently enamored with Icelandic, finding themselves with a treasure they’ll never give up.

The Icelandic-Language music scene is very much alive, with thousands of songs to choose from in dozens of genres. The government is actively interested in keeping the language alive, and I’ve heard that if you even go so much as to hint that the Icelandic language isn’t worth keeping alive, prepare to invite the distrust, if not in fact outright isolation, from your Icelandic peers.

Yes, in Reykjavik once or twice I encountered an ice cream store with the flavors written out in English rather than in Icelandic. I don’t doubt the problems that journalists have written about. And I think that more Icelandic products in the realm of technology need Icelandic localizations, even if it may not serve a very practical purpose in their eyes.

But whenever I think about what a small language can and should be, I would have to agree with my ELA friends and say that Icelandic is the platinum standard for small languages in the 21st century. If Breton or Irish or the Sami Languages or any endangered tongue on the face of the planet would be in the situation Icelandic is in now, there would be month-long celebrations held by its speakers.

 

  1. Icelandic Made Me Think about How to Learn Grammar and Difficult Pronunciation

 

“I’m going to try that evil language again!”, proudly exclaimed one of my students (whom I regularly teach Swedish). “I just seem to have trouble knowing when I should pronounce the ‘g’ hard and when I shouldn’t”

Not gonna lie: I considered writing a piece about “Why Icelandic is EASY”! And I thought for a while and I thought “Uuuhhhh…there are English cognates….uuuhhh…okay, good. Grammar? No….how about…pronunciation? Mostly regular but given how often Icelanders slur and leave out consonants….no…yeah, I got nothin’…”

I’ve struggled with all of my languages, even the English creoles. Got news for you: in language learning, you sort of…don’t have a choice…except for…to struggle…until you find yourself…not struggling anymore…

Icelandic was no exception. Reciting grammar tables didn’t really help. I got the pronunciation and I was imitating the voices I heard in the apps and yes, singers (not just local favorites like Ásgeir Trausti and Rökkurró but also the aforementioned Disney songs localized into Icelandic, some of which I’ve even sung at crowded karaoke bars to standing ovations! I tell you, I have this crazy theory that almost everyone living in the U.S. has a secret crush on Iceland. And it sometimes isn’t so secret…)

But I found myself at a loss for the first few months knowing when to use what case when and even if I was getting verb forms right.

What did I do?

Instead of doing the thing I would have done in college and just studied the tables endlessly until their stuck, (TERRIBLE IDEA by the way! Even with memory devices, it might not all stick!) I made a point to listen to Icelandic music every day for months at a time. Even if I couldn’t understand everything, I would be able to detect patterns involving prepositions, pronouns, and the way Icelanders actually pronounce words.

For more on Icelandic slurring, I bring you to my other success story about the Icelandic Language.

 

  1. Icelandic made me think of how, if enough people study a language, it will genuinely have an impact on the language’s future.

 

Few smaller languages (less than 1 million native speakers) are as popular as Icelandic (although Irish might come close sometimes).

I am thrilled to see, especially in light of the 2017 Polyglot Conference in Reykjavik (at which I will be presenting!), hundreds of people taking up the Icelandic Language, seeking to become a part of a culture that sometimes sees itself as under siege (did I mention how often tourists-doing-stupid-things-stories are featured in Icelandic news?)

Whether it be wanting to experience the Icelandic travel bug without leaving your hometown, wanting to experience this ancient culture, wanting to understand other Germanic Languages or perhaps out of sheer curiosity, these people are genuinely ensuring that the speakers of the Icelandic language know that all throughout the world, there are people that think about their mother tongue and want to keep it alive and let other people know about its treasures.

In an age in there are those that fear that a handful of cultures threaten to extinguish all others, I am a glad to be a part of this tradition that helps proudly hold our human heritage to the light.

 

And so can you!

 

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The Day I met Richard Simcott and Alex Rawlings I was wearing this shirt. Two years later, guess where they bring the conference? Coincidence? Maybe not!

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What Good Does a Forgotten Language Do?

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Milwaukee, WI

Everywhere I have been I have encountered people who learned a language to a certain degree and then forgot it. This occurred with languages learned in adulthood as well as those learned in childhood at any stage.

Forgetting a language, in my opinion, seems to pose a bit of a “half-life” scenario, in which knowledge not sustained tends to decrease over time by “halves”.

I have a handful of languages that I have forgotten and cannot form sentences in. French, which I learned as a child, slight amounts of Japanese, Chinese, and also having majored in Classics in college gave me Classical Greek and Latin, both of which have fallen out of use in favor of…ummm…other languages that I would rather devote my time to.

Estonian and Polish have also gone that way for me, although of the forgotten languages that I have, these ones are definitely the strongest (and I didn’t really feel strong in Polish at any point, despite having lived in the country…shame, shame, shame on me…)

Well, good news for those of you who have forgotten languages: there are still some benefits to be had with having learned it.

For one, there are friends made with any language journey that takes place in a public setting. Even in a private setting, there are songs and stories and cultural tidbits that are encountered. Even if the entire language fades, many of these remain, and you would be surprised about how much you may be capable of remembering.

There is a certain discipline that comes with the experience as well, and it is worth to glimpse a culture, however weakly.

I remember one time in the Heidelberg Sprachcafe in which I encountered a Spanish-speaker who had a good friend from Finland and then proceeded to give me basic phrases in Finnish with a very heavily intoned Spanish accent. I was amused and delighted, and you have the power to amuse and delight people just the same with whatever knowledge you may have left.

With a culture also comes a set of texts that you may have been able to read at one point, but can no longer. Even if you can’t read the text any more, the morals of the stories stay with you, as some may some obscure details about the language contained within the texts.

This may also manifest in the form of song lyrics or a tune of a certain song that became popular in your group or study session. Even when I had forgotten virtually all of the Russian that I knew, I did have certain tunes spring to mind from Kino, Mumij Troll, or the Cheburashka short films. With my steadily weakening Estonian, I still have Ott Lepland on my hard drive and those tunes don’t go away as easily!

Learning patterns and discipline and grammar in any form is helpful skill-building. In my Classical Greek classes, I remembered a lot of grammatical terms that became helpful when learning live languages further down the road. They helped me think about these languages more easily.

The fact is, it is a well-known fact that most students in foreign language classes tend to forget the languages due to disuse. But there is a reason that these classes exist to begin with! And you should realize that if you undertook this journey in the past, you still have something of that journey.

And if you undertake this journey in the future, remember that, should you forget it all, you will still have pieces as well.

And those pieces will glitter brightly. More than you think…

My Small Stimulating Samiland: Lessons from Immersion

Last week, during my home visit, I dedicated a handful of hours to speaking nothing else aside from Northern Sami, with my phrasebook in one hand and Giellatekno within reach. The only person who was present at the time was my mother, and I agreed to not avoid English in public (in the event that something needed to be purchased) nor would I refrain from writing it.
Due to time constraints, no video was made, but here are some of my observations:
(1) The Dual Pronouns and Conjugations in Northern Sami weren’t particularly strange after a significant amount of usage. Back when I first started, I had to constantly remind myself not to use “mii” instead of “moai” when there were only two people involved. Given as there was only one other person on the premises during my immersion scheme, I had learned to block the plural pronouns out of my mind completely, except when talking about a peer group or so.

(2) An important thing I noticed is that the language wasn’t about painful grammar tables any more. I had a quick reference in my notebook that I had used for ensuring that I got verbs correct.

After a while, I realized that the most important thing for memorizing the contents of a table wasn’t looking at the table and trying to memorize it (this toxic habit may have been in part due to my having studied Classics in college…a table-memorization binge is certainly not helpful with living languages at all!)

What you must do instead, however, is use the language, if only by talking to yourself, and thereby inculcate the grammatical systems into your conscious in this manner.

This will be particularly helpful later on when I focus more on Faroese, which has a notorious grammar system closer to that of ancient languages. I’m not afraid, however, because now I know exactly what to do! And so do you, for that matter!

(3) I remember giving my Greenlandic phrasebook to someone back when I lived in Heidelberg. He proceeded to take a look through it, and his immediate observation was this:

“It is interesting that, instead of words like “house” and “computer” they have words for, like, “kayak” and “polar bear”. (the fact is, “house” and “computer” did also exist in the book, just not in the first few pages…)

What does this have to do with my little Samiland? Well…in my book, there are two pages devoted to reindeer-related vocabulary, one of the unique features of the Northern Sami Language (and possibly the other Sami Languages? Can anyone help me here?)

I don’t particularly need reindeer related vocabulary when living in an American suburb. Not right now, at least…

Similarly, Giellatekno’s dictionary, the Freelang dictionary, Sami Wikipedia, and the phrasebook all failed to offer any word in Northern Sami for “dolphin”. Therefore, I opted for some vague corruption of Finnish “delfiini” (I cannot remember exactly what I said).

This is something that just simply does not occur with more commonly spoken languages.

One reason I decided to start this blog was because I knew that I would be entering territory that almost no one had entered. Therefore, it is my duty to share these experiences.

(4) Asked to describe Ođđasat (the Sami News Channel) at a party yesterday, I related the following:

“Picture this: Person speaking in Swedish with Northern Sami voiceovers and Norwegian Subtitles”.

My language filter can sometimes have significant problems with this “Kauderwelsch”, even with Swedish and Norwegian being very close to each other.

Therefore, I primarily opted to focus on speaking rather than media in order to hone my skills, because I fear that, more often than not, getting material in 100% Sami is just simply not going to happen (hopefully the future will change this). Even on Kringvarp Føroya (the Faroese Media Service) this is a bit of an issue with Danish spokespeople frequently appearing (although, very interestingly, Greenlandic TV is usually kept in one language at a time).

(5) The very fact that I had devoted time to this endeavor made me excited for the day in which I may end up visiting Samiland. It is difficult to explain the connectionthat I feel toward the land and this culture, I suppose that attraction to cultures and hobbies just cannot be explained at times…

…regardless, there are some language journeys of mine that I have slowed down or sometimes stopped altogether, but this is one that I am very much intent on continuing.

Coming later on this week: a software surprise!