I Want to Learn Icelandic. Where Do I Start? What Do I Do?

Presenting, yet again, the language that I’ve seen people quit the most…but one reason that a lot of Icelandic learners struggle is because they don’t know of (1) avenues to practice and (2) avenues to actually use Icelandic on the Internet.

I remember back when I was fluent in only a handful of languages (English and Yiddish were fluent, and Hebrew, Norwegian and Swedish were getting there, not to mention the various pieces of Russian, Spanish and Ancient Languages I had learned in college and my Polish from my time living in Krakow) that I wanted to try my hand at Icelandic and the only thing I ever managed to retain from that time was a few sentences:

 

Hvað er að frétta? – Sup? (Note to learners: Hv is actually pronounced with the H closer to a “K” sound in English”, so this would be “kvath er ath fryetta?” Keep in mind that ð, normally pronounced like a soft “th” sound, will fall out in quickly spoken speech)

And

Allt í lagi – Everything’s in order, OK, all good, and a dozen other meanings besides. You want to get in the habit of not pronouncing that g. That tends to fall out in quick speech too.

 

And, of course, basic greetings, like “bless!” (bye!) and “bless bless!” (bye to you too!)

Then I gave up and didn’t return until 2014, when I was in JTS. I remember it was at a Hanukkah event that I proudly told my friends that I had my first exchange in Icelandic. What a good day that. I have a vague memory of people throwing dreidels across the table, and speaking in German to my then-RA.

But one thing I’ve noticed since that time: the possibilities to practice Icelandic have just mushroomed, even if you have no access to native or fluent speakers of Icelandic where you are. This trend shows no sign of stopping, and that’s excellent for you!

So I’ll open up my toolbox and I’ll give you some websites and resources I heartily recommend.

  1. Anki

 

Anki, a flash-card program based on spaced repetition, is something I find helpful, and literally the best Anki deck I’ve ever encountered is this one:

https://ankiweb.net/shared/info/257529691

Native audio, very good pronunciation pointers, as well as a selection of sentences that actually not only highlight grammar points in a way you’ll enjoy them but also are very useful! Make sure to listen to the audio with each sentence.

I would recommend this if you’re having a lot of passive understanding of the grammar but don’t really have a good grasp of your irregular verbs or cases when you speak.

 

  1. The Transparent Language Blog

Right when I began learning Icelandic for the first time in 2012 / 2013 (and in February 2013 I actually taught a mini-Icelandic class…IN HEBREW), this blog was just coming into existence. A lot of very important cultural pointers are provided (and this is essential, given that Iceland is a place where details about the local culture are shared frequently at home and abroad).

You’ll feel like you’re genuinely coming to know the culture and the Icelandic way of thinking better with each post.

What’s more, here’s a huge collection of listening materials for Icelandic learners of all ages. Have a listen!

http://blogs.transparent.com/icelandic/2017/06/26/listening-exercises-abound/

If you have a Transparent Language account via your library (for free) or a personal account thereof (in which you pay for one language), you can also use it to have a significantly large collection of Icelandic flashcards. With the library account, you can get many other languages besides! What’s more, the Desktop version of the app is really good at gamifying the learning process and you’ll have so many ways to study it!

  1. Icelandic Disney Princess

 

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCf-_ldtTW1kqSF9FRwSEDIw

 

One thing that will make you a hit at any karaoke bar and get everyone talking to you is if you sing a Disney Song in Icelandic.

Even if the words on the screen show the English words, just have your phone with the Icelandic text and sing along! Almost all Karaoke organizers I’ve met have enabled this and I’ve gotten standing ovations out of this practice in Icelandic and in many other languages!

Yes, Disney’s animated canon is FULLY LOCALIZED in Icelandic with all of the songs RHYMED.

Icelandic Disney Princess creates videos of the songs with Icelandic lyrics AND English translations on the screen. You’ll really learn about how the language works in a poetic fashion this way, as well as the whole “learn while having fun” thing.

As to finding the full-length films, that’s another thing but it’s REALLY hard to do unless you live in Iceland (or maybe places like Gimli, Manitoba…where Icelandic-speaking populations reside).

 

  1. Colloquial Icelandic

 

Fun fact: this book was actually written by a native speaker of…Dutch? But, in my opinion, it’s really well put together, has very handy (although intimidating) grammar in the back, and as per all of the Routledge Colloquial series the audio is available for free online whether or not you own the book!

(My understanding is that they did this because they couldn’t keep up with YouTube language tutorials. But hey, for some languages like Breton and Tibetan it’s probably the best audio guide out there!)

 

  1. Rökkurró

 

Here’s an archived version of their website with all of their lyrics (together with their English translations) to date:

https://web.archive.org/web/20160710213851/http://rokkurro.com:80/

Rökkurró’s music is a profoundly soulful experience and also conveys many an emotion present in a wandering throughout the Icelandic countryside. Probably among the most poetic lyrics I’ve ever heard in my life, these texts are not something you forget easily.

Despite that (or perhaps because of it), these texts are fairly accessible and even for the beginning student there is a lot to be “juiced” out of these lyrics in terms of sentence structure and common verbs.

And (with a mischievous smile) see if you can guess what this song is about, just by listening to the melody:

 

  1. Clozemaster

 

The one language learning tool that I was addicted to the most, unlike I went to Myanmar and then my 150+ day streak in Icelandic turned into a goose egg.

Clozemaster.com has 9,000+ Icelandic sentences that you can sort for frequency and this will not only help you learn grammatical structures (SUPER important in Icelandic!) but also train you to read with ease.

I know how tempting it is to just simply see an Icelandic text, see long words and easily run away from it. You have to build up to having it not be scary and Clozemaster is here for you.

 

  1. Ásgeir Trausti

 

One time I was teaching a Hebrew/Swedish double feature in a chain restaurant (out of convenience because that’s where my student wanted me to meet).

I had heard Ásgeir Trausti’s music in Icelandic many times before, but little did I know that English translations of his songs became very popular in the English-speaking world.

Upon an English lyrical version of this song on the restaurant radio, I was so shocked that I almost dropped all my books on the floor:

 

 

“This is originally an Icelandic song!” I said in an incredulous high-pitched voice, “I had no idea I would hear an Icelandic song in an American chain store!”

And then apparently, upon doing some research, the song in question is “King and Cross”, which is one you’ve heard before, no doubt.

 

  1. RUV

 

“Ríkisútvarpið”, may look scary to you at first, but as an English speaker you actually recognize all three components.

This is why Icelandic is easier for you as an English speaker than you think.

It means “national broadcasting corporation” but if I translate it as “Reich out warp”, you can see exactly how that transfers into the long Latinate words you would recognize (although “broadcast” is not Latin in origin).

Lotsa stuff to watch. Give it a watch.

 

  1. The Fantastic World of Icelandic Gangsta Rap

 

WARNING: Not for beginners. At all.

This is more like “Icelandic learners with a vaguely masochistic side”.

Aside from using a lot of English loanwords, the Rap scene in Icelandic is littered with references that you would just barely understand as an outsider.

To that end, some lyrics are posted on genius.com with annotations (in Icelandic) explaining many of the finer aspects that may not come to you when rappers are speed-reciting their texts). And you may have to translate a lot of the texts yourself, but hey, that’ll be fun, right?

However, I did try to find something significantly tame for learners and here’s one song I’d definitely like to share (and probably the most straightforward for intermediate or even beginning learners), an ode to Reykjavik, the city that is ours and that never sleeps:

 

And I look forward to seeing Reykjavik again in October!

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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!