Iceland’s complicated language: Just learn to say “thank you”

Hallgrímskirkja Church, Reykjavik

REYKJAVIK, ICELAND – October 24, 2014 – If you happened to hear an Icelandic farmer utter the phrase “Ow ow ow ow ow,” it is not because he just fallen into a rosebush or is bad with hammers. He is simply stating, in a language more confusing than rubix cubes to the colorblind, that “the sheep in the river owns the river.”

While possible, given the abundance of sheep and flowing water in Iceland, that somewhere, somehow, a sheep might in fact own a river, what is more perplexing than a landowning sheep is that somehow, what to the English-understanding ear, sounds like redundant grunting, actually means something.

Hallgrímskirkja Church, Reykjavik
Hallgrímskirkja Church, Reykjavik

Using the Icelandic alphabet, the sentence “the sheep in the river owns the river,” is actually spelled “Á á á á á.” Icelanders, whose alphabet is home to thirty-two letters, has thirteen vowels, countless complex diphthongs, and uses diacritic marks like millennials use hashtags.

The only English cognate found in the language is appropriately “berserk,” which, to a foreigner, is the exact feeling evoked when trying to speak to an Icelander in their native tongue.

So challenging is the Icelandic language to English speakers that when the subglacial volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010, disrupting travel to Europe for millions of people for six weeks and costing the travel industry billions of dollars, journalists covering the story, instead of attempting to pronounce the word Eyjafjallajökull, decided instead simply to call the volcano E15; the letter E representing the first letter and the number fifteen, representing following fifteen difficult-to-pronounce letters.

Despite the language’s complexity, as you hear it spoken or even sung, the words flow out in an effortless, lyrical cascade where one might feel that if he or she pay close enough attention, they just might be able to understand what’s being said.

Unlike English, which has been through many incarnations from Old English to the unfortunate misstep of word/non-words like LOL and OMG, the Icelandic language is exactly as it was a thousand years ago.

A child can read a thirteenth century Icelandic Saga and the language used in it is no different than the words spoken in an episode of a contemporary Icelandic cartoon.

Not the case for an American forth grader trying to plow through Shakespeare.

Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, Home of Iceland's famed hotdog
Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, Home of Iceland’s famed hotdog

In fact, most Icelandic forth graders have not only mastered Icelandic, but have a grasp of English comparable to that of most young children in the United States. This is great for the foreign language resistant, English-speaking tourist. If lost, they need not even ask an Icelander: “Do you speak English?” before asking the question “Where is the McDonalds?” Though they might be surprised when the Icelander tells them in perfect English that the Golden Arches don’t exist in Iceland. Try instead the famed Icelandic hot dog from Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, the small but always busy hot dog stand in downtown Reykjavik.

In my two weeks in Iceland, besides being able to have a limited dialogue about the water and property rights of Icelandic sheep, the only manageable word I came across was a useful one. A one-syllable word that goes a long way in whatever language you say it in and trying to master its pronunciation won’t make you go berserk.

The word is simply “Takk,” which is pronounced exactly as written and is, of course, Icelandic for ‘thank you,” and if you head to Baejarin Beztu Pylsur and get a hotdog with everything, you’ll “takk” me for it.






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  • Kolla

    Actually the Golden Arches did arrive in Iceland, but didn’t make it there. McDonald’s closed down in 2009.

  • Julie

    Fabulous article and beautifully written. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about apart of the world that I have never visited but feel you captured excellently. Thank you for writing and sharing it.