Icelandic with an Accent

Just a quick post to share this five-minute (subtitled) film “Ég tala íslensku með hreim” (‘I Speak Icelandic with an Accent’) that a fellow útlendingur, or foreigner, shared with me today. It’s a series of quick interviews with Icelandic speakers who have different native languages, and therefore, different accents when they speak Icelandic. It’s short and sweet, and being as this hits pretty close to home for me, I got quite a kick out of it.


“What is she saying?”


You might think, perhaps, that it’s obvious that people who grow up speaking languages other than Icelandic will have different accents when speaking Icelandic. Það er bara þannig—that’s just how it is. But the fact is that although the percentage of foreigners speaking Icelandic in Iceland is going up (10% percent of the population, I believe the video says), many people still find it surprising (or off-putting, or unintelligible, or maybe just unbearable) to hear Icelandic spoken með hreim—with an accent.

To wit, here are three very recent cases-in-point from my own life (all exchanges, it should be noted, took place in Icelandic):

  • I walk into a bank and explain that I want to make a withdrawal from a bank account in the US and then a deposit the money in my Icelandic bank account using the ATM, but I’m not sure how to go about this. “Sure,” the woman replies, before proceeding to explain to me exactly what I need to know—because she understood the question, you see—in English. I’m sorry, I stop her to say. Will you not speak Icelandic with me? Was my grammar that bad? “Oh!” she says, surprised. “Do you speak Icelandic?”
  • I ask a six-year-old boy in the after-school program that I work at to take a seat and finish his snack so that we can all go outside and play. He looks at me, wide-eyed, somewhat desperate, maybe a little panicky. “I don’t speak útlenska [a word that sort of generically means ‘foreign language’]!” It’s okay, I tell him, you don’t have to speak anything but Icelandic. “I don’t understand útlenska!” he insists. It’s okay, I say, again. I’m speaking Icelandic. “Oh!” he replies, relieved.
  • I’m sitting in the open bar/lobby of a hotel after a literary reading. Two boys—not exactly young, but not fully teenagers, either—are sitting near me, gobbling down candy and sodas and gleefully shocking a pair of older American tourists by saying some pretty rude things (in English), but in such a way that the tourists aren’t sure if the kids are purposefully being jerks (they are) or if they just don’t understand what they’re saying (they do). The tourists eventually get tired of the charade and walk away, leaving the boys to laugh at silly Americans. I start giving them The Eye. They notice, ask me (in Icelandic) if I’m looking at them. , I say. Are you Icelandic? they ask. Nei, I say. But wait, one of them says. If you’re not Icelandic, why did you say nei? Because it’s possible to speak Icelandic without being an Icelander, I explain. They take this in, nod, and return to their candy.

And so, yes, it’s worth putting a face and a voice—and an accent—to people like us second- (or third- or fourth-) language Icelandic speakers so that eventually, daily interactions between Icelanders and Icelandic-speaking foreigners won’t be quite so disconcerting as they sometimes can be. Já, ég líka tala íslensku með hreim.


Campaganza 2016: Hraunborgir

Midsummer is nigh here in Iceland and although our run of astoundingly sunshiney summer days seems to have finally caved to the status quo and gotten rainy again, Mark and I have finally gotten the Summer 2016 Campaganza (that is a camping-extravaganza…the portmanteau maybe didn’t work as well as I was hoping) underway. Having done an absurd amount of research on tents, collected a not inconsiderable amount of gear, and investigated a number of local campground options, we decided to take our inaugural outing this weekend—a sort of test run, if you will, for a longer two-week expedition we intend to take further afield in July.

Because we were leaving later in the day on Friday, we decided to find a campground relatively close to the city and settled on Hraunborgir, a campground/summer cabin community close to Selfoss which boasts a swimming pool, golf course, mini golf ‘course,’ and a rec center where it’s possible to order yourself a pizza and watch sporting events of note, such as Iceland’s just-fine-not-great Eurocup match against Hungary on Saturday.

The weather forecast was, in all honesty, not so spectacular for Friday and Saturday, but waiting for the right weather in Iceland is a distinctly futile exercise, and also, what is the point of finding yourselves a sweet, water- and windproof tent with a sheltered ‘living room’ if you only camp in the driest and sunshiney-ist of conditions? So off we went, getting rather lucky with our weather on the first afternoon and night, even if it did go from being super warm to super chilly quite quickly. Which is when I realized, a bit despairingly, that I’d forgotten both a coat and a scarf.

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Visually Descriptive Vocab: Appelsínuhúð

Hello, Internet!

It’s been forever, I know, and I’m not going to spend too much time at the moment rehashing the time gone by. Suffice to say that I took three translation-related MA courses last semester and worked harder than I maybe have in university ever (and I’ve been in university for a long time now), and whoa was there just a lot to do. So any blog posts that I might have managed during those lost months would have been less cheery/informative/interesting and more along the lines of this.

That bit’s over and done now, though, so I’m going to see about getting back to posting here at least every so often. And what better way to start than with fun vocab!

I was reading through my email this morning and opened one from a local home-delivery website that has daily deals—basically, discounted vacuums and home goods. And one of today’s deals—a product that claims to help one reduce cellulite—yielded up an amazing new Icelandic word. Observe:


The caption reads: 20 day treatment that reduces cellulite. The Icelandic word for ‘cellulite’? Delightfully, it’s appelsínuhúð, which literally means ‘orange-skin.’ Which is a perfectly apt and yet totally imaginative way of describing cellulite, isn’t it? Skin that is covered in little pocks or dimples, like the peel of an orange.

orange peel close up

I don’t think I’ll look at cellulite (or oranges) the same after this, but I will probably remember this word, so that’s something.

And with that, happy 2016, everyone! It’s not a particularly seasonal start to the year, but it’s good to be back, all the same.

By the Time the Sun Goes Down (A Short Short Story)

Harpa photo inspiration for Iceland Writers Retreat writing contest. Via Harpa.

Back in the spring, the Iceland Writers Retreat held a writing contest. Using a photo taken in the Harpa concert hall as inspiration (see above), participants were supposed to write an original short story or essay of no more than 500 words. The winner, chosen by Iceland Travel and a panel of judges, would receive free spot in the 2015 retreat.

Now, that was a pretty good prize and I thought it would be a good excuse to flex those creative writing muscles, so I gave it a shot. And I was pretty pleased with the result. I didn’t win the grand prize, but nicely enough, my story was chosen as one of the 10 runners-up. All ten of these stories, including my own, have been published now on the Harpa website and they even threw in a photo book and free tickets to a fall concert to boot. Not too shabby.

My story was called “By the Time the Sun Goes Down.” Here’s the beginning:

On an evening this clear—the soft pastel light leaping off the glass, bouncing, somehow musically, between the water as it softly plashes against the sides of the harbor boats and the honeycombed windows that I’m sitting here staring through like an idiot—I should really be outside. But while I’ve lived here long enough to know better than to take such a respite for granted, I haven’t lived here long enough to have mastered the art of last minute outdoor adventuring.

Not like my neighbors, for instance, who seem to be in a state of constant readiness. It takes them all of ten minutes to get six mountain bikes, a kayak, a dog, and four clamoring kids packed into their trusty, rusty SUV, anoraks and hiking boots and helmets, pallets of single-serving chocolate milk boxes and plastic-wrapped sandwiches tossed in every which way behind them. Ten minutes. I know—I’ve timed them. The minute the sky clears and the sun comes out, they’re off. I always wonder where they go.

If you’d like to read the rest, it’s the first story on this page. And, if you’re interested, you can read the other runners-up as well: here and here. Happy reading!

“Speaking” a language: a long and personal process

A friend of mine recently shared this short article, “Why I taught myself 20 languages — and what I learned about myself in the process“, which was written by a teen polyglot who apparently had a quick run of fame in 2012.

Normally, I avoid articles that seem to be ‘selling’ (for lack of a better word) a method of language learning, particularly language learning on a fast track, or language training in bulk. For one, because the inevitable comparisons (‘he did it, why can’t I?’ or, ‘he did so much faster!’) are maddening. But also because in the end, I think that language learning is a really personal process that an individual needs to tailor for herself based on her own personal goals, needs, and learning style. So what works for That Guy may work extremely well for him, but it may not work for me at all. It’s not that I’m not open to suggestions or tips ‘n tricks or guidance, because I am—that’s why I’m not studying Icelandic in a cave in the middle of nowhere. But people’s brains work differently, people’s circumstances are different, and there really isn’t one go-to, foolproof way to learn a language, let alone become fluent in it.

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Summertime and Summer Time

We recently celebrated midsummer here, and I wrote about it, as well my general sense of the summertime spirit here in Iceland, for my most recent column in The Island Review. The full piece can be read on their website, but here’s an excerpt:

“Happy summer solstice,” I wished a southerly-dwelling friend of mine this weekend. “I had no idea,” she said, wishing me a happy day in return. “Do you have any local traditions to take part in?”

Now, if you’re talking about traditions along the lines of those our Nordic neighbors partake of during the midsummer season — dancing around maypoles, donning floral crowns, lighting bonfires, and consuming large quantities of fermented fish — the answer is no. (Bonfires are a popular New Year’s tradition here, but the opportunity to freak out a foreigner is generally excuse enough to bust out the fermented fish shark.)

Rather, I’d say that summer is more of a state of mind in Iceland than it is a season, or a holiday, or a set of prescribed traditions. There’s a kind of urgency accompanies the sudden shift from near-constant darkness to near-constant daylight, a sense that while it may not exactly be warm, this is the time to go out and make the most of what several of my coworkers and acquaintances have referred to as “fallegt land okkar”—our beautiful country. Suffice to say, out of office auto-replies are quite commonplace from April to September.

There’s a snippet a little further on, too, which recalls a summer afternoon last year, and which can be nicely augmented by some throwback photos:

I distinctly remember a Saturday later that same summer, notable because it was the only day that season that I was able to sit outside in a sleeveless shirt for more than half an hour. I was out with a group of friends, and making our way to a park, we passed street musicians, people selling crafts, and even a giant inflatable swimming pool where kids zipped up into giant plastic balls could gambol about like bubble-encased sumo wrestlers. Arriving at the park, itself surrounded by cafés with outdoor seating, we plonked ourselves down on the grass, and (excepting a brief and enterprising run to a nearby Vínbuð for a few cans of beer), didn’t move for the next three hours.    

Around us, however, the air was almost literally buzzing with excitement. Every single café table and chair was filled. There were guys strumming guitars, their classic rock covers mingling with the sound of tinny pop music as teens tried to get as much volume as possible out of their phones. Not one, not two, but three bachelorette parties — each with increasingly antic displays of pre-marital liberty — trooped through the clusters of people lounging on the grass. A coworker on her way to a barbeque sat down with us for a bit and debated whether it might not be better to go straight to the beach instead, or maybe she could do both? A young girl walking a bunny on a leash skipped by. Children scrambled up to the tip top of a statue and whooped.

So, enjoy a little piece of summer in Iceland. And after, if you’re hankering for some more midsummer (and midsummer-adjacent) photos, I’ve posted a few on the new and improved photo blog, here.

Happy summer, everyone!

“Exciting things happen when you translate” – An Interview with Christopher Burawa

I’ve been trying to do more reading in Icelandic this summer, both a short novel (slower going than expected) and short stories (faster going—to fudge a term—than expected) and have also been trolling the internet to see what I could discover about literary journals that publish short translations. In the midst of this, I ran across an interesting interview with the poet and translator Christopher Burawa.

In a series of ‘small world’ sort of connections, Christopher studied in Arizona and has also translated several short stories by Kristín Eiríksdóttir into English (one of which, “Holes in People”, was published in Dalkey’s Best European Fiction 2011). Moreover, he’s currently working on translating Kristín’s 2010 collection of short stories, Doris Deyr (‘Doris Dies,’ which in Icelandic sounds a lot like ‘Doris Day’, btw) into English. These latter factoids seem coincidental to me because last summer I set myself a project goal of translating a short story by Kristín from this very collection. I didn’t get very far with this project at the time, but just a few days ago, I pulled out the story again with the intention of fiddling around with it in earnest now.

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A good þumalputtaregla for traveling in Iceland

Image via the University of Iceland’s Vísindavefurinn, answering the question: “Hvaðan kemur orðið þumalputtaregla?” (‘Where does the word ‘þumalputtaregla’ come from?’)

I used to routinely get nervous when I’d travel to a new country—worried that I’d somehow inadvertently offend someone or do something wrong or misunderstand protocol and find myself publicly shamed or yelled at or generally embarassed by my own lack of worldliness. This fear wasn’t entirely unfounded: I received a dressing down (in Danish) for turning off a water tap in a museum bathroom in Denmark (still not sure what went awry there), and I accidentally stole a woman’s seat in a theater in Amsterdam, to her shock and horrified displeasure (she yelled; I moved, trying lamely to explain that I didn’t know that while unassigned, the seating was, after the intermission, pretty much set in stone).

These occurrences aren’t the end of the world, though, and while I still find myself worried that I’ll make a fool of myself simply because I don’t know the unspoken system in a new country or city, a little more travel has gone a long way in alleviating some of my concern. Everyone, after all, is a tourist somewhere. And so, by and large, my go-to þumalputtaregla, or rule of thumb, is to just do my best to not be a jerk.

Don’t be a Jerk. Generally, this works out pretty well. But it’s still nice to have a bit of insight into cultural norms and practices before you go somewhere. To this end, the UK’s Business Insider recently tried to shed some light on common sources of irritation for locals when encountering visitors in their countries. Often, I feel like these sorts of lists are vague or stereotypical, but this time around, I found the Iceland advice pretty spot-on. There was only one rule of thumb mentioned for Iceland: Don’t be overly friendly.” This was drawn from advice given by two Icelandic Reddit users, and as summarized as follows:

“It’s not that Icelandic people aren’t courteous, or would respond unfriendly in the street. We’re just more used to everyone keeping to themselves in public.” – /u/KristinnK

“It’s usually not a good thing to start a conversation with us out of the blue at, say, a museum. […] Saying, ‘Hi, how are you?’ would be the weirdest experience of the week for any Icelander.” – /u/KFJ943

This last one particularly made me giggle because I had just been trying to explain the general look of confusion that one (often an American, I might add) will get if she starts any kind of interaction in a shop (or cultural institution or coffee shop or restaurant) with chit-chat. Namely, “Hi, how are you?” Response: [Confused head tilt.]

As an interesting point of comparison, check out one of the answers given by someone in Norway:

Don’t ask people how they’re doing unless you’re ready to get deep. “We will give an actual answer.” – /u/maiset

Back to this issue of friendliness, however, I would probably suggest that the opposite advice should be given to travelers to the US: always start your interactions with a little chit chat. How are you today? Hi, there, how you doing? Unlike Norwegians, we will probably not respond to a stranger or acquaintance with a full-blown narrative of all of our ills (that would be weird), but we will appreciate that you’ve made the attempt to connect with us on a basic—and most importantly, friendly—level. Of course, this depends on where you are in the country, but boy, howdy, we Americans do (generally) love our pleasantries.

This suggestions didn’t come up for American advisors, however. Rather, they suggested that visitors don’t smoke weed in public, even in places where it is legal (seems like a no-brainer to me, but then again, similar to advice was given by Dutch people to travelers in Amsterdam), don’t stand too close while waiting in line (a distance of an arm’s length was advised), don’t imitate a Southern accent, and don’t assume the whole country is the same. Maybe not the specific collection of advice I would have given someone, but probably not bad places to start. (That not standing too close thing rang true for me—I didn’t realize I had a thing about being crowded until I moved out of the States.)

And that is your friendly Traveling-In-Iceland PSA for today. The More You Know, guys.

I, Alone

I just spent a lovely ten days with my parents and sister on their recent visit to Iceland. We got to do a fair amount of out-in-the-country-ing, a fair amount of just-normal-life-ing, a fair amount of errand-running, an awesome bit of horse riding, and I even got all three of them to go sea swimming with me, because they are heroes. (My dad in particular gets a shout out for swimming around the cove with me and making sure I didn’t have a panic attack when the Inferi seaweed started tickling my toes.) So as of today—National Day, as it happens—things are slowly returning back to normal here for me. Although ‘normal’ is actually not normal at all, as I now find myself in the midst of a real sumarfrí—summer vacation, that is—without a daily job or school assignments or any of that. (I’ll cope, I promise.)

Valdimar Thorlacius - Photo by Vilhelm, Vísir

Valdimar Thorlacius – Photo by Vilhelm, Vísir

So I’m going through my email and catching up on news and things that happened while I was basically off the Internet, and I’ve been pleased to see that a book of photography by Icelandic photographer Valdimar Thorlacius has been getting a fair amount of attention since it was released at the start of the month. This pleasure is twofold. On one hand, it is a beautiful book of photography on a fascinating subject: the daily lives of hermits in Iceland. On the other, I’m also excited because I translated the accompanying text—excerpted interviews with the photographed individuals—and did so over the course of a weekend. I had editing help, of course, but truly, this is the most extensive (and fastest) translation project that I’ve yet undertaken, made all the more interesting/complicated by the fact that the interview subjects were often talking about the daily circumstances or details of their childhoods on rural farms in Iceland (not a milieu that I’m super well-versed in yet) and also generally had rather roundabout/old-timey colloquial ways of expressing themselves. They are hermits, after all. So I learned a lot doing this translation, not just linguistically, but culturally and historically, too.

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“I am Icelandic because I speak Icelandic.”

Back in February—a lot happening that month—I was contacted by Patrick Cox, a journalist who, among other things, runs “The World in Words” podcast for Public Radio International. For those of you with nerdy linguistic leanings (or totally hip linguistic leanings, as the case may be), I encourage you to check it out. It’s a fascinating podcast that looks at language from a socio-cultural-historical perspective and since subscribing myself, I’ve learned about the popularity of hesitation words ‘um’ and ‘uh’ around the world (as well as which genders tend to prefer which word), the origin of the game Mafia, C.K. Moncrieff, the fascinating man who translated Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (and gave it its famous English title), and more.

All of this would be interesting enough to merit a shout-out, but the reason I bring this podcast to your attention now is that based on his visit in February, Patrick has now put together two podcasts about the Icelandic language. And—whoot, whoot—I am (briefly) quoted in one of these. Full disclosure: mine are not the most brilliant contributions on the state of the Icelandic language. But nevertheless, Patrick and I had a lovely chat about Icelandic—a rather invigorating one, I might add, at a point when I was feeling a bit down about the language and my handle on it in general— and I’m delighted to have been a part of his investigations.

I really encourage you to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes (or whatever the kids are using these days), but you can also listen to each episode (17 and 15 minutes respectively) on the World in Words website. There are also written transcripts of both (although they’re abridged, actually—more of me in the podcast version!), but as Patrick says, its preferable to listen to these, as they were all conducted as spoken interviews.

Here’s part one (which I’m included in):

Will Icelanders one day ditch their language for English? (17 min)

Here’s part two:

The future of the Icelandic language may lie in its past (15 min)