Icelanders Don’t Say Please

And it’s not because they’re impolite–there’s actually just no word for “please” in Icelandic. This discovery has flummoxed many an ISL student other than myself, I think–it seems to be one of the go-to “can you believe this crazy language we’re learning?!” conversational touch-points which people new to Icelandic can all giggle about together.

There are, of course, ways in which you can be polite in Icelandic without having to say “please.” It has a lot to do with tone, for one–whether or not you sound like a jerk when you’re asking for something–but there are also a number of Icelandic phrases which correspond to more polite, conditional English phrasing. For example:

Viltu rétt mér saltið?” — “Will you pass me the salt?”

“Fyrirgefðu, getur þú nokkuð sagt mér hvað klukkan er?” — “Excuse me, can you [maybe, sort of, perhaps be bothered to] tell me what time it is?”

(The “nokkað” adds the extra double layer of politeness here. As it was explained to me, using this word is sort of like telling someone in advance that it’s totally okay with you if they can’t/won’t do the thing that you are asking, such as telling you the time.)

You can also just say “takk,” a lot, inserting this “thank you” as though you were saying “please.”

“Ég ætla að fa einn bjór, takk.” — “I’m going to get [I’d like] one beer, thanks.”

(This is a good default, I think. Just say thank you, all the time, for everything.)

It’s interesting though, isn’t it? Because you don’t really think about it (or at least I haven’t thought about it until recently), but the way in which you convey politeness and courtesy has an awful lot to do with the way the language you speak structures gratitude. I can speak to this with some authority as far as English goes, and I think that any of you who have worked in service jobs or with The Public will agree: just because someone says “please” when he/she asks for (demands) something, does not mean that that person is treating you with respect.

This issue of being polite when asking for something came up in class last week when we were supposed to prepare phrases and sentences to use on a visit to a local swimming pool. These Íslenskuþorpið or “Icelandic Village” exercises require us (the students) to first go to a place (coffee shop, swimming pool, bakery) and just observe things–write down vocab, eavesdrop on conversations, etc. Then, we go to class and prepare ourselves to go to the same place again, except the second time, we have to actually talk to a staff member in Icelandic. It’s a great idea, really–both in that it forces students to go out and try to speak in Icelandic, and also because it prepares a handful of Icelanders for the experience of speaking to someone who has a wonky accent or falters on vocab for a second or two, but can still probably have the conversation in Icelandic, if allowed to muddle through.

As it turned out, on my first recon mission to the pool last week, I had forgotten to bring a towel. No fear, though–they rent towels there and I was pretty sure that I knew all the words I needed to go ahead and get one. (“To rent” was a verb Mark and I learned in our first few weeks here, whilst frantically Google-translating rental ads). So up I went to the counter, all eagerness and trying to be my most polite. “Má ég leiga hanðklæði?” I asked. “May I rent a towel?”

Now, let me just say that I still consider this interaction to have been a success, because guys: I got the towel. Did the whole thing–the asking, the payment, the denial of receipt, etc.–in Icelandic. But when I told my teacher about this later and parroted my awesome, super-polite sentence, she tilted her head a little confusedly and then told me that the phrasing “Má ég…” just doesn’t sound right. She said that this sort of implies that I want something for free, except then, strangely, I asked to rent the towel. So it’s lucky, I suppose, that the lady at the pool was prepared for ISL students to come in and say all sorts of wacky things in Icelandic. Because otherwise, I guess, my efforts at being polite would have just made it hard for me to be understood.

Instead, my teacher suggested that I simply say “Ég vil leiga handklæði, takk.” — “I want to rent a towel, thank you.” Or, if that didn’t feel right, I could ask “Er hægt að leiga handklæði?” — “Is it possible to rent a towel?” And either of these work, really–if I heard these phrases in English, I would think the speaker was being polite, for sure. But it’s just ever so slightly different, just different enough to give me a little moment of pause when I go to start a conversation with someone. Because no one wants to not only butcher a language while practicing, but also insult someone in the process.

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One thought on “Icelanders Don’t Say Please

  1. Pingback: Reykjavik Re-membered | Taksim to Tuscany

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