Language-Learning and Fluent Slang: It’s Hard All Over


Sometimes when I open my university account to check on assignments etc, I spend some time browsing the smáauglýsingar, or classified ads. They are short and often interesting, and usually involve more talmál—spoken,  colloquial language—than I encounter on a regular basis. Here is one from today (with the poster’s personal details removed, obv):

Trommara Vantar
I was drawn to this ad for one reasons initially: I mistook the word “trommari” (here declined to “trommara”) for trumpet player (trompetleikari, actually) and was really intrigued by the idea of a “doom-band” with a trumpet player. Alas, that is not the idea, but the ad was interesting for other/additional reasons. It reads:

Trommara vantar í doom metal band. Þarf að nenna að spila hægt, vera ligeglad og nett(ur) og vera ekki að flytja úr landi. Við erum fjögur á aldrinum 21-25. Frekari upplýsing/spurningar/whatever í pósti [email address omitted].


Drummer wanted for doom metal band. Needs to be willing to play slowly, be [ligeglad] and cool and not be moving out of the country. We are four in between the ages of 21-25. More information/questions/whatever to email…

Why is this interesting, Larissa? Well, let me draw your attention (back) to the bolded word ligeglad.

I couldn’t find this in a dictionary when I looked it up and moreover, the spelling didn’t, to my eye, look super Icelandic. A word that I cannot easily define is usually something slangy or colloquial, so I put a little more effort into tracking it down so that one day, I can talk just like The Kids and fit in and be Super-Kul. So I google the mystery word and find a couple things:

Firstly, this entry on called “Íslendingar hafa misskilið orðið “ligeglad” í áratugi!” which means “Icelanders have misunderstood the word “ligeglad” for decades!” The gist of this post is that this is a Danish word which means something along the lines of indifferent. Nevertheless, the word—according to the poster—is frequently misused by Icelanders to mean something along the lines of “relaxed,” “laid back,” or “casual.” Per the post:

Sem dani finnst mér það mikið klúður og pínlegt þegar td. Hagkaup auglýsir Danska daga með orðunum „oh ég er svo ligeglad“ eða enn fáránlegra þegar maður heyrir islendinga segja við dani „Danir er svo ligeglade” Þá ertu ekki að hrósa honum fyrir að vera afslappaður, heldur ertu að segja á neikvæðum nótum “danir eru kærulausir og allveg sama”

As a Dane, it seems really confusing and embarassing when, for instance, Hagkaup [ed. note: Hagkaup is a sort of Icelandic Target. They also host “American Days.“] advertises “Danish Days” with the words “Oh, I am so ligeglad,” or still more absurd, when you hear Icelanders say to a Dane, “Danish people are so ligeglade.” Then you are not praising him for being relaxed, but rather you are saying (with negative meaning) that “Danes are indifferent and don’t care.”

Around the same time (2010), the Icelandic website Pressan posted “Nú er okkar alveg sama” which mentions, incidentally, the same Hagkaup ad:

Það ágæta fyrirtæki Hagkaup auglýsir nú af miklum móð danska daga sem verslunin heldur hátíðlega þessi dægrin.

The fine company Hagkaup is now advertising Danish Days non-stop which the store celebrates festively today.

Útvarpsauglýsing fyrirtækisins hljómar í sífellu í íslensk eyru: Nu er vi ligeglad.

The company’s radio advertisement heard continually by Icelandic ears: Nu er vi ligeglad.

Sumir Íslendingar virðast halda að danska orðið ligeglad lýsi einhverjum huggulegheitum og nánast notalegri afslöppun. Svo er þó alls ekki. Sögnin ligeglad þýðir að vera bara alveg nákvæmlega sama um hlutina. Rétt þýðing á auglýsingu þeirra Hagkaupsmanna er því: Nú er okkur alveg sama.

Some Icelanders seem to use this Danish word ‘ligeglad’ to describe something cozy and a sort of friendly casualness. But that’s not it at all. The verb “ligeglad” means to just be indifferent about things. The right translation of Hagkaup’s ad is: Now we don’t care.

There are several points to this digression, none of which involves an intention to mock people for using a foreign word incorrectly, because goodness knows, I can’t escape that in my daily life. Rather, this whole discovery reinforced several simple truths for me:

  1. It is really hard to correctly use slang in another language. Sometimes that means it is hard to pick up another language’s slang and use it while speaking that (same) language. And sometimes, as with ligeglad, that means that it is hard to know how to use a slang word from another language when speaking a totally different language. (As another, rather hilarious and well-known incident involving the latter, those of you not offended by reading “strong language”, see this example of department store advertising gone horribly wrong; the rest of you, take my word for it.)
  2. It is hard for everyone everywhere to use their second language correctly. Icelanders still learn Danish in schools (probably not as much as they used to), and it is a commonly understood language here and yet, many people—from a large company to young musicians forming a doom metal band—are using this word  “incorrectly.”
  3. Language is fluid and words do actually change meanings/adopt meanings/evolve. See: “gay,” “awesome“…even “literally” now has a figurative, non-literal definition. I know there are people who hate this kind of fluidity—speakers of English, Icelandic, French, etc. etc. etc. often get angry when they believe that a language is being somehow “compromised” or “watered down.” But I think this is one of the most amazing things about language. You start with one meaning and slowly, over time, people self-generate a new one. Neato.

9 thoughts on “Language-Learning and Fluent Slang: It’s Hard All Over

  1. When used colloquially, ‘nettur’ is just a positive adjective meaning cool, fun or nice. Literally it means ‘slim’.
    ‘Af miklum móð’ would mean ‘nonstop’ in this context. It can also mean ‘with great force or energy.’

    I like to think that ‘ligeglad’ has just taken on a different meaning when used as a slang in Icelandic, similar to the word töff (tough). We just have to remember that it doesn’t mean the same thing when speaking Danish 🙂

    • Hæ, Margrét-

      Thanks for letting me know about the words/phrases I wasn’t sure of. It definitely is interesting to see a word like this popping from one language to another and taking on a whole new meaning. Is ligeglad a word that is used a lot in conversation?

      • No problem 🙂 I’m a language nerd and want to be a translator, so it’s my pleasure.
        Ligeglad is definitely not used a lot. I thought it was a word that older people used more than younger people, but clearly cool young doom band people use it.

  2. I love this post, both from a language learning point of view – the fact that you put in that extra effort to learn colloquialisms shows how dedicated you are – and from a linguistic one. The point about language changing is absolutely spot on and one of the most interesting things I find about languages, especially the ones that I’m learning – it’s fun to see the way different languages intersect and how the speakers adapt language for their own use.

    So yes, good post 😀

    • Hi, Charlotte, and thank you! Given how many languages you are studying, I’m sure you run across this sort of fluidity quite often—although maybe you see it from a different angle given that Spanish and German and Mandarin and Russian (wow, by the way. just wow) probably interact less with each other less than Danish and Icelandic or Spanish and English etc. But yes, language really isn’t the set-in-stone thing that most of us have been taught that it is.

      Have you noticed any interesting word adoptions or meaning shifts that are similar to this?

      • We’ve been talking a lot – especially this year – about the spread of English in Europe, so a lot of anglicisms have come up, especially in German. A lot of them are to do with technology (twittern – to tweet, klicken – to click, liken – to like something on Facebook), but there are a few strange ones that I think are used as colloquialisms more than anything else, even though the meaning might not necessarily change that much.

        For example, last night I was reading Harry Potter the word ‘kidnappen’ came up. German has its own word for ‘to kidnap’, obviously, so I figure this is one of those examples where the anglicised word is being used by younger people.

        I don’t know about slang where the meaning changes particularly though… I think there’s quite a bit of usage of English in Mandarin, again with younger people, but it’s not as widespread as it is with German.

        I’m definitely going to keep a look out for it now, though. I forgot how interesting a topic this is! 🙂

  3. Pingback: Media Monday: Anglicisms in Harry Potter | 学习Sprachen

  4. Hi, Larissa,
    The word in question just recently came up in a reading I’m doing of a book review published in Information.DK by Jannie Schjødt Kold, 31 Jan,2014.
    …”København er det nemmeste sted at bo, men det er ligegyligt, om jeg handler i den nærmeste Brugs [a location on the island of Langeland?], for der åbner bare noget nyt, hvis jeg ikke gør.” Here the meaning seems to be “indifferent” or something like “doesn’t really matter.” Further explorations on reveal a huge range of meanings. The word can take on the coloration of it’s surroundings like some tropic reptilian.
    My sense of what’s being said is that København is an easy place to live but that it doesn’t matter if the guy lives there or not, he being able to do whatever he wants in nearby Brugs, anyway, where opportunities arise pretty readily.
    Yeah, I agree with your conclusions. Language-ing is like exploring a newly-discovered region in the Amazon, like studying natural history and ecology. I think people want their language to be set and unchanging, as a source of security, but also want to use it to enhance their individuality. Borders are always being crossed.

    • It’s interesting to see (or rather, be told, since what Danish I had has all but disappeared) the word come up in its source language and see the variations there, too, Pete. Thanks!

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