Irreverent Icelandic Lessons

Or, Icelandic the fun way.

Icelandic language studies at the university may be characterized by a good deal of national pride in Icelanders’ great literary heritage, the nation’s veritable slew of firsts and per-capita records, it’s unique nature and uniquely bonkers weather patterns, but there is also a fair amount of irreverence mixed in, a willingness to poke fun at certain aspects of Icelandic life or the (stereotypical) Icelandic character, as well as slightly more scandalous (depending on your leanings) mix of study materials and subjects. This has been particularly, delightfully, evident to me in the last month or so.

As many of you might know, the pagan festival of Þorri begins at the end of January and lasts for a month. Þorri feasts, or Þorrablót, have been very popular in Iceland for several decades (the tradition sort of died out and then was revived by an industrious restaurant owner in the late 50s) and, due to the let’s say…exotic…nature of much of the food, have been the subject of a number of televised, gross-out food adventure programs, such as  Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” (he goes to a Þorrablót during his extremely irritating Iceland episode).

Þorramatur, via Wikimedia Commons. The jellied slice with white orbs is, you guessed it, the rams testicles, and the hákarl is in the dish. The sheep’s head is called svið.

I had heard a lot about Þorrablót and þorramatur (Þorri food), but didn’t have the opportunity to go to a celebration last year. This year, however, I got to go to one held by Reykjavík’s Ásatrú association—you know, “on assignment.” A sample of the experience, from my article (full text here):

Filling my plate, I ended up with a veritable rainbow of sausages and pressed meats: pink, red, brown, grey, and a queasy marbled white. Not wanting to look greedy—and honestly, a little unsure that I would make it through the full plate—I skipped the svið the first time out. By accident, I also missed the slices of pressed ram’s testicles. (Full disclosure: I did end up trying the former—it’s…chewy—but skipped the latter. No regrets there.)

Back at the table, my dinner companion gustily carved into her sheep head and explained to me the best method of eating ear cartilage. I took her word for it and tried to show my sympathy when she discovered that her svið was, in fact, missing its most delicious eye. We swapped various unidentified meats. Feeling appropriately decadent, I made a return circuit of the buffet, filling up again on some of my familiar favourites—smoked lamb, salted lamb, and a dark red sausage of a jerky-like consistency. If the woman on my right had not caught me mid-bite and summarily informed me, while daintily cutting up her headcheese, that she did not eat horse “on principal,” I’d have never known the difference.

Well, it just so happened that as I was writing this article, we were also reading about Þorri in one of my classes (I quoted one of my class readings in the piece, actually). It’s one thing to read about þorramatur, however, and a whole ‘nother thing to eat it. So for those of us who had not yet had the opportunity to attend a Þorrablót, our teachers decided to bring the partý to us. So instead of a coffee break, we had a þorra-break, with big tupperware containers of hrútspungar (pressed rams’ testicles) and hákarl (that fermented shark that you’ve heard so much about) for us to sample (much to the dismay of our olfactorily-sensitive vegetarian). “Sure, but did you bring any brennevín?” one of my classmates laughed. “Oh yes,” said my teacher very seriously, placing a full bottle of the “black death” on a desk and asking the student sitting there to start pouring shots.

Which is certainly one way to get students to participate a little more freely. Fun discovery, though: I suddenly didn’t hate brennevín. I’ve had it before and it made me want to die, but third time ’round, standing in class, munching on rotten shark? Yeah, it was pretty good.

Screenshot from Orðbragð - Caption reads "Gunnar J. Gunnarsson, Never Swears"

Screenshot from Orðbragð – Caption reads “Gunnar J. Gunnarsson, Never Swears”

Next up in irreverent Icelandic? Blótsyrði, or curses. As part of a listening exam that we had to complete at home and then turn in, we had to watch another segment of Orðbragð (the RÚV show about the Icelandic language) which dealt, in part, with swearing (if you want to watch, follow the link above and start at 2:09). They talked to a psychologist to ask why people swear, they interviewed passers-by in the mall about their favorite swear words, and they tested two very fit people’s blood pressure when they submerged themselves in a vat of ice-cold water and in one test, were told to shout normal words (like “lamp”) when they would otherwise be swearing, and then later, were allowed to use whatever expletives they wanted.

As part of the exercise, we had to write down all the Icelandic swear words we already knew (some of which had been written on the board for us during class with a “fyrirgefðu” (sorry) to the priest who is one of my classmates), write down the swear words people in the segment used, write down out-of-date expletives…etc. I think the lesson has value, of course—it’s important to be familiar with swear words in a language, even if you don’t use them, and it’s also a kind of fun way to engage a student in a listening exercise. But it was just kind of hilarious. I can’t, in a million years, imagine one of my teachers in the US making a list of all the swear words she knows on the blackboard for the students to copy into their notes, or a test in which swear words had to be repeated.

In the name of education, however, I am happy to drink and swear.

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