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.

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