Áfram 2015!

So, here we are, almost February. The year is well underway and I am happy to say that at least from our vantage point here, it seems to be getting off to a good start. Classes are several weeks in and I’m splitting my time between one rather challenging Translation Studies course (MA level, in Icelandic), an ÍSL (Íslenska sem annað mál, or Icelandic as a Second Language) course which focuses on learning how to write like an adult (thank the lord), and a couple literature classes (including one MA class on Scottish Women’s lit—great so far) which are really just for my own edification and allow me to enjoy the opportunity of like, being in college again and just studying for fun (whoo!). And full disclosure to this academic adventuring: the side benefit of the literature classes is that they are taught in English, thereby removing some of the second-language pressure and allowing me to focus the majority of my attention on the translation class.

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Psyching up for the last exam…

In just over three hours (yep: my second three hour exam in about a week), I’ll be done with my final exam for the semester. This calls for some psyching up, yes? (Now, this isn’t Icelandic, of course, but it is very possibly the best music video that has ever been video-d. Those back up singers! That chorus! That sax! That strange puzzle quest!)

You are gold! GOLD!

Name Dropping in Icelandic

Iceland, as you may have heard, is a pretty egalitarian place. No, things aren’t perfect, but compared to many countries, people are pretty happy and, for the most part, don’t feel like they are somehow more important than other people. As a rule, if you want to interview a famous person, you just call them up on the phone—everyone is pretty much listed in the phone book (with a few exceptions, of course). The prime minister’s office is situated on a very busy, central corner downtown, and, if you want, you can just walk right up to the door, with your horse even.

What I’m getting at is that name dropping, as far as I can tell, is not really a done thing. This might also have something to do with the fact that besides people being relatively down to earth, it’s harder to name drop in a small country where familial connections are both close and well known. “I’m best friends with (FILL IN YOUR ICELANDIC CELEB OF CHOICE)” is, perhaps, less awe-inspiring if the person you’re talking to can reply, “Yeah? S/he is my second cousin,” or “Yeah? I dated his/her sister” or “Yeah? Her mom is my godmother.”

Nevertheless, I can now tell you, dear readers, how name dropping can be done in Icelandic—should the situation arise where you might like to show off about all the super famous people that you know really, really well.

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As Hard as One, Two, Three, (Four)…

Yea, all those many months ago when I started learning Icelandic, I remember having this sudden, stomach-dropping moment of shock when I saw just how many ways there are to say the numbers one, two, three, and four in Icelandic. Unlike the word for five (and all numbers above five), these words decline, you see, meaning that there are forms for each of the four numbers in each of the four cases, in each of the three genders. And to make things super-duper fun, there are plural forms (in the four cases, in three genders) for the number one. (Wrap your (my) non-Icelandic numerically-challenged mind around that: one is a plural number. This eventually makes some sense: consider one pair of blue jeans. But still…ugh.) And oh, there are also the ordinals to learn (these are number words representing scale, like “first,” and “second.”) These also decline, although after all of the above hoop-jumping, their declensions are rather simple.

Short version of this is that it is a miracle that Icelandic children learn to count before the age of twelve. I am still going over all these forms regularly, hoping not to forget them after so much woeful memorizing last year. As it turns out, though, I have yet more number words to learn.

I was just sent a link to an excerpt from Daniel Tammet’s Thinking in Numbers: On Life, Love, Meaning, and Math, called “What is the Icelandic Word for Four?” In the excerpt, Tammet outlines the various forms of the numbers one through four in Icelandic (more elegantly than I do above), and also discusses counting numbers and the abstract concepts of numbers in various cultures and languages all over the world. I was expecting this to be interesting, but not to discover a whole new set of number words. See for yourself:

What about buses? Here numbers refer to identity rather than quantity. In Britain or America, we say something like, “the No. 3 bus,” turning the number into a name. Icelanders do something similar. Their most frequent buses are each known by a special number word. In Reykjavík, the No. 3 bus is simply þristur (whereas to count to three the Icelander says “þrír”). Fjarki is how to say “four” when talking buses in Iceland.

Say what now? I looked up þristur and fjarki, and lo and behold: right there in the dictionary. Buses number three and four. A search for the phrase “bus number” in the online Icelandic-English dictionary yields bus-name-words (shall we call them strætótöluorð?) for busses 8, 5, 4, 9, 7, 10, 2, and 3. But if you look up the declensions of these words (on this awesome site), these new strætótöluorð come up as separate from regular number declensions. So I don’t know where these words came from–whether they are just free-standing words, or derivations of number forms.

I didn’t find a strætótöluorð for bus number 12 in the dictionary, my own beloved route, but in asking around on various message boards, I was told that “tólfan” is the right name for it and that all the strætótöluorð tend to be said in the definitive form. (So, þristurinn – The Three.)

So there you have it. It’s 8:30 AM (where I am) and I’ve already had quite an Icelandic lesson for the day.

Í dag, erum við að tala um ketti…

Tomorrow, I have the first of my final exams: a short oral presentation on cats. It’s a group project and can be no longer than five minutes (it’s a big class), so it shouldn’t be too stressful, but nevertheless, preparing my minute and 10 seconds or so of narration has been a touch nervous-making. We can have notes for the presentation, but can’t just read directly from them, so I need to have a goodly amount of it memorized, or at least mostly-memorized. Which means focusing on pronunciation and grammar on the fly…like in a real conversation, except with note cards.

I thought it would be useful to make a recording of myself speaking my part of the presentation so that I could listen to my accent and see where I slipped up, etc. After a few trial runs, I’m not actually unhappy with the result and feel pretty good about tomorrow’s presentation.

In the event that you are interested in learning a minute’s worth of information about cats and their origins as pets—or perhaps would just get a kick from listening to me talk about cats in Icelandic—I have embedded the video I made of myself reading along with our slide presentation. Below the video, you’ll see the Icelandic text and the English translation. I ran this text by one of my groupmate’s Icelandic husband (very thankful for his corrections), but in the event that I get something wrong and you notice, tell me quick! And cross your fingers for me tomorrow!

Fyrirlestir um ketti (fyrri hluti) from Larissa Kyzer on Vimeo.

Fyrirlestur: fyrri hluti
Lecture: First Part

Í dag, erum við ad tala um ketti—ketti sem eru gæludýr í dag og líka ketti til forna áður en þeir urðu gæludýr.

Today, we are talking about cats—cats which are pets in the present and also cats in days of old before they became pets.

Kettir hafa verið vinsæl gæludýr um mörg þúsand ár. En fræðimenn vita ekki beint hvenær ketti urðu gæludýr.

Cats have been popular pets for many thousand years. But scholars don’t know exactly when cats became pets.

Fræðimenn hafa fundið beinagrindur katta á eyjunni Kýpur sem voru jarðsett með fólki fyrir tólf þúsan árum.

Scholars have found cat skeletons on the island of Cyprus which were buried with people twelve thousand years ago.

Það er mögulegt að fólk byrjaði að temja ketti þegar það tók sér fasta búsetu og hóf að rækta jörðina.

It is possible that people started to tame cats when they established permanent residences and began to cultivate the land.

Fólk þurfti þá ad hafa ketti vegna þess voru svo margar mýs í húsum þeirra.

Then people needed to have cats because there were so many mice in their houses.

Kettirnir voru ánægðir að éta mýsnar og fólkið var ánægt að meindýr spilltu ekki uppskeru þess.

The cats were happy to eat the mice and the people were happy that vermin did not spoil their crops.

Thank You, Iceland: A Reassessment of the Assessment

I met another ISL student yesterday and got a bit of intel on the 1st Year B.A. classes that I would have been taking had I passed the assessment test. This fellow, we’ll call him Marek, was a bit distraught about the curriculum and teaching style in the B.A. Program. According to him, all of his classes, save his grammar class, were completely taught in Icelandic–I believe he said something along the lines of “I’ve been assaulted by Icelandic all morning”–which he was not really prepared for, and frankly, was not what I had been told would be the case in the first year classes. Marek also said that while his grammar class was being taught in English, this was somewhat mitigated by the fact that the course is being taught in a very large classroom by an instructor who speaks very softly and likes to say things along the lines of, “You should already know all of this [insert whatever grammatical rule/declension pattern]–I’m not going to waste my time explaining it to you. That’s not what I’m here for.” Moreover, the students in the B.A. Program are also supposed to be completing the Icelandic Online program, but whereas the students in the Practical Certificate Program (like myself) are supposed to complete level one by the end of the semester, 1st year B.A. students are supposed to finish through level three. Oh, and most of his classmates seemed to be able to easily converse in Icelandic, which they did before, after, and during each class.

After passing this news along, Marek was called back into his class (he had been out during the ubiquitous coffee break), looking a little green. And while he had my sympathies–truly–this was fantastically elevating news for me. I would have been a total wreak in classes like the ones Marek was describing, not because I don’t want to put the effort into learning, but simply because I wouldn’t have the grammatical/vocabulary grounding necessary to do anything other than flounder in them. And that wouldn’t be terribly productive.

So, thank you, Iceland. You gave my ego a bruising, but it was necessary tough love and I am now completely content to be learning your language at the level and pace at which I am now learning it.

So That Happened.

So, yeah. I took that entrance exam yesterday. And guys?

Photo from the University of the Westfjords website

Ég tala ekki íslensku.

I do not speak Icelandic. Which I knew. Because that’s why I’m here, right? To learn Icelandic. It would be a big heaping waste of two governments’ money if I already knew how to do this. And yet. I thought I knew enough Icelandic to be taught Icelandic at the B.A. level. Turns out, this is probably not true.

When I arrived at the test room yesterday, there were a variety of fidgety foreign-looking types like myself milling around and sadly trying to read the sign that was on the door of the test room. (Moment of triumph! I knew what the sign said! “Test in progress–don’t open the door please.” Or, “Test in progress–mind your own business.” Something involving a test being taken and staying outside.) Finally, someone comes over, opens the door, and tells us all to come in. In Icelandic, but with gestures, you know? So we followed.

We come into a room that has test sheets spread out along a bunch of long tables and are directed–in Icelandic–to put all of our stuff along the wall, hang our coasts up, and sit down at a test with an ID in hand. No, I didn’t understand this set of directions. I followed the rest of the people and the gestures and sort of worked it out. At this point, the woman closest to me asked me–in Icelandic–if this was the room for the year one Icelandic exam. I was pretty sure I understood that right, so I nodded, all the while thinking that this is an awful lot of Icelandic being spoken in a room where people are testing into an entry-level Icelandic program. (Cue sweating.)

We are all given a test number and have to show the proctor our IDs to prove that we are who we say we are and not some undercover Icelander looking to score amazing marks on this multiple choice test. We’re told (gestured at) that we can look at our test booklets.

The written instructions are in Icelandic. The rest of the spoken instructions are in Icelandic. The two women behind me ask a few questions of the proctor. In Icelandic.


The proctor throws a few of us a bone and repeats one or two things in English, and then tells us to start. And it is hard. Super duper hard. Like, I know what some of the questions want you to show that you understand (how to decline a noun in a sentence according to the dative tense), but that doesn’t mean that I know the correct answer off the top of my head, and there aren’t any partial points for knowing what you don’t know here. I recognize about 40% 35% of the vocab, if I’m being generous. I do awesome on the question where you are asked to determine if a group of nouns (all fruit) are all examples of fruit (win!), vegetables, meat, or animals. There’s a long paragraph that you have to read which I understand a not inconsiderable amount of: Annette and Snorri moved to Reykjavik with their two young children; Snorri’s parents have lived in Reykjavik for ten years. Annette got a job at the hospital. But then I can’t make heads or tails of the following questions about the passage.

And then: The Written Section. This is the part I had practiced for. A lot. I had practically memorized a not unimpressive paragraph about myself, which I was fully prepared to write out and knock the socks off of all of my future professors. Good thing the question had nothing to do with that, eh? Instead, we were asked to write 10 lines about…um…what we want to do this winter? And maybe what we like to do during the day and at night? And if we traveled? Maybe? I’m really not sure. I was able to write about seven sentences. About how I like to read and look for an apartment in Reykjavik during the day and write in my blog (holla!) and cook with my boyfriend at night and how I came to Iceland to learn Icelandic and I like to needlepoint (really–I learned that word: ‘handvinna’) and oops grammar-is-wrong and oops don’t-remember-any-words and oops have-no-more-sentences. And abort.

There was no point in sitting there for another twenty-five minutes not knowing how to say anything in Icelandic. So I waited until an appropriate number of Icelandic-speaking achiever-types turned in their test and then submitted my own. Went to the cafe, bought a coffee and a Twix bar, spilled some coffee by the register which I lamely tried to clean up with a tissue, misunderstood the question I was asked about whether or not I have a ‘coffee card,’ sat down, and reassessed.

In all honesty, if I can’t pass that test, I should start in the Practical Certificate Program. And had I not been told that the program was kinda weak (by one of the people who designed it, no less), I wouldn’t have thought twice about starting there in the first place (the students who knew they were taking the practical course didn’t have to take any test!). It’s just rather humbling to think that I’ve been preparing all this time, in the manner in which I was told to prepare, and there was basically no way I was going to be up to snuff for that test. I’m left wondering who the target demographic for that BA program is if everyone trying to test into it can already converse in Icelandic. Perhaps it’s a shining endorsement of the Practical Certificate Program, or perhaps it’s meant for people who have immigrated to Iceland and live here already and have already learned to speak some. Or maybe it’s for people who have miraculously been able to take Icelandic at their home universities.

Whatever the case, I just want to get started. I want someone–in whatever program–to teach me to say something (many somethings) in Icelandic. I want to be able to read that sign in the bus about Speed and Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock (really–it bugs me every time). I want to be able to get through an exchange at a cash register. I want to read those adorable picture books I bought the last time I was here, and the translation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches that I found at the flea market.

Whatever the test results, I start on Monday. And that’s a good thing. Áfram með smjörið!

Grammar is Hard: Declensions Are Really, Really Hard.

I’ve been working my way through the Icelandic Online program offered by the University of Iceland so that when I arrive in September I can pass a test that shows that I know enough Icelandic to be taught Icelandic (at a BA level). I’ve been particularly poring over declension, or “the inflection of nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and articles to indicate number (at least singular and plural), case (nominative or subjective, genitive or possessive, etc.), and gender.” [Thanks again, Wikipedia.] If that doesn’t make sense to you–and it didn’t to me until I started learning all this–it basically means that you change the ending of pretty much everything in a sentence (nouns, verbs, pronouns, adjectives) so that they match (each other) based on a bunch of contextual factors, which I’m not even going to try to summarize because it would take a really long time and I’m still figuring this all out myself.

I studied Spanish in high school and college, which doesn’t have declensions, and although English does actually use them (minus the gender bit), they aren’t learned as such, so these are without a doubt the hardest linguistic patterns/grammatical rules that I have ever tried to learn, let alone teach myself.

But no matter–things were going okay. I’ve stared taking note and trying to memorize the gender of nouns as I learn them and also learning what case (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive) each verb “governs.” There are different conjugation patterns for each set of options, so I’ve taken copious notes (with charts! lots of charts!), which I refer to throughout each of my grammar exercises. I haven’t managed to memorize all the patterns yet, but I’ve been getting the gist.

And then, the ringer. Yesterday, my Icelandic lesson introduced declensions for nouns that have a definite article attached (meaning: THE house vs. just any (‘a’) house). And suddenly, this all seemed about a million times harder.

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