Icelandic Tounge-Twisters!

After a quick stop in Austin, Texas (urban epicenter for food trucks, “floating,” and perhaps one of the most genius breakfast gifts known to man: the breakfast taco), Mark and I have made it to Maine, where we will be spending our last month in the US. It’s been a useful progression back to Iceland, actually: we started in Arizona, got our fill of sunshine and heat, picked up lots of pool-time in Austin, and are now back in a place where you kinda still need a (light) sweater in the summer.

But the other thing about being in Maine is that now that my work schedule will be sporadic at best, I finally have time to rededicate myself to Icelandic and re-solidify/re-learn all the stuff that has started dribbling out of my head in the last two months. To this end, I started perusing through Transparent Language’s Icelandic Language Blog (highly recommended–a good mix of linguistic tips/explanations and culture articles) and found a real gem: Icelandic Tongue Twisters.

I listened to these three times and failed, each time, to a) get through one of them without laughing like a child or b) find myself able to repeat any of them. But even the lady reciting them–first slowly and then incredibly fast–seems to have had some trouble wrapping her mouth around the phrases, as there is a blooper reel at the end of the clip.

So, for your tongue-twisting pleasure, I present:

Google Translate: A Cautionary Tale

Not a skræpa.

In discussing the various language-learning resources that students of Icelandic should be aware of, one of my professors last semester commented that because Icelandic is a “small” language, finding comprehensive dictionaries–even to/from commonly spoken languages like English or German–can be difficult. I have certainly found this to be true myself. Even reading kids’ books in Icelandic, I often have to employ a whole battery of dictionaries and cheater methods of varying levels of ingeniousness in order to figure out what a single word means.

Example: I read a book called Það var skæpa last semester, which means It was a pigeon. Except “skræpa” is not the normal everyday word for a normal everyday pigeon (that’s dúfa, for reference). Instead, skræpa is a word for a sort of mangy pigeon–the mutt of pigeons, if you will. The kind of pigeon that New Yorkers refer to as a “rat of the sky” and kick at violently instead of sweetly feeding bread to. The dictionary that I generally use online, however good it can be sometimes, did not include this nuanced variation on pigeon breeds. And since the word didn’t appear in the text in the book until about halfway through, my teacher-provided glossaries didn’t have the word on the vocab list, either.

It bothered me that I didn’t know what the title of the book I was reading meant, so I tried to be clever. I Google image-searched the word “skræpa,” hoping to turn up the word in an article or post, in context. Try this, if you’d like. You’ll get pictures of pigeons, yes, but also a whole lot of cows, which definitely confuses the issue. (Yes, there were illustrations in the book I was reading, but I wanted to be sure about what it meant.) Anyway, a whole variety of Google results eventually helped me confirm, for certain, that skræpa (this totally useful word that I am going to use in life all the time), means “mangy pigeon.” But not before I ran across an article in the newspaper about a woman who had been found dead in a pigeon coop, surrounded by skræpa-s. Which again, confused things for me for a bit.

Alongside the online dictionary that I often link to in this blog, I also have a pocket dictionary, and an illustrated Icelandic version of Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever for kids (in Icelandic, My First Dictionary) which is actually really helpful, and, in some cases, Google Translate. Google Translate, I hasten to add, wouldn’t be recommended by any language instructor. And it is frequently missing words, or translates into wonky phrases. (It also occasionally renders proper nouns which only have an Icelandic context into different proper nouns which have a context familiar to English speakers, which is a whole other rabbit hole of problematics.) But sometimes, it helps show how a phrasing you don’t understand can be rendered cleanly in English, and sometimes it has words that the online dictionary, and the pocket dictionary, and the Richard Scarry picture dictionary, and Google image search don’t have. It is basically one’s last line of defense in language learning.

But, of course, you have to keep its shortcomings in mind and pay very close attention to the translations that it is giving you. As a particularly wonderful case in point from today, I give you:

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A Visit to the Christmas Village in Hafnarfjörður

As you may have gleaned from recent posts, Icelanders really, really, really like Christmas. (Someone told me that “the Christmasy spirit makes the winter feel shorter.”) As such, there is a whole lot happening in and out of town this time of year, and it is actually very hard to avoid getting all Christmasy oneself.

I picked up a handy Reykjavík Christmas 2012 Guide to help me navigate all the events, but it turns out that information is all compiled online, too, on this Jólaborgin Reykjavík (Christmas City Reykjavík) website. There’s oodles of fun information there, including in detail explanations of Icelandic “Christmas Creatures” (including the Christmas Cat and the Yule Lads), and a practically minute-by-minute breakdown of an Icelandic Christmas Eve celebration (as well as what people generally do on the days before and after).

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One of the seasonal attractions that kept coming up–both in the above-mentioned brochure and also signage around Reykjavík–was the Christmas Village in the nearby town of Hafnarfjörður. Since we had never been to Hafnarfjörður and thought a weekend excursion might be nice, we headed out there on Sunday. It was a very good day for it–sunny (once it rose, that is), crisp with a bit of a bite–and although the Christmas village itself was rather small and mostly geared toward families with small kids (understandably) we had a nice time sipping hot chocolate (in real glass mugs that the lady sweetly asked us to bring back when we were done) and wandering around for a little bit in the downtown area as well.

Popping into an antique shop that was open, we also had an enjoyable encounter with the proprietor, who, with cowboy-booted legs up on his desk and arms behind his head, casually asked Mark where we were from. When Mark said New York, the man replied that he had been there in the 1970s, and “didn’t get mugged or anything. You just gotta walk the walk and talk the talk,” he explained, before giving us his best New York-accented impression of him giving a cabbie directions. He asked why we were in Iceland and when I said I was studying Icelandic, he just nodded and said, “good for you.”

(I took some additional photos around Hafnarfjörður harbor, which you can see here if you are interested.)

A Student By Any Other Name…

A couple weeks ago, midterm tests were handed back in one of my classes. You’d think this would be a relatively simple process, but it actually revealed some very interesting cultural confusion surrounding names. To start off, though, here’s a little background on Icelandic names and naming conventions, which many of you are no doubt familiar with:

  • Icelanders use patronymics (and, in rare cases, matronymics) instead of last names (family names). This means that someone’s second name is formed by combining their father’s first name and the ending -son or -dóttir depending on the individual’s gender. So Anna Björnsdóttir is Anna, daughter of Björn. Her brother is Karl Björnsson, or, Karl, son of Björn.
  • Patronymics don’t fill the same formal roles that last names do in places like the U.S. You will never hear an Icelander referred to as Mister or Miss (Ms.) Björnsson or Björnsdóttir. In formal situations, a full name or a title may be used, but in general, everyone is just referred to by their first name. This includes teachers, religious leaders, your best friend, famous people, the prime minister–everyone.
  • Alphabetization is then done by first name. This applies to everything, including phone book listings and government/formal records.
  • Although many Icelanders are not terribly religious, Iceland does have a national church. (Whether this should continue has been debated quite a bit over the years, but in October, when voting on whether or not to create a revised constitution, 57.5% of Icelandic voters said “yes” to the question “Would you like to see provisions in the new Constitution on an established (national) church in Iceland?” So the national church doesn’t seem to be going anywhere for the time being.) On an official basis, Iceland has been a Christian country since somewhere around 1000 AD. This long Christian heritage cannot help but show up in the language from time to time.

Keeping the above in mind, here’s a replay of the episode with midterm returns:

The teacher asked for students whose names started with ‘A’ to come to the front of the room and pick up their papers. She meant students whose first names started with A, but didn’t specify, of course. A student who happens to be from Iran got up to collect her paper, but it is her last name that starts with A, not her first.

The teacher leafs through the stack of A name midterms and doesn’t find the Iranian student’s paper. “What is your name?” she asks. The student gives her last name.

“No–your name,” the teacher replies, a little vexed. “Your Christian name.”

At this point the student–who I am going to make a generalized, but educated guess is a) not Christian and b) has not heard the phrase “Christian name,” which is, honestly, a bit of an old fashioned and British-derived (?) term for “first name” or “given name”–stops short. She says something about not having a Christian name. This then completely flummoxes the teacher, who knows that the student standing in front of her must be called something. It takes about three students yelling various things at both teacher and student–“Well, it’s not a Christian name, is it?” and “She means your first name!”–to sort things out for both of them.

A reminder, perhaps that even things which seem totally straightforward and universal–such as one’s name–can be a big source of cultural confusion, and not just for foreigners in their adopted country. I don’t think it occurred to the teacher to explain that she was distributing papers by first name–it just seemed self-evident to her.




Do You Know Why We Say Skál?


“Do you know why we say ‘skál’ when we drink here? Because back in Viking times, when they would win a battle, they would chop off the top of their enemy’s skulls and drink from them.”

-Waitress, unperturbed, after hearing us ‘skál’ before drinking the beer she’d just served us. She later gave us three or four milkshake and smoothie samples from the leftovers she was churning out for brunch customers.-