Visiting Iceland: Talking to the Natives

[This is part of a series of posts on a trip to Iceland by our family of 5.]

Icelandic is a foreign language.  With a bit of effort, English speakers can figure out many words by just thinking about our own German antecedents.  Failing that, you will find that many (all?) Icelanders speak excellent English.  There was never a moment on the trip that we couldn’t either figure out information or ask for help.

We watched RUV news not because we understood but because the language is really lovely to listen to.  It reminded us of Welsh.  We also listened to the radio, although North American music was in heavy rotation.  RUV has streams, so you can get a feel for it before you visit.  There are characters in Icelandic that don’t exist in English but when I asked someone how ð (which is written very much like a d but with a cross, like a t) and þ were pronounced, they were very helpful.

You can quickly get yourself oriented if you memorize a handful of suffixes:  foss for waterfall, for example, or vatn for lake or veg for “way” or route (think German “weg”).  They can act as building blocks for other functions:  adding vatni (water, from the word for lake) to your Knorr noodles will enable them to boil and cook.  I realize that it has a meaning, but I tended to ignore any ur endings since they have something to do with the form of speech, not the word itself.

One of my favorite discoveries on the trip was the connection between my own Irish heritage and the Irish who spent time in Iceland’s early history.  When an Icelandic person says “yes”, they may use the normal word (ja, which sounds like yowl) or they may inhale it, creating an ingressive sound.  Here’s a quick Youtube video of what it sounds like.  Some of my Irish relatives do the same thing, saying yes but inhaling it.  I’ve now seen it called the gaelic gasp.  We caught an RUV radio drama and there was a young actor on it who used the inhaled yes almost exclusively.

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