Iceland: The Viking Language Saga

Published on: 2012/08/07
Iceland: The Viking Language Saga

Alice laughed, “There is no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.” 

“I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” – Alice in Wonderland

I keep being mistaken for an Icelander. Don’t laugh, it’s true...

Second blog post from our friend Cherina Hadley - Quiet Wanderings. Iceland: The Viking Language Saga. (Or: ´Excuse Me, How Do You Say Eyjafjallajökull?')  

Icelanders approach me on the street and ask for directions.

At the fuel station Icelanders ask me for instructions. (I can’t even figure out which way to put my credit card in, but still they ask me!)

The very first person I met in Iceland, a lovely Slovenian guy, admitted to me later that he thought that I was the first Icelandic person he’d ever met…


My cheekbones are far from being angular, so maybe it’s the blonde hair? I don’t know.

(Icelandic women are not even remotely ugly though so I’m secretly of happy to just run with it…)

Oh yes, I am Icelandic to the core…until I open my mouth and speak.

Then utter confusion ensues, as per usual. The Aussie accent…sigh….it’s really not that difficult, people! Some even say it’s endearing. (Don’t quote me on that!)

I admit, the Australian accent can be difficult at times, but the Icelandic language is something else entirely. Nordic languages in general mystify me.

Like all first-rate impossible things, Icelandic presents an interesting challenge. And I do love a good challenge.

However, maybe I am a little slow, but…I – just – can’t – get – it!

My initial attempt at walking around Reykjavík on my first day in Iceland went a little something like this…

[Looks carefully at map]

“Right, so I am heading for the street called Bræðraborgarstígur.

Bræð-rabor-gar-stí-gur. Ok, got it.”

[After one more quick look, commits name to memory (?) and folds map away, filled with confidence]

2 seconds later…

“Something beginning with….S? Or L? Or D…..s%*@!”

[Gets out map again. Repeat. And repeat several times, until arriving at destination.]

This isn’t the first time I’ve ended up throwing away a map and just randomly walking in any old direction: More fun, and less brain-freeze.

Icelandic is a beautiful language that I could listen to for hours.  It sounds so ancient and has actually changed very little from the Old Norse language of the Vikings.

Icelander’s will tell you that words like Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that erupted in 2010 causing the ash cloud that we all remember, simply “rolls off the tongue”.

No. No!

It twists and contorts your tongue in ways that should not be spoken of…at least not on a travel blog.


There is nothing like a little perseverance and stubborn determination and with the help of both of those, I did manage to use my words a little while I was here. I can now officially pronounce five words and one entire sentence. Hallelujah!

My all-time favourite Icelandic word is one that you hear all the time and that I now am completely fluent in:jæja”.

Two simple syllables. Perfect!

There is no exact English translation but the best I could come up with was: ‘alright’, ‘well’ or ‘well, then’. Regardless, you can pretty much throw it into any conversation, at any time. It’s no wonder people thought I was Icelandic!

Here is the pronunciation for those of you who would like to try this at home: jæja

As for my one and only sentence, check this out…

þú ert falleg í morgun.

Which means: ”You look beautiful in the morning.”

(Long story.)

I think my problem with Icelandic is that it is not phonetic.

One example that I am enamoured with is the town, Höfn. Think about how you would pronounce that.

And now consider that it is in fact pronounced as a kind of guttural ‘hup’ sound.

I rest my case.

I rented a car for five days in Iceland, four of which I was entirely on my own. I managed to drive 4000 miles through the USA last year without once using a GPS, relying on Google maps and my trusty travel companion/navigator alone.

Five days of navigating in Iceland, a country so small that it would fit neatly into the state of Kentucky, and I am a total GPS convert…and eternally grateful for the genius who invented it!

Iceland, your language is truly wonderful. I sincerely apologise for being so useless at it.

Ah well….jæja!

Thanks to Cherina for sharing this wonderful blog with us! Check out her guest profile

And if you want to learn little bit more Icelandic check out "Learn Icelandic VOL I"  

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