Hayden's Ferry Review


Foreign Tongues: Icelandic

HFR publishes contributors from all over the world, in languages and from places that some people (we're not pointing fingers) have never heard of. This recurring post Foreign Tongues will give you a little culture and a little history, a way to better understand the background behind some not-so-familiar peoples and languages.

When people think of Iceland they don’t think of the language or their poetry, they think of Vikings. They might also think of how Iceland was named: It was given the name Iceland by the Vikings so that no one would go there but would instead go to Greenland. It was a deceptive name because Iceland is warm with nice weather and Greenland is cold. Those tricky Vikings! Iceland has other things besides Vikings and that its great poetry and is its beautiful language, Icelandic. Johann Hjálmarsson is an internationally known poet who writes in Icelandic. Hjálmarsson was born in Iceland in 1939. When he was 17, working as a printer’s apprentice, he wrote his first book of poems. Critics were so impressed by his work that they encouraged him to study abroad. Hjálmarsson took their advice and studied abroad in Barcelona. There he learned the romance languages. He then proceeded to translate Federico Garcia Lorca into Icelandic. He become a literary and art reviewer for an Icelandic magazine, traveled the world for his work, and wrote poetry. His life is like a fairy tale from printer’s apprentice to world traveler. Some of his work can be found in issue #37 of HFR.

Icelandic, like English, has its roots in German. It is spoken by about 320,000 people in the world, most of whom reside in Iceland. Iceland used to be the westernmost country with speakers of Indo-European languages; then the Americas were “discovered.” The oldest texts written in Icelandic are poetry and laws, which were orally passed down and then written. Iceland’s most famous text is appropriately called the Icelandic Sagas, which is written in Old Icelandic. Old Icelandic and Icelandic are not very different; they are similar to Elizabethan English and present day English.

Icelanders are some of the most homogeneous of all European countries mostly due to their isolation. They are a mix of descendents from the British Isles and from Scandinavia. This is probably why their language has Germanic roots. They were ruled by the Norwegians, then the Danes, and finally got independence from the Danes in 1944. It is interesting that even while they were colonized by the Norwegians and the Danes they still managed to keep their language intact without very many changes. When they got their independence they made Icelandic their official language.

KafiyahForeign Tongues