Icelandic in Black and White


I have discovered that there are basically two ways in which Icelanders deal with people who don’t speak their native language fluently: either they immediately switch to English or they refuse to acknowledge that any language other than Icelandic exists. This black-or-white ideology can be frustrating to a beginner of the language.

I’ve gone to restaurants and tried to speak what little Icelandic I know only to be talked back to in English. Even if I attempt to speak Icelandic for the entire conversation, I only receive English in response. It happens to me even more if Spanish, my mother tongue, is overheard. Then there really is no way I can practice my Icelandic because every Spanish-speaking Icelander I’ve come in to contact with wants to practice and show off their Spanish skills, leaving my Icelandic vocabulary in the dust.

On the other side of the coin, sometimes when I do speak the few Icelandic words I know, I will be looked down upon for not knowing more or for not speaking more fluently. If I can’t understand something I am doomed because suddenly the other person’s capacity to speak English has disappeared and I am not offered any hand gestures to help me guess what is going on.

I actually had a guy once make me repeat what he was saying seven times until I pronounced it perfectly before he would tell me what it meant. I felt like a humiliated parrot. Also, Icelanders tend to speak really fast and join words so that for a beginner of the language it is quite hard to tell when one word ends and another begins. I have asked people to speak slowly only to have them rolls their eyes.

I would just like some room for comfort. It is hard to try to speak Icelandic when your efforts are ignored and English prevails. It is also intimidating when your efforts are dismissed as not sufficient enough from stern stares of non-approving locals.

I have met many foreigners who have been in Iceland for several years and most speak Icelandish: a basic Icelandic with English added for detail. I think this idiom is a result of the black-or-white mentality where foreigners aren’t given the chance to practice what they learn or are shut down for not knowing enough. I need some room to move in. Let’s create a grey area where I try the best I can and get some feedback without condescending remarks.

I understand when someone is in a hurry and doesn’t have time for the trivialities of dealing with a foreigner’s attempts at the language but it can’t be that everybody is in such a hurry that no one has the time for some helpful banter. I hope that sooner than later I will impress you by uttering a lot more than a “Gódan daginn” and that your response won’t be, “Have a nice day to you too!”

AH – [email protected]

Alexandra Hertell is a freelance writer from Puerto Rico who has been published in the Grapevine and Polar Inertia. She has also published a scholarly book on environmental law. She finds herself seduced by the disturbingly beautiful and stark Icelandic landscape and lists her three months camping along the volcanic countryside as her greatest achievement.

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.