[Disclaimer: any readers who are philologists will find much of what follows obvious, so please feel free to skip it and just look at the pictures]
When Lucy graduated from high school, we went horseback riding in Wales. To celebrate her graduation from Dickinson (with more honours than you can shake a stick at) we decided to go riding in Iceland. Now, Welsh is famous for having the world’s longest word (Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, actually a totally made up word to attract tourists–I wonder if it does?), I have never heard anyone say, in Wales or elsewhere, that you couldn’t learn Welsh if you tried; indeed, I stayed in a B and B run by an English woman who was very proud of the fact that her two young daughters had learned very good Welsh at school. Icelandic, on the other hand, has a reputation as a completely impossible language. I thought this was only among English speakers, and maybe especially among Americans, who are notoriously bad at learning languages. But to my surprise, the other members of our group (Norwegians, Germans, Dutch) as well as our Guides (Swedish and German) also believed in the impossibility of learning Icelandic. It wasn’t like anything else, they insisted. Too much grammar! Too many rules! And the endings changed depending on whether the noun was masculine or feminine! And the spelling had nothing to do with the pronounciation! Impossible!
Icelanders, I might add, encourage this view of their language; more on this later. But for the moment, let’s consider it a bit, starting with the name of the place where we went riding.
Eldhestar (and click here to check it out, it’s a fabulous place, and you can book your own riding tour). On the glamourous orange rain gear you wear to keep yourself from freezing to death while on a ride, Eldhestar is glossed as Volcano Horses, which isn’t quite right. Eld means fire and hestur is horse. Apparently, when the company was founded a quarter of a century ago, they called themselves eldfjall hestar. Since fjall means mountain, this would have meant fire mountain horses, or volcano horses. But fjall (pronounced fyee-uh-tull, more or less) was too much for the tourists, so Eldhestar they became. Part of the problem here was simply pronunciation– remember when no non-Icelandic reporter on the planet could say Eyjafjallajökull?
If the relationship between spelling and pronunciation were the only problem, surely Welsh would still win– see above, one more time. But Anna, our Swedish guide who had been studying Icelandic for a couple of years, was far more concerned by the fact that words kept changing their shape… Aha! The big problem is that, unlike the other Germanic languages (including English), Icelandic retains a fully developed case system: like in Latin or Greek or Russian, or Anglo-Saxon, different endings indicate the function of the word in a sentence.
In other words, a horse, if it is the subject of the sentence, is hestur. If it is the object of the sentence, it is hesta. And if you are giving something to a horse, it is hesti. This only seems peculiar to us because we’ve dropped such endings from modern English (except for the possessive ‘s). But we retain them in our pronouns. We use I for the subject, me for the object and indirect object, my for the possessive. Now just imagine that all nouns functioned the same way and you have an inflected language– like Icelandic, or Old English.
Best proof that Icelandic isn’t really all that weird: the indication on a map of Reykjavik that says
þú ert her
Looks funky, doesn’t it? But the first letter is just a th sound, so squint a bit and you get… thou art here.
Not so different from English after all. We could all learn Icelandic if we tried, and we English speakers, well, we have an advantage (so do other germanic language speakers, but don’t tell them).
Given that the Icelandic government is worried that the language may fade away (there are only 325,000 Icelanders, and a handful of Icelandic speakers elsewhere) perhaps they should start insisting on its kinship to English, rather than on the language’s supreme difficulty? Or would that be uncool?