Three months of Icelandic later ... Ég er búin að borða hvalinn!

"Learning Icelandic is like getting a tattoo on your ass. It's painful and you can't show it off to anyone". – Reddit wisdom

Late last year I decided to give Icelandic a try. For the last three months, I've studied vocabulary flashcards every day while working through two self-guided textbooks and part of the free online course from the University of Iceland. I've learned about 1500 words1 (a good baseline, but keep in mind that a typical kindergartner knows about 13000) - along with what I believe is the most commonly-used grammar.

By the end of my self-imposed studies I was starting to feel like Melinda Mae in the Shel Silverstein poem, the little girl who announced she'd eat a whale – "and in eighty-nine years she ate that whale because she said she would". Icelandic is charming, but I wasn't going to run into any of its 300,000 speakers any time soon, or find an excuse to fly out and see the glaciers, the whales, and the Northern Lights (all of which, I am forced to admit, we have right here in the US.) Alaska might not have fish on its money or shaggy little ponies, but such delights do not really justify a flight to Reykjavík.

Still, Icelandic has all sorts of endearing quirks. One of its grammatical features is even called Quirky Subject – Icelandic is one of the rare languages where subjects don't need to be in the nominative case. It is packed with cute words like ávöxtur, "fruit", and gluggi, "window". The textbooks had entertaining dialogue and vocabulary like að hefna sín, "to avenge oneself". I installed the Icelandic keyboard on my computer so I could type letters like þ and ð (pronounced like the first sounds in "thin" and "then", respectively).

And occasionally I got the language enthusiast's equivalent of the runner's high, when your work suddenly pays off. Realizing that Reykjavík comes from two words I knew (reykja, "smoke", and vík, "bay") was like seeing a Magic Eye picture pop into focus. Being able to read a dialogue I'd never seen, or an online comment, or a sentence in Harry Potter og Viskusteinninn gave ne a thrill every single time. (I just opened the Harry Potter book at random and read "En hvar var hann núna? Og vissi Hagrid eitthvað um Snape sem han vildi ekki segja Harry?" = "And where was it now? And did Hagrid know something about Snape that he didn't want to tell Harry?"

I doubt I'll think of any use for Icelandic before it fades away, as any unused language must, but it's enjoyable in its own right. And I'm planning to look at a related language in March. I can finally say "ég er búin að borða hvalinn" – I ate the whale.

1. The 1500 doesn't include all the different endings you can put on a word. Many of those words have dozens of different forms. (back to article)

Written on March 1, 2016