101 Icelandic: A Thorough Tongue-Twisting Trek Through a Thwarting Language

It is possible that the most garrulous person in all of Iceland is a man who spends most of his day alone on a mountain ridge between two volcanoes. Sigurður Sigurðursson is a seasonal warden of a lonely trekkers hut at a place called Fimmvörðuháls, and if you think you can hike up to his domain for a cozy night underneath the aurora borealis without learning how to pronounce Fimmvörðuháls–and without developing an affinity for the Icelandic language–you are sorely mistaken.

It’s simple when you chop it down to the roots, he says (and given the lunar landscape of his realm he’s certainly not talking about trees). Fimm is five. Vörð (pronounced vordh) is cairn. Háls is neck. The Neck of the Five Cairns. That’s where we are.*

As he pours a cup of tea from the snow he kindly melts for all his guests (the nearest stream is about 2km away), Sigurður continues the lesson. He is wearing insulated snow pants held up over his robust middle with suspenders, and his high, round cheeks are rosy from a long day spent hammering trail-marking stakes into the ground; there is a semblance of a bald, beardless Santa Claus about his presence. It’s a mid-September afternoon, but it’s only three degrees at Fimmvörðuháls.**

Over there, he points out the window, is Mýrdalsjökull. Mýr is a wetland. Dal is a valley.*** Jökull is, of course, a glacier. The Wetland Valley Glacier. Behind it is þórsmörk, the Forest of Thor.**** Nearby is Goðaland, Land of the Gods. And of course on the other side is Eyjafjallajökull, Island Mountain Glacier.

Now you see how we Icelanders name our places.

Many travellers find Icelanders to be quiet. People of few words. Lukewarm and distant, like the local sun. But the irrepressible Sigurður would not shut up about the joy that is the Icelandic language until we had tied our tongues in knots and surrendered from the lesson.

The cosmology of a place as small (pop. 320,000), as rugged (63% of the surface area is classified as “wasteland”) and as isolated (no continent to call its own) as Iceland is by necessity both simple andpuristic. After all, following its initial settlement era in the ninth and tenth centuries the country was set upon and dominated if not outright ruled by Norwegians, Danes, Scots, British, French, Spanish, Basques, Germans, Russians, Japanese, Americans and even Algerian pirates; by their fishing fleets and military alliances and political tyrants.

Apropos of which, the naming of places in Iceland has long been marked with utilitarian strokes, almost as if to convince outsiders of their insignificance, or to convince Icelanders not to get too sentimental about their homeland.

And further, the Icelandic language beginning in the nineteenth century went through a purist movement (which evolved into a full-fledged government language committee and language institute) both to protect and to cultivate the Icelandic linguistic heritage. Among its sphere of influence is the coining of neologisms and the, er, Icelandicizing of loanwords.

In an oft-cited example, the Icelandic word for computer, tölva, is a portmanteau of the word tala(“number”) and völva (“oracle”). An Oracle of Numbers, not a kömpútur.

In 1973 they even banished the letter from the alphabet. Why? Not Icelandic. (Thanks but no thanks, England.)

So perhaps it was no coincidence that the ostensibly hermitic Sigurður (who actually spends most of the year living and working in Reykjavik) was the most talkative person we encountered in Iceland. He sits at a crossroads of some of the simplest, most unutterable toponyms in all of the country, and most of his interactions are with thrill-seeking volcano trekkers from far-flung lands, most of whom only half-heartedly attempt to pronounce Fimmvörðuháls before giggling and sighing, cute little Iceland.

Sigurður has heard it all. And like others before him, he’s determined to Icelandicize your tongue, to send you on your way with a bit more respect for this rugged, hardly diminutive country than when you arrived.

We thanked him and trekked down the mountain. A few days later we found ourselves at Snæfellsnes. Snow Mountain Peninsula. We hiked up to Djúpalonssandur and down to Önverðarnes. And yeah, sometimes we wished there existed a Sigurður iPhone app to help us. But we sputtered Icelandic place names into the wind and giggled slightly less. He’d taught us well.

* To clear up the confusion, the sign in the photo points to Fimmvorðuskáli. Skáli is the Icelandic for hall or hut, which here means Sigurður’s hut on Fimmvorðuháls.
** Celsius.
*** Mýr and Dal, if you look closely, resemble the English words “mire” and “dale.” Not a coincidence.
**** The runic þ is an awesome letter and should be Iceland’s next export, after the haddock run out.