Iceland: The Viking Language Saga. (Or: ‘Excuse Me, How Do You Say Eyjafjallajökull?’)



Alice laughed, “There is no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen.

“When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”  

Lewis Carroll – Alice in Wonderland


I keep being mistaken for an Icelander.

Don’t laugh. True story!



Reykjavik aerial view

Colourful Reykjavik



Icelanders approach me on the street and ask for directions.

At the fuel station Icelanders ask me for instructions. (I can’t even figure out which way to put my credit card in, but still they ask me!)

The very first person I met in Iceland, a lovely Slovenian guy, admitted to me later that he thought that I was the first Icelandic person he’d ever met…



My cheekbones are far from being angular, so maybe it’s the blonde hair? I don’t know.

(Icelandic women are not even remotely ugly though so I’m secretly of happy to just run with it…)



Street in Reykjavik



Oh yes, I am Icelandic to the core…until I open my mouth and speak.


Then utter confusion ensues, as per usual. The Aussie accent…sigh….it’s really not that difficult, people! Some even say it’s endearing. (Don’t quote me on that!)


I admit, the Australian accent can be difficult at times, but the Icelandic language is something else entirely. Nordic languages in general mystify me.


Like all first-rate impossible things, Icelandic presents an interesting challenge. And I do love a good challenge.

However, maybe I am a little slow, but…I – just – can’t – get – it!




Beautiful Iceland. Skógafoss (Forest Falls)



My initial attempt at walking around Reykjavík on my first day in Iceland went a little something like this…


[Looks carefully at map]

“Right, so I am heading for the street called Bræðraborgarstígur.

Bræð-rabor-gar-stí-gur. Ok, got it.”

[After one more quick look, commits name to memory (?) and folds map away, filled with confidence]

2 seconds later…

“Something beginning with….S? Or L? Or D…..s%*@!”

[Gets out map again. Repeat. And repeat several times, until arriving at destination.]



Street in Reykjavik

Go on…give it a try!



This isn’t the first time I’ve ended up throwing away a map and just randomly walking in any old direction: More fun, and less brain-freeze.


Icelandic is a beautiful language that I could listen to for hours.  It sounds so ancient and has actually changed very little from the Old Norse language of the Vikings.



Vík south iceland

Black sand beach at Vík in South Iceland…sigh…



Icelander’s will tell you that words like Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that erupted in 2010 causing the ash cloud that we all remember, simply “rolls off the tongue”.


No. No!

It twists and contorts your tongue in ways that should not be spoken of…at least not on a travel blog.




There is nothing like a little perseverance and stubborn determination and with the help of both of those, I did manage to use my words a little while I was here. I can now officially pronounce five words and one entire sentence. Hallelujah!



Good night

This is MUCH easier!



My all-time favourite Icelandic word is one that you hear all the time and that I now am completely fluent in: “jæja”.

Two simple syllables. Perfect!

There is no exact English translation but the best I could come up with was: ‘alright’, ‘well’ or ‘well, then’. Regardless, you can pretty much throw it into any conversation, at any time. It’s no wonder people thought I was Icelandic!


Here is the pronunciation for those of you who would like to try this at home:


As for my one and only sentence, check this out…

þú ert falleg í morgun.

Which means: ”You look beautiful in the morning.”

(Long story.)



South Iceland

Driving the Ring Road in South East Iceland



I think my problem with Icelandic is that it is not phonetic.

One example that I am enamoured with is the town, Höfn. Think about how you would pronounce that.


And now consider that it is in fact pronounced as a kind of guttural ‘hup’ sound.


I rest my case.


I rented a car for five days in Iceland, four of which I was entirely on my own. I managed to drive 4000 miles through the USA last year without once using a GPS, relying on Google maps and my trusty travel companion/navigator alone.


Five days of navigating in Iceland, a country so small that it would fit neatly into the state of Kentucky, and I am a total GPS convert…and eternally grateful for the genius who invented it!



Road trip

Road trip fun! ‘The Golden Cirlcle’, with Krzys and Sarah



Iceland, your language is truly wonderful. I sincerely apologise for being so useless at it.

Ah well….jæja!



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Comments (9)
  • Avatar

    AlexBerger May 25 2012 - 10:10 am Reply

    Always funny when the locals think you’re one of their own! Great shots!
    AlexBerger recently posted..Fresh Food and an Italian AgriturismoMy Profile

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    Natasha von Geldern May 30 2012 - 9:34 am Reply

    I never saw an Icelandic woman who wasn’t absolutely stunning when I was there… Ah well good on you for trying with the language! Really beautiful photos.
    Natasha von Geldern recently posted..Destination Australia: A Top End itineraryMy Profile

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    Samuel @ Backpacking Travel Blog Jul 5 2012 - 3:29 pm Reply

    It is quite funny/amusing to be considered a local when you are not. That doesn’t typically happen to me however. With red hair and pasty white skin I stick out like a sore thumb these days in Asia 😛
    Samuel @ Backpacking Travel Blog recently posted..Kek Lok Si Temple | Air Itam, Penang, MalaysiaMy Profile

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      Quiet Wanderings Jul 6 2012 - 11:31 pm Reply

      Yes, I found it very amusing. I know what you mean, my blonde hair was like a beacon when I was travelling Bangladesh. I wore a hat. A lot.

      I also have pale skin….maybe you would possibly be mistaken for a local in Iceland too, Samuel? 😉

  • Avatar

    A Montrealer Abroad Jul 6 2012 - 12:13 am Reply

    What a funny post! I’ll be visiting Norway and Sweden later this year, and I’m really nervous about the street names too. I’ll let you know how it goes. 😛
    A Montrealer Abroad recently posted..Postcards from Berlin’s East Side GalleryMy Profile

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      Quiet Wanderings Jul 6 2012 - 11:33 pm Reply

      Ah, you’ll be fine, Marie! If you plan on driving on your own though, I would highly recommend getting a GPS. Total lifesavers!
      Look forward to hearing about your travels in Norway and Sweden :)

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    Sherry Jul 7 2012 - 8:51 am Reply

    Yeah, it must be the blonde hair, for real! Sometimes, I think its great to be mistaken for a local. Maybe because I like blending-in. Less stress.

    I’m surprised to find out that navigating Iceland is difficult. I can’t imagine a whole lot of roads up there, but then again, I’ve never been. I’ll have to keep that in mind for my turn on the island.

    As always – GORGEOUS photos, C!
    Sherry recently posted..“Alaska’s Blue Ice”My Profile

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      Quiet Wanderings Jul 7 2012 - 9:05 am Reply

      I love being mistaken for a local too, Sherry but I still always think it is funny – especially when it is in an unlikely place like Iceland.

      Navigating the island wasn’t that difficult actually – it was only when I went off the main roads (which I did a lot) that I relied on the GPS. And I had no real map to speak of either. If you stick to the Ring Road, which more or less circumnavigates the island, then there is no chance of getting lost….but who DOESN’T want to deviate a little, right?? :)

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