I’ve lived in Iceland for years, and at the beginning had the insane idea of learning the language by myself. Of course it didn’t work out, so I decided to apply to the practical Icelandic course taught at the University of Iceland to pick up the desired language skills in a more formal environment (well, at least it’s more formal than my bedroom).
I’ve studied many languages, ancient and modern as well, and never had big difficulties with acquiring them. But my friends, I need to admit, Icelandic is the most time-consuming and soul-sucking language that I have ever had to deal with. Seriously, I’ve been struggling so much. It’s absolutely not fun. I tried my best and made all the effort I could. If we count the hours I spent sitting in front of different language books in different positions in different places, we would get a really high number of hours. Days. Months.
Let me tell you why I think Icelandic is the evil of modern languages.
First of all, the geographical isolation of Iceland (being an island) means that speakers of Icelandic used to have less direct contact with speakers of other languages, and therefore there were fewer competing influences from other languages. The population of Iceland is mostly made up of people who are Icelandic, and the number of Icelandic-speaking people living outside of Iceland is quite small. This means they have created their own words for everything. The only language it was influenced by in the last couple of hundred years is probably Danish, which has to do with the fact that the Danish conquered Iceland.
Also by now the language has picked up some English words, but they formed a committee (like the French) to preserve the language so they invent new Icelandic words for new things. For example, instead of using the word ‘television’, they use ‘sjónvarp’, which means ‘vision projection’. Clever, huh? But it doesn’t make the life of a language learner easier.
Do you remember the name of the volcano which caused a big trouble in air travel across western and northern Europe in April 2011 giving the reporters a hard time with trying to pronounce its name correctly? Of course you remember.
Icelandic pronounciation in general is difficult as hell. There are many different sounds that might be difficult to pronounce correctly for a non-native speaker:
The rolled R can give trouble for those whose mother tongue is English or French. I’m lucky in this case, Hungarians can roll that R all day long.
This sound þ (thorn) should pose no problem to an English speaker. It is, after all, a letter that used to belong to the Old English alphabet as well and is still widely used in words such as “Thursday” and “thick” to name two examples. This one can be very challenging to people whose mother tongue do not have the sound. (Like me.)
The sound eth (ð) an another one that’s both common in English and crucial in Icelandic, ð exists in the pronunciation of such English words as “the”, “this” and “that”.
Then there is my favourite the ‘ll’ that really needs a huge amount of input to master. I can’t pronounce this sound without spitting on my face or on those whom I’m talking to.
Then there is that weird soft L sound. I always have a hard time when I need to ask for ´mjólk´ in my coffee.
And on the top of these there is a scary monster sitting on an iron throne (no, it’s not someone from Game of Thrones) with the blood of language learners dripping from his axe. He is the Icelandic Grammar. I could talk about our relationship for hours, but not now. Not until I find a way to tame this beast.