Nov 162016


Today is Icelandic Language Day (Dagur Íslenskrar tungu), a day commemorating the Icelandic language and drawing attention to its potentially endangered status. This date was chosen to commemorate the birthday of Jónas Hallgrímsson, a locally famous Icelandic poet and naturalist of the 19th century. Icelandic Language Day was first celebrated in 1996 in response to research showing that Icelandic was one of four major European languages that are losing ground. I think this is somewhat alarmist in comparison with minor languages. There are around 250 languages spoken in Europe, 225 of which are endangered (139 languages from the past are already extinct). To be classified as endangered a language must be restricted to grandparents of the present generation, and rarely spoken outside the home. Usually children and grandchildren of the older generation can understand the language, but few speak it or have any interest in passing it on. Icelandic is the official language of Iceland, so I doubt there is any real threat to its existence, but there are only about 330,000 native speakers, the vast majority of whom live in Iceland.

The real problem with Icelandic (along with Latvian, Lithuanian and Maltese) is not with the spoken language but with digital support in the computer age. Ever tried finding an Icelandic keyboard? Digital support includes phone apps, spell checkers, automatic translators, and the like. You might be inclined to scoff, but these are genuine problems in the digital age when more and more people in younger generations rely on this kind of support.


Icelandic has an interesting history. Icelandic language began in the 9th century when the settlement of Iceland, mostly by Norwegians, brought a dialect of Old Norse to the island. The oldest preserved texts in Icelandic were written around 1100. The majority of these texts are poems or laws, preserved orally for generations before being written down. The most famous of these, written in Iceland from the 12th  century onward, are the Icelandic Sagas, the historical writings of Snorri Sturluson, and the Eddas.

The language of the era of the sagas is known as Old Icelandic, a dialect of (Western) Old Norse, the common Scandinavian language of the Viking era. Old Icelandic was, in the strict sense of the term, Old Norse with some Celtic influence. The Danish rule of Iceland from 1380 to 1918 had little effect on the evolution of Icelandic, which remained in daily use among the general population: Danish was not used for official communications. The same applied to English during the British (and later US) occupation of Iceland during World War II.


Though Icelandic is considered by linguists to be more archaic than other living Germanic languages, especially in its morphology and other grammatical aspects, as well as in its lexicon, the language has nevertheless been subject to some important changes. The pronunciation, for instance, changed considerably between the 12th and 16th centuries, especially that of vowels. Nevertheless, written Icelandic has changed relatively little since the 13th century. As a result of this, and of the similarity between the modern and ancient grammar, modern speakers can still understand, more or less, the original sagas and Eddas that were written about 800 years ago. This ability is sometimes mildly overstated by Icelanders themselves, most of whom actually read the Sagas with updated modern spelling and footnotes—though otherwise intact.

During the 18th century Icelandic authorities implemented a stringent policy of linguistic purism. Under this policy, a group of writers and linguists was put in charge of the creation of new vocabulary to adapt the Icelandic language to the evolution of new concepts, without resorting to loan words as many other languages had done. A few old words that had fallen into disuse were updated to fit in with the modern language, and neologisms were created from Old Norse roots. For example, the word rafmagn (“electricity”) literally means “amber power” – a calque of the Greek elektron (“amber”). Similarly the word sími (“telephone”) originally meant “wire,” and tölva (“computer”) is a portmanteau of tala (“digit” or “number”) and völva (“female fortuneteller”).


My interest in Icelandic (in translation) concerns the two Eddas (commonly called the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda) and the Icelandic Rune Poem. The Poetic Edda, also known as Sæmundar Edda or the Elder Edda, is a collection of Old Norse poems from the 13th century Icelandic medieval manuscript Codex Regius (“Royal Book”). Along with the Prose Edda, the Poetic Edda is the most expansive source on the Norse gods. The first part of the Codex Regius preserves poems that narrate the creation and foretold destruction and rebirth of the Old Norse realm of the gods as well as individual stories about the Norse deities. The poems in the second part narrate legends about Norse heroes and heroines, such as Sigurd, Brynhildr and Gunnar.

The Prose Edda, sometimes referred to as the Younger Edda or Snorri’s Edda, is an Icelandic manual of poetics which also contains many stories of the gods. Its purpose was to enable Icelandic poets and readers to understand the subtleties of alliterative verse, and to grasp the allusions behind the many kennings that were used in the poetry of the skalds (professional Viking court poets). A kenning is a type of circumlocution, in the form of a compound, that employs figurative language in place of a more concrete single-word noun. Kennings are common in Old Norse and later Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon poetry. They usually consist of two words, and are often hyphenated. For example, Old Norse poets might replace sverð, the regular word for “sword”, with a more abstract compound such as “wound-hoe” or a genitive phrase such as randa íss “ice of shields.” The skalds also employed complex kennings in which the determinant, or sometimes the base-word, is itself made up of a further kenning: grennir gunn-más “feeder of war-gull” = “feeder of raven” = “warrior” or eyðendr arnar hungrs “destroyers of eagle’s hunger” = “feeders of eagle” = “warrior” (referring to carnivorous birds scavenging after a battle). Where one kenning is embedded in another like this, the whole figure is said to be tvíkent “doubly determined, twice modified.” Some kennings require an understanding of the history of the gods, hence the use of the Prose Edda – for example, mög-fellandi mellu “son-slayer of giantess” = “slayer of sons of giantess” = “slayer of giants” = “the god Thor.”

Kennings are rare in British English, but are fairly common in American English: rug rat, fender bender, bean counter, and my personal favorite, First Lady, because its Italian translation, prima donna, is used as a loan word/phrase and is also a kenning.


The Prose Edda was written by the Icelandic scholar and historian Snorri Sturluson around 1220. It survives in four known manuscripts and three fragments, written down from about 1300 to about 1600. The Prose Edda consists of a Prologue and three separate books: Gylfaginning, concerning the creation and foretold destruction and rebirth of the Norse world of the gods; Skáldskaparmál, a dialogue between Ægir, a Norse god connected with the sea, and Bragi, the skaldic god of poetry; and Háttatal, a demonstration of verse forms used in Norse descriptions of the gods.

Apart from the information about the Norse gods in the Eddas I am interested in the Old Icelandic rune poem. Runes were used as the alphabet for a number of Old Germanic languages, including Old Icelandic, before the adoption of the Latin alphabet. There is a great deal of nonsense going the rounds about runes these days because they have been popularized in two distinct ways. First, a disparate group of people from neopagans to New Age devotees have latched on to runes as ancient systems of magic and divination even though there is almost no primary evidence of these practices. To be sure, runes were used for carving spells and incantations, but it is reasonable to presume that it was the spells and not the runes themselves that were magical. Nonetheless, non scholars, notably Ralph Blum, have written texts on how to use the runes for divination simply by inventing the rules from scratch. Blum used Tarot and I Ching as his guides because he had no knowledge of runology or Medieval Germanic cultures. Second J.R.R. Tolkien used runes as his models for the alphabets of his created languages of Middle Earth in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, giving runes a mysterious, magical or fantasy quality.

Apart from this nonsense there are actually a few things we know for certain about runes. For one thing, the runes had names and not just phonological values. The names were different in different languages and were explained in rune poems where each stanza starts with the name of a rune and then explains its meaning. The Old Icelandic rune poem is the oldest of the three extant poems (the others are in Old Norse and Old English).  Here’s a sample, the first three verses representing runes for F (Fé), U (Úr ), and TH (Þurs):

Fé er frænda róg
    ok flæðar viti
    ok grafseiðs gata
    aurum fylkir.

Úr er skýja grátr
    ok skára þverrir
    ok hirðis hatr.
    umbre vísi

Þurs er kvenna kvöl
    ok kletta búi
    ok varðrúnar verr.
    Saturnus þengill.

    source of discord among kinsmen
    and fire of the sea
    and path of the serpent.

    lamentation of the clouds
    and ruin of the hay-harvest
    and abomination of the shepherd.

    torture of women
    and cliff-dweller
    and husband of a giantess.

I have used these rune poems to create my own system of divination  It too is nonsense, but it’s credible nonsense. For certain, Icelandic runes were used to create graphics known as rune staves that were used for good luck.

ild12 ild13

This website is great. It tells the would-be tourist to Iceland what sentences in Icelandic not to be bothered with. A few favorites of mine are . “Hvar byrjar röðin?” / “Where does the line start?” which is not utterly useless, but Icelanders are as notoriously ill mannered as the Chinese or Italians when it comes to forming an orderly queue, such as at bus stops, in shops, or at bars.  Then there’s “Hvar er næsta lestarstöð?” / “Where’s the closest train station?” – useless because there are no trains in Iceland (there are no MacDonald’s either – hooray). Finally, “Hvernig verður veðrið í kvöld?” / “What will the weather be like tonight?” The weather in Iceland is legendarily unpredictable, and changeable at a moment’s notice.

I’ve dealt a little with Icelandic cuisine before. For protein, historically, Icelanders depended on fish, sheep, and hunted game birds. Subsistence farming focused on cold weather cereals, such as barley, and vegetables. The cuisine is heavily Scandinavian, of course, with notable Danish influences. Here’s a recipe for skyr – homemade curds which can be eaten with cream and fruit as a dessert. It’s a bit of a rigmarole but I’m all for revamping home cheesemaking, the way my mum used to when I was a little boy. Commercially made skyr is readily available in markets in Iceland, much as yoghurt is in other countries, so few people make it at home these days.




1 gallon whole milk
½ pint sour cream
½ rennet tablet


Scald the milk by bringing it to a boil and then immediately turning off the heat and allow it to cool to blood temperature (98°F/37°C).

Whip the sour cream and add some of the warm milk until it is thin and smooth. Then pour the cream into the milk and mix thoroughly.

Dissolve the rennet in about a tablespoon of cold water and add to the milk. Mix thoroughly again.

Let the mixture stand at room temperature for 24 hours.

You now have skyr (curds) and whey. The simplest method of separating out the whey is to make several bags out of multiple layers of cheesecloth (its original purpose), fill them with the skyr and whey and let them hang until the whey drains off. My mum used to hang it on the bath taps.

I gallon of milk should make about 3 pints of skyr, so you can adjust the recipe accordingly.

When serving, whip the skyr well with a whisk to a smooth ice-cream-like consistency. It should not be grainy or like cottage cheese. Serve with cream, sugar and fresh berries.