Lesson #172: Old Icelandic

I took a “bus”*  tour around the Golden Circle today. It was very cool. I couldn’t get over the moss covered lava fields. The tour guide was laughing at me. He was cool. I learned a lot of stuff. Which is partly because I, being me, asked him about a million questions about any and everything that occurred to me. About Icelandic history, about language, about the inukshuks, about sport, about the landscape, about his personal history.**

One of the more interesting things I learned is that the average Icelander (or person who knows Icelandic) can read Old Icelandic. The language hasn’t changed much — my guess was because of the isolation and consequent lack of continental influence that Iceland enjoys and he admitted that he was unsure of the reasons, but suspected that my thought process was likely right. I think that’s very cool. There’s no way I could read old English. I might do okay with old French since it’s a Latin language, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen old French, so I can’t say that for sure. The tour guide (who is called Ronald) said that most of the old printings, whether they be actual printings or handwritten, are actually fairly “well-loved”. People have actually been reading them for centuries because they all actually can.

Having nothing to do with language, my favourite thing that we saw today (apart from the crazy influence of the ash cloud on the afternoon — at points, you could barely see things 500 metres away — and the moss covered lava fields I was fascinated by because they looked like I was on a completely different planet) was Thingvellir. Thingvellir is the site of the very first Icelandic parliament. And it is GORGEOUS. It actually made me wonder how much of the history of it Tolkien knew…it seemed like it would be his kind of thing. The parliament would gather once a year on the plain with a redirected  river and a natural lake (that is growing every year because the American and European plates are splitting) and is easily accessible from all directions, making it easy for the leaders of each area of old Iceland to meet there. It was SO cool. And, perhaps because I’ve read a bunch of the sagas — and a bunch of Tolkien — not very hard to imagine what it would have looked like with tents set up all over the place…because those leaders travelled with a pretty big posse. I was duly impressed.

As an aside, when I read the Icelandic, it reads very similar to the Swedish, but it doesn’t sound anything like it to me.***

*It was one of those mini-buses that seats 15, but we were only 8.

**While I was waiting for the others to reappear at one of the places, we were just shooting the shit and he was telling me a story about how he “lost” a Chinese girl. The long and short of it is, he and the rest of the people on the tour couldn’t find her and called the cops only to find out the next day that she’d hitched a ride back to Reykjavik without telling anyone.

***For future reference, when I say things like “it reads like Swedish” about languages I know very little of, what I mean is, “I can figure out what’s on the menu because the words are similar in [fill in language here].” I will admit that I know the basics in a lot of languages just because I have friends from a lot of places. If the alphabet is Roman or Cyrillic, I can probably read and figure out a menu.

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One thought on “Lesson #172: Old Icelandic

  1. Mithridates says:

    Beowulf is actually not too hard to understand when it’s marked up as you can see here:

    Or if something like that isn’t available another good way to read it is to go over a tiny bit of Old English first such as the pronunciation of g (often sounds like y), plurals, etc. But yeah, Icelanders have it way easier in reading texts from that period of time.

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