My experience with the Icelandic language

Mark and I returned from Iceland late Sunday night. During our sixteen days there, I remarked–often–how lost I felt in the thermal bath of the Icelandic language. My prior knowledge of Germanic languages was not very helpful in deciphering signs and labels. One often finds only unilingual signs in Iceland, even in high tourist areas like Reykjavík. There were however plenty of pay parking signs in English. I guess the authorities were sick and tired of tourists skipping out of paying to park because they couldn’t read the signs. But I have never felt more linguistically lost in a foreign country.

Acquiring a dictionary was not a solution. I refused to pay the price for an Icelandic-English dictionary. They were exorbitantly expensive; a pocket dictionary (one small enough actually to fit inside a shirt pocket) cost over forty dollars. I told Mark that I would check at home for a more reasonably-priced dictionary and bring it with me the next time we visited Iceland, but my on-line searches aren’t turning up much. I have found all the dictionaries I saw in Iceland, yet they are, surprisingly, the same high prices at home. Sixty to ninety dollars for a small dictionary! Incredible. I’ll have to look for something second-hand.

Spoken Icelandic has the accent on the first syllable, like Finnish. I often felt that I was among Finns, only to discover that I had no idea what anyone was saying. Everyone speaks English in Iceland, and I encountered no one who had to direct my enquiries to another person.

Books were expensive, but that has always been my experience in Europe. Often the prices would be cheaper for an Icelandic original, while as much as ten times higher for an English translation, although that ratio was indeed rare. When Mark and I toured Þingvellir National Park, site of the first Icelandic parliament, I found one such book about the site with that pricing scheme. Prices weren’t so high that I stayed away from bookstores. I had packed a collapsible bag for the specific purpose of filling it with books, and with Icelandair’s policy of allowing passengers two free checked bags, I happily filled it up. I will have to pack all my new books into a suitcase and take it to work so that I can scan the covers in anticipation of a future Iceland book post.

All my free time now is spent processing my hundreds and hundreds of photos on-line before the deadline next Friday, July 24. That’s the last day Black’s will accept photo orders on-line. One can still send in photo orders for processing in person until August 3. I was up until 3 a.m. today and now, just after 11 p.m. (I work until 9:00, walk home, then eat a very slow dinner) I am ready to stay up for four hours doing another huge batch. I know I will have to forgo the gym and the Scrabble Club in order to get all my photos–and Mark’s, when he has finished with his own SD card–processed by next Friday.

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