Why study Icelandic?

I also wrote a big advertisement for my meetup/study group which says much the same stuff.

EASY. If you speak English, it is actually on the easy range.
- It is indoeuropean. So it works like every other language you’ve studied in High School
- The grammar isn’t much like English, but word order is close enough to be intelligible
- There are lots and lots of transparent compound words (words made up of two words and you can fairly easily guess the correct meaning if you know the parts)
- There are lots of words that match up to something in English. Not nearly the overlap you get with English and French, but a lot of overlap all the same.
- It isn’t tonal, it isn’t polysynthetic. It could be much, much more difficult.
- The learning materials available today are adequate.
- There is tons of Icelandic pop culture available over the internet. Language without accessible media are hard, so by this measure Icelandic is easy.
- Reading, writing and speaking Icelandic at a college educated level is hard, but odds are that isn’t your goal.

Iceland is a nice place to go on vacation and the language is one more thing to do there. If you fail to learn the language, that’s okay, ekki stressaður, most everyone speaks English. I’ve been there twice, but I don’t know when I’ll get to go again. It really depends when the right set of travel companions turn up.

About 40,000 people in the US are Asatru revivalists. Of these, a small percent (maybe 1%?) use Old Norse as their religious language– for service, prayers, devotional reading and the like.

This is the closest living language to Old Norse. While it might be counter intuitive to study Icelandic to learn Old Norse– Icelandic has schools with living, native speakers, and Old Norse doesn’t. So you are more likely to succeed in learning Icelandic and gain reading capability of Old Norse. The single biggest barrier to learning a language is that it is a huge amount of work and people are more likely to follow through if there are real living people involved somehow.

I like to read about all sorts of religions, it’s a pity that I can’t find it in me to believe in any of it. But the philosophy and ethics stuff is often quite valuable to know.

FAMILY. This doesn’t apply to everyone, but of the people who study Icelandic, a good percent do so because they failed to learn it from their parent/grandparent and still want to speak Icelandic to their relatives back home. Unless you are learning Icelandic to speak to your significant other and your significant other prefers to speak Icelandic (i.e. has poor English skills), then you might not have enough motivation to pull this off. Most people in Iceland speak English and prefer to speak English to their visiting relatives– they need the practice. I don’t have any Icelandic family– but I don’t have any particular personal relationship with anyone in my family that lives in another country anyhow, so for me, with respect to the family issue, all languages are just as good.

Learning Icelandic, What’s been working, what hasn’t

Not working. The charts. The charts aren’t working for me. You can take your charts and shove them. How to start inflecting when you are coming from a language that doesn’t inflect is an unsolved mystery. I suspect this is analagous to the problems people have when they are learning a tonal language and their L1 isn’t tonal, or a polysynthetic one and their L1 isn’t polysynthetic, or an isolating strict word order language when your L1 is inflecting and word order insensitive.

Seems to work. The time spaced flashcards, such as Anki. I wish I’d learned about this a long time ago. In all languages, the shear number of words you need to learn is a massive barrier to progress. With a typical 12 lesson “teach-your-self” or a highschool class, you get really good at juggling 500 words, but that is only a tiniest sliver of the words you need to understand a comic book.

paper flash cards << naive computer based flashcards <<<< anki

Paper flash cards are just slow and have lots of overhead. A computerized flashcard system with any algorithm is much better (e.g. Byki), and the ones that time reviews to show you a word just before you forget it are magical in their effectiveness.

Hard to Tell if they Work. Immersion, which is really hard to do out of country, may or may not work. When I say immersion, I mean:
- Reading donald duck comics, even if I don't understand much beyond what I see in the pictures. Generally, the pictures show enough of the story that I don't get too bored.
- Listening to podcasts, everyday, even if I understand almost nothing. I generally can only do this as a background activity, too boring to sit and listen.
- Watching movies, usually with subtitles. Without subtitles, I get bored. When there is a significant lack of parallelism between the subtitles and the text, I've noticed I have a hard time even hearing the Icelandic unless I turn off the subtitles. Movies use cussing, slang and vulgar vocabulary. You will need to track down what these mean by some other means than most dictionaries and textbooks.
- Reading children's chapter books. This can be massively boring if you don't have the sheer vocabulary to get the gist of whats going on. If you start resorting to dictionaries, then your productivity (reading) is so low that its not an effective use of time.

Computer Dictionaries, Google Translate
Invaluable. Productivity with paper dictionaries is abysmal. Google translate, imho, is a smart bulk dictionary lookup tool and is invaluable for attempting to read the news at the intermediate stage. Without it, you risk getting stuck on a difficult sentence.

Community Building
Essential. Although it sometimes feels even more time consuming than the hours of study.

If learning this language is your job and all you do 24×7, then paper flashcards and paper dictionary look might be great, it’s not like you have anything better to do with your time, right?

If you like charts, you might like the (E)BNF rules for the language, too. Or a linguists professional reference grammar. If you ride your bike by solving the system of differential equations in you head as you turn the wheels, then the charts technique might be for you.

Icelandic in North America

Recently in my Icelandic studies I was wondering what the next step is. Move to Iceland? Hardly. I live and work here. A language is an unusual skill, unlike long division, it is a social activity and you can’t really get good at it if it is a skill used in isolation. So to learn Icelandic, one must move to Iceland or join or create the local community.

Icelandic has died twice in the US. The first time was the Vinland settlement. All the speakers died. Lessons learned? Try not to die. The second time was Gimli, Mantoba in Canada. The language died out, probably because the kids stopped speaking it (no Icelandic at public schools), the spouse didn’t speak it (but everyone already spoke English). And there probably wasn’t any experience with bilingualism– i.e. code switching or any cultural preference for using one language in one domain and another in a another domain. There is a book on the matter, someday I should read it.

Those who study Icelandic typically fit these profiles:

Linguists and Polyglots. Icelandic is an island language that has a remarkably small number of loan words and a remarkable level of intelligibility with it’s 1000 year old form. This makes it interesting for studying regarding the history of language change. The motivated linguists or polyglot has above average talent for acquiring the language, but are not especially likely to be near someone who speaks it. The language hobbyists tend to be evenly spread out across the entire country. Someone from this profile might have mastered “Colloquial Icelandic” from a year of study, but after that, outside of the internet, they don’t have a forum to use it.

Asatru. Wicca and Paganism are becoming popular enough in the US to be visible. It is a separate, but similar to Wicca and there is some overlap in the sorts of people who are interested. Asatru is the pre-Christian traditional religion that persisted in Iceland longer than anywhere else in Europe. Peripheral beliefs such as in Elfs and other hidden beings persists through today and co-existed with Christianity throughout. Asatru in Iceland is also going through a revival with a non-trivial number of people, even in the big city, getting married under the old customs. Because the religion is something of a recovered and reconstructed religion, the relevant historical texts and stories are in Icelandic. So the other important profile of the Icelandic learner in the US is the learner interested in Asatru.

This is tempered by the fact that Asatru and Germanic paganism is the ancient customs of an area that now speaks probably 6 or more distinct languages (Swedish, Danish, German, Icelandic, etc) And if one wants to get academic, Asatru is in part a continuation of the Indoeuropean Sky-Father cult that dates from the bronze age Pontic tribes– so the Sky Father cult covers all modern and past Indo-european languages! Icelandic still has an edge in that a lot of material was written down, where as elsewhere the customs died out before being written down.

Travel and Business. There is actually no reason to learn Icelandic for short travel or business trips. If you are visiting Iceland for a week, or selling restaurant franchises, or what have you, there is no reason to learn Icelandic.

Living and working in Iceland. You can get by in Iceland without knowing Icelandic, as long as you know English. It probably isn’t good idea, you’ll miss out on a lot of what’s going on, but you will be able to get the daily essentials of life done. Depending on within who and where you are working, this might be the complete reverse situation. If you are going to work in the Embassy, and you job is to talk to anyone who walks in the door, you will obviously need to learn Icelandic.

Academic and Scholarly Interests. A tiny sliver of people in the US study Icelandic, and more likely Old Norse, to study the history of Iceland and the Germanic peoples. Because the Germanic tribes didn’t write anything down, much of the written evidence for life in ancient Germanic tribes comes from Icelandic sagas! Academics only a passive understanding of Old Norse and may not even need to know modern Icelandic– that is to say, academics aren’t writing to each other in Old Norse or Icelandic (except in Iceland), for example the way academics used to use Latin in medieval Europe. And like interesting texts in any language, perfectly good translations already exist in English. So this profile is small and motivated, not because they want to hang out with people who speak Icelandic.

Immigrants. Universally in the US, immigrants stop speaking their mother tongue. They tend to marry without regard to language and in the US, don’t necessarily speak Icelandic to their kids and in general are now embedded in a society that has no tradition of bilingualism, nor a tradition of language acquisition. For this and other reasons, Icelandic is mostly dying out in the recent immigrant community.

Once the language has died out with the first wave of immigrants, the later waves of immigrants (who typically speak English just fine), don’t speak Icelandic at social events.

The irony here is that recent immigrants are the best speakers of Icelandic, but probably are one of the profiles that is less interested in continuing to use the language. Even if they are motivated, their spouse and children are probably no more motivated to learn Icelandic than Zulu or Mongolian. This puts the motivated immigrant in a rough position.

Learning a Second Language Passively

Answer to a post on a forum.

I have being doing this exact experiment with Icelandic for ~2 years– I listen to about 1-2 hours of Icelandic talk shows and podcasts a day while commuting, always new material, I never repeat.

Initially, I was chuffed if I could distinguish words (that I didn’t know) from the buzzing noise. Initially only the grammatical particals pop out (definite articles, suffixes on adverbs, etc) One day, I realized that gjaldProta meant bankrupt, which was a word I’d never looked up in a dictionary. More interestingly, I didn’t really understand the news article where I heard the word. I learned hrigja aftur means “call back” on a call in talk show where the caller had a obviously bad connection. There is more context in a stream on noise than you might imagine, after all, the blind learn English largely on input from a stream of noise with no visual context.

There are now 100s of words I’ve heard the point where I recognize them but still don’t know what they mean. However, next time I see the work krof, I will learn it in one repetition because they talk about it all the time on the radio. (It turns out to mean something like central bank reserves)

I used to be able to listen to Icelandic news and read English at the same time. It is getting to the point where I understand enough that it breaks my concentration. When I didn’t understand, it didn’t bother me that they were reviewing a book on knitting.

I think this has helped my pronunciation– I’ve heard a lot of people’s speaking styles. Young girls, academics, men and journalists trying to act serious all have different qualities to their intonation and you can’t learn that from re-listening the same CD over and over.

I’ve a long ways to go, but I think it’s helped.   (Listening to foreign language music on the other hand, has never helped me. Dunno why.

Fictional Murders in Iceland Now Exceed National Population

Thanks to a crime wave of Scandinavian Crime fiction, authors such as Yrsa Sigurdardóttir and Arnaldur Indriðason have driven the crime rate above 1:1.

Jón Siggison, a professor of Fishery Economics at Iceland University, tells us, “Three out of the last top ten Scandinavian crime fiction novels involved brutal murders of a professor of Fishery Economics.  I’m the only professor of that subject and frankly, this is making a little nervous.”

We interviewed top Althingi officials to get their take on what actions they were taking to bring down the fictional crime rate.  “The real murder rate in Iceland is one of the lowest in the world.  We intend to do nothing about the fictional crime rate until publishers revoke the publication of fictional stories of pre-crash finance ministers being thrown from tall cliffs, fed to whales and ripped limbed to limb by angry mobs.  The extremely low rate of those mysteries being solved makes one wonder if these ‘stories’ are just fantasy fulfillment.”

Author’s agent Hafdís Jóndóttir relates, “I’ve seen every permutation of the murder mystery imaginable.  I guess it would just be a matter of time until everyone in Iceland got their turn to be murdered on paper.  I must admit, though, it was unnerving to read a novel proposal about a Reykjavík author’s agent that was murdered in mysterious circumstances at their office.  … Biddu! Did you see anything out that window?”

Icelandic Pizza from 1st principles

I have this crazy idea of trying to make icelandic pizza. It’s kind of like Mexican pizza, in the sense that it would be a recipe that never before had existed, least of all in Iceland.

Principle of Icelandic cooking-

If it is edible, you should eat it.  Þorrablót. Need I say more?
If it calls for flour, figure out how to use less of it.  Almost all flour is still imported and used to be so expensive, traditional scandinavian recipes had to be re-invented to use less flour.
If it calls for many ingredients of a specific type, re-do it to use few ingredients of a less specific type.  Icelandic grocerie stories used (and still) have a limited selection– you might night find 15 kinds of olives.
The icelandic index goes up a point for each of the following ingredients:
   Fermented dairy products (e.g. sour cream, etc)
   Mutton, Horsemeat (Yeah, I’m vegetarian and in the US animals commonly considered as pets are just about the only animals that the chicken and beef eating crowd won’t eat, but in Iceland mutton is a staple)
   Fish (Interestingly this is more of an export crop than a historical staple.)
   Blueberries, Rhubarb
   Cabbage, turnip, rutabaga and potato and other vegetables that could potentially grow in Iceland
    Rye and barley, because  it is one grain that can grow in Iceland
Further points for the following characteristics:
   If you can preserve it without refrigeration for 10 months.
   If it uses fermentation as a preservation technique (e.g. blue cheese and sourcraut would be in this category)

I’m still researching what are prototypical spices. I’m going to guess licorice, garlic, horseradish, mustard, dill, but only because those are common in Scandinavian and other far north cuisines.

Icelandic transliterations for Americans

I think…I’m not 100% sure because I’m tweaking the lists from Teach Yourself Icelandic, which appears to be a British publication.

a = a, ah
á = ow
e = e, eh
é = ye
i = i, ih
í = ea
u = approximate, uh
ú = oo
y  = ih (same as i)
ý = ea  (same as ‘i)
æ = i, aye (long i, the sort you get when the word ends in e, like in hide)
ö = approximate, uh, but a deep in the throat sort of uh
ei = a (long a, the sort you get when the word ends in e, like came)
ey = same as ei
au = approximately, uh-y.  Starts with same sound as ö


Smashing success at the Icelandic Meetup

9 people!  Wow, I thought the group was big when it had four people at an event.  Anyhow, incredibly enthusiastic crowd today, lots of talented “amateur” linguists.  We studied Icelandic, people spoke Russian and German to prove they could, worked out that indeed some in some dialects of English we do indeed pronounce an audible h after the w in words like “where”– I’d always thought the “w” and “wh” were spelling artifacts, like the “c” and “ck”

Afterwards I went to listen to Nordic Rock at St Ex.  I read Andres Ond, (Donald Duck) on the metro there, at the bar and back.  No one showed to that event despite sending an invitation to over 100 people (!).  

Still, I’m chuffed with my progress so far.  I’m learning so many Scandinavian words that I could follow the short German conversation at the table today.   And that doesn’t even seem fair, cause I haven’t been studying German at all.

Working on an ad campaign is hard work.

My google ad word campaing, which orignially was supposed to be an inexpensive way to advertised and draw traffic to my various websites for a while turned into a real drain, with $100 of dollars of expenses and nothing interesting to show for it.

I got rid of most of the content network advertising which appears to be subject to click fraud and generally low quality clicks.

Then I started experimenting with lots of techniques for advertising my meetup and invariably I ran into the page quality sandpit, where google keeps raising your minimum bid until all your campaigns are too expensive or deactivated.  I suspecte this is where most reasonable people would quit.

But not me!  I wanted to own the key words “learn icelandic”, at least for all searches made in a 10 mile radius of Clarendon, Virginia.  So I bought the domain name, learnicelandic.net.  That site is up and has a wiki for icelandic language learning resources, which I still need to finish filling it out with content.

I created a membership drive website just for google ads because I suspected using meetup.com was killing my page quality scores–meetup has google ads and a lot of junk unrelated to icelandic language learning on my group’s page.  In fact, google thought my page might be about hotels in DC!  Here is my Icelandic Language Meetup membership drive page.  It has content and lots of calls to action.  Landing pages are now better tuned to the search words as are the text ads.

So far, I’ve burned maybe a dozen hours on this project.  I’m thinking google is creating a market here for small advertisers that can’t deal with google’s new stringent quality guidelines.