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Volcanos and culture


Ellen Wild, volcano, language, Iceland, culture, úr vör, vefrit, Aron Ingi Guðmundsson
„Volcanos, they keep speaking to the imagination. A spectacular reminder of nature that we better get along with her and each other.“ Photo by Aron Ingi Guðmundsson

Like so many of you may know already, volcano eruption started one week ago in Iceland. To be more precise, it is located at Geldingadalir in Reykjanes peninsula, wich is in the South West part of the country. It does bring back memories from 10 years ago. When Eyjafjallajökull shut down air traffic all over Europe and news anchors from all over the world did a brave attempt of bringing the tong twister that is Icelandic, to the rest of the world. All pronunciation failures aside, it did put Iceland in the spotlight, increasing tourism quite a bit too.

Even though there are many languages on this planet with long syllable rich words and tricky pronunciations, Icelandic does seem to speak more to the imagination than Sanskrit for example. Maybe it has something to do with that dramatic volcanic ash. Or with the issue that a conglomerate of sounds, from a country with only 300.000 inhabitants, has the power to put the whole of Europe on the ground.

It doesn't matter whether or not the Icelandic people want to be associated with Vikings, the fact that Icelandic is old Norse and therefore extremely close by the language spoken by Vikings, does kind of add to the language’s glamour.

The names of these volcanos are so syllable rich, because they are made up of several words, describing the location. Naming places like that is a cultural practise, coming all the way from Norway. Not only volcanos, but also farms are named after the surrounding landscape. Underling the important relationship of the people with nature. There exists a word for these names: Oeconyms. In Norway many of them even ended up as peoples last names.

Some examples of Icelandic place descriptions that made it to place names are jökull (glacier), Djúp (deep inlet), Bakki (river bank), Hraun (lava), Sandur (sand) and Vik (bay). It is extremely fascinating how language and culture are intertwined. Depending on the language you speak, your way of thinking might be different. The way you look at the world differs, depending on what words, sentences and grammar structures you use in your everyday life.

If you have 37 words for ‘fog’, as is the case in Faroese (a close brother of Icelandic), you can be sure this plays a much more important role in their society that saying ‘please’, for which there doesn’t even exist a word in Icelandic.

I remember following an Icelandic language course back in the summer of 2018 at the University Centre of the Westfjords, where they attempted to teach us the basics in just 5 days. One tenth of the course was dedicated to cursing, which the teachers found even more hilarious that the students.

Ellen Wild, volcano, language, Iceland, culture, úr vör, vefrit, Aron Ingi Guðmundsson
„If you have 37 words for ‘fog’, as is the case in Faroese (a close brother of Icelandic), you can be sure this plays a much more important role in their society that saying ‘please’, for which there doesn’t even exist a word in Icelandic.“ Photo by Aron Ingi Guðmundsson

Curses aside, the language course did shed a light on the no nonsense mentality of Icelanders. Even though the grammar is extensively refined and they play a cruel game with cases, they can have an oddly direct way of speaking. It can be quite difficult to talk in a ‘polite’ and glossed over way, like is normal in many other languages. It can be the cause of some weird awkwardness to learners of the language, not being able to express themselves as they are used to. For example, I found myself trying to order coffee with the odd translated sentence ‘I take coffee thank you.’, because there was no way of saying please like I was used to! That is, from a beginner’s point of view of course.

It sheds light and understanding to the generalised personality of the Icelandic people. How they can be very direct, almost brute, but still have such a rich literate culture of writers and poets! It is estimated that every 10th person in Iceland, writes a book, how amazing is that?

However, since living in Norway, I lost the little Icelandic that I had acquired. At the same time, my understanding of written Icelandic has improved a bit. It keeps intriguing me enough to hopefully give it another go in a few years. If you want to understand the perspective of Icelanders, or learn about their culture, I highly encourage you too. Try and learn a bit of their language.

The Icelandic have a bit of a bad reputation though, in not being able to, or willing to, understand their own language when badly spoken by foreigners. So, even though you might not be able to ever actively use it, but you might get an insight in their unique history and way of life. It is a very healthy habit in life, to keep widening your horizon and explore new points of view.

If that's not cool enough, it will give you a certain advantage in pronouncing Icelandic volcano names. Which is a valid reason for sure. I understand, because I myself am the proud owner of a (quite blurry) photograph from the eruption of the Bárðarbunga in 2014, which portrays the red glow of lava under the Northern lights.

Volcanos, they keep speaking to the imagination. A spectacular reminder of nature that we better get along with her and each other. Learning the basics in each other’s language has the possibility of being a great starting point.


Texti: Ellen Wild


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