The other day, I was speaking to an Icelandic friend about words that are untranslatable from Icelandic to English, or words that have no such equivalent. Although I haven’t stumbled upon anything I haven’t been able to find a counterpart to, there was one intriguingly simple word that was unlike anything I had ever come across. The word, simply, was “jú.”
What does this mean? Well, to get there, we have to start with the general Icelandic equivalent for “yes” which is “já.” When someone asks a simple, positive statement, já is used to affirm that statement, just as any other English “yes:”
Talarðu Íslensku? “Do you speak Icelandic?” (Literally “Speak you Icelandic?”)
Ertú nemandi? “Are you a student?”
But, one phenomenon of Icelandic that is unlike any English is that já isn’t the only way to say yes! And this is where jú comes in. Jú literally means “yes” as well, and can be used in the same format, but only when it answers a negatively expressed question. For example, asking “Do you speak Icelandic?” is a positively expressed question which calls for já, but asking “Don’t you speak icelandic?” is negative, and calls for the answer jú (That is, assuming that you do in fact speak Icelandic). To name an example:
Ertu söngkona? “Are you a singer?”
Ertu ekki söngkona? “Aren’t you a singer?” (Literally “Are you not a singer?”)
I immediately found it greatly intriguing that there could be two positive affirmations, já and jú, that mean the same exact thing but carry themselves in different ways based on the “affectation” of something else. In a sense it only serves to acknowledge the wording of the original phrase in which you are resounding. To further prove it’s uniqueness, the word “no” which is “nei” only has one form.
This also applies to Languages such as Norwegian, Danish, German, Swedish, French and a few various others, so Icelandic isn’t alone. There are even some languages that go as far as having two or more different words for both yes and no. Thankfully, Icelandic isn’t included into the “four different ways to say yes” parade, but I do enjoy the way simple syntax of a statement can dictate how an answer is presented.
Thankfully when someone asks me, “Aren’t you tired of learning Icelandic all the time?” I will never have to decided which version of yes to use, because I will certainly never use it. (For those of you who agree with that statement, a simple “jú” will do).