Tongue Twisters and Words as Long as Giraffe Tongues

Það fer nú að verða verra ferðaveðrið!

Here is a challenge: Try saying the above phrase ten times, as fast as you can. It may prove to be difficult if you have no knowledge of how Icelandic is spoken, but you aren’t alone. This is one of many Icelandic tungubrjótar, or tongue twisters, so chances are there are a few Icelanders who have trouble saying this themselves. The phrase above roughly translates to, “It’s getting worse, the traveling weather,” which means that all tourists should probably be weary of bad weather while finding their way through the Iceland landscape (After all, you don’t want to be caught trying to pronounce this to a native Icelander). To get an idea of how difficult this phrase can be, here is a video created by a blogger with her attempts at some of these tongue twisters:

(If you turn the subtitles on, the tongue twisters are translated for you).

If you think English tongue twisters are difficult, just imagine what it takes to master a tongue twister in a foreign language. When you think about it, reciting them very slowly proves for some great pronunciation exercises. But I can’t even get past two or three words of each before I curl up in a tangled mess or a fit of laughter. There is one in the video that is seemingly easy, but is really complicated to translate. Lets have a look at it:

Afi á Á á á á Á.

The pronunciation of “á” is nearly the equivalent of saying “ow” so while reciting this enthusiastically out loud, others in the next room may rush in to figure out why it sounds like you’re writhing and shouting in pain. But this can’t actually be interpreted as the same word over and over again, can it? When searching in an online dictionary for the word “á,” I came up with a few results, which must mean the word is a homonym. Here are the main ones listed:

Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 10.45.20 PM

Some, like “eiga” (to own), do not show up as “á” because they can take on many different forms based on declension. When saying “you own,” eiga would change to become “þú átt, which is a little closer to á but not quite. Take a look at “I own” now, “ég á.” Listed to the left below is the full singular declension:

Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 10.54.32 PM

Or in order, “I own,” “you own,” “he owns,” “we own,” “(plural) you own,” and “they own.” This is an irregular verb, so most declensions don’t follow any rules and have to be memorized. In a standard Icelandic dictionary, under the word “á,” you probably won’t come into contact with the listing for eiga because words have too many declensions to all be listed. This is where Icelandic begins to complicate itself.

Here is the tongue twister broken down based on each á:

Afi: Simply means “grandfather.”

áA preposition that often means in, on, or at.

Á: Since it is capitalized, we can simply consider this one the name of a place. An Icelander mentioned to me that Á was once a common name for farms.

á: This is going to be out declension for “eiga,” to own.

á: “Ær” is the word for ewe, and can be declined as “á” in specific cases.

á: Another repeat of the preposition for in, on, or at.

Á: Another repeat of the name of this particular farm.

So, when we group all of these together, we have “Grandfather on the farm called Á owns an ewe on that same farm Á.” Useful, huh? All of that work just to describe Grandfather owning a sheep on his farm. It’s seemingly simple to say, but harder to take apart and understand.

Take it a step further and there is another version of this even longer than the previous, which almost follows it exactly, with the addition of a new á, meaning “river/stream:”

Ási á Á á á á á á Á

Or, “Ási from/on the farm called Á on the river owns a sheep on that same farm called Á.” It is really no wonder why I dread seeing á in any given sentence. Of course you’ll have the practice with these tongue twisters, but are you really going to be running around telling people, “Hey guys! Ási á Á á á á á á Á!!” during your travels? Let us hope so, for the sake of being able to show off these fantastic Icelandic secrets we call homonyms.

I want to show you another example of something I like to call a pointless mouthful, which would be the longest word in the Icelandic language. This is not actually comprised of one long word, but constitutes a compound word that truly test the limits of the Icelandic language. As my “Word of the Day” posts have shown, Iceland is very fond of their compounds. Take for instance, “ice cold” in English. In Icelandic, it would be “ískaldur,” a combination of ís (ice) and kaldur (cold). The tend to blend everything together in groups of two, three, four, and so on, until they have one long word to explain one very detailed thing. So without further ado, I will present to you the 64 letter long Icelandic champion:


Whew! A few months ago I would have looked at this and melted, but now that I recognize many Icelandic words, I can pick out pieces here and there to separate from the big mass of letters. Why is it that this word seems more complicated than our very own long English word, “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis?” We’ve become accustomed to enough English to pick out each section in that word, or at least the common ones like ultra, microscopic, and volcano. It takes a lot of time to train the eye to pick out the right words in foreign compounds, so here’s a little cheat list for you to get a better sense of what this word really means. If it’s this long, it MUST be intriguing enough to translate, right? Luckily there is no letter á, thus no sheep, rivers, or farms. I’m going to present to you the words as they are declined:

Vaðla (vöðlur): hipwaders
Heiðar (heiði): moor
Vega (vegur): road
Vinnu (vinna): job
Verk (verk): work
Færa (færa): to move
Geymslu (geymsla): storage toom
Skúra (skúr): shed
Úti (úti): outside
Dyra (dyr): door
Lykla (lykill): key
Kippu (kippa): bunch, pack, bundle
Hringur (hringur): ring

That’s a 13 part compound word we have! To make things even more complex (or simpler, depending on which way you look at it), some of these individual words are grouped together to form common compounds, like “lykla” and “kippu” come together to form “lyklakippa,” or keychain, instead of the separate key and bundle. When you try blending all of these words together, you eventually have something like “Key ring of the key chain of the outer door to the storage tool shed of the road workers on the Vaðlaheiði plateau.” As you can see, simply listing the separate words isn’t entirely rewarding because they don’t run in order anyway, and tend to stray from the dictionary definition of the word for a more stretched meaning.

But these long words are a bit of a step up for anyone beginning the language. In a previous post I introduced the Volcano Eyjafjallajökull, which is a little more than intermediate for the beginner to sound aloud. A travel agency in Iceland (Extreme Iceland) decided to put foreigners to the test by asking them to produce some pretty simple but initially daunting Icelandic words, and you can watch their amusing attempts here (while trying not to envision yourself in their very unsuccessful shoes):

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