Ammonium Chloride Licorice and Björk’s TV Dissection

Since it’s been exactly one year since I firmly decided I wanted to pursue Icelandic, I’ve decided to commemorate by creating a list of wonderful and interesting things I discovered about Icelandic language and culture in the past few years. This list may be somewhat random, but it serves to recognize some critical parts of my language learning process and growing love for all things Iceland. So to kick it off, here’s the first one:


1. Baby’s First Icelandic Words

When people first start to learn a language, I’m certain saying “hello” is a must. But unlike most learners, I didn’t learn hello anywhere near first. Instead, I sat in high-school classes writing the Icelandic words for each number. I did not know how to pronounce a single word of it, but you can guarantee that every margin of every piece of notebook paper had those numbers on them.

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 2. Icelandic Mail!

Oh, how amazing it was to receive mail from Iceland. In the past year I’ve received two wonderful packages from very close friends there. Containing: Icelandic chocolate, books entirely in Icelandic (a book of poetry, the novel Englar Alheimsins, and a book on the history of the letter ð), an edition of the Reykjavík Grapevine newspaper, a christmas card, receipts in Icelandic, etc. There is nothing more beautiful than touching something that has been sitting on a shelf in Iceland, waiting to end up in your hands.


3. Fantastic Icelandic Candy

The first Icelandic chocolate I ever tried took me by surprise. A little rectangular package labeled “þristur” with a giant red 3 on the front never would have hinted to what was inside the chocolate: Licorice! And not just any licorice, but salty licorice! In fact, all the candy I received in my Icelandic care package was based around a salty sort of licorice. The þristur is a little chocolate bar with a slice of licorice shoved inside of it. In my opinion, it is the most wonderful licorice candy I have ever tasted in my life and makes Twizzlers taste like plastic.


4. Salmiak

Salmiak, salmiakki, or “salty licorice” is a licorice flavored with ammonium chloride that is common in Nordic countries. Yes you heard right: ammonium chloride. Now who in the world would want to eat an entire container of ammonium chloride candies? Unfortunately… Iceland. I received two salty licorice-filled candies, both of which were absurdly disgusting (of course in my opinion and the opinion of anyone who is sane). Let me describe my experience. The candies look innocent, trapped in a hypnotic box and called Opals, but looks can be deceiving.


When you first put one on your tongue, it feels as if you’ve just placed the end of a battery in your mouth, but worse. Give it a good lick and the taste doesn’t leave your mouth when you spit it out. In fact, it lingers as if to haunt you and let you know that you just willingly tasted ammonium chloride. Another brand of salty-licorice called Tyrkish Peber, I was able to put in my mouth. The taste was a little less strong than the Opals but after a few seconds of sloshing it around in my mouth, I suddenly was overcome with a huge wave of licorice, the strongest licorice I have ever tasted. That lasted about 10 seconds and then I gladly spit it out. It isn’t for the weak, thats for sure. Afterwards I felt a little nauseas, and am still sitting here trying to pretend I did not just eat another one for the sake of writing this blog post. Here is a fun reaction of someone who has just experienced Salmiak:

5. Sharing the Poetic Edda with Friends

There is really nothing more beautiful than sharing a culture and language with others who are just as passionate about it. In this series, I cover my face with Icelandic literature.

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6. Trying to Pronounce Really Long Words

A few months ago I created a video attempting to pronounce the word “hjúkrunarfræðingurinn” or “the registered nurse.” Apparently I did pretty well, but that does not mean I am going to graduate to pronouncing the longest word in Icelandic: Vaðlaheiðarvegavinnuverkfærageymsluskúraútidyralyklakippuhringur. I cannot imagine what an elementary school spelling test must look like for Icelanders. You can watch my video here.


7. Inaccessible Icelandic Broadcasting

The Icelandic National Broadcasting Service, or RÚV, is a key contender in my learning of Icelandic pronunciation. On their channels I have watched Fantastic 4 with Icelandic subtitles, Icelandic handball tournaments, sportscasters counting down the start gun for track races in Icelandic. I have seen the Icelandic news, watched many people slip on ice, tried to figure out what so many people were saying interviews, with no success. And then, there comes that time during the day when the news is no longer available outside of Iceland, and that is the only time I truly sleep. Here is my poster of protest:


8. Translating

I have found that what takes an Icelander minutes to read, takes me a few hours. In my first novel translating experience, I got through the first page of the book Englar Alheimsins (Angels of the Universe) in a record breaking hour!


9. Icelandic Street Adventures

Just this past October, Google Maps took a few Google Street View cars out to the island and captured their fair share of landscape, tourists, and cats. This caused a nice outbreak of people looking for pictures of themselves on the small island, and one Icelander took it as an opportunity to post about all of the absurd happenings captured on camera. In a blog called Icelandic Street Adventures, you can find everything from cats licking themselves to tourist posing with statues of vikings. Here we have a human being seemingly doubled over crying because the beauty of Iceland is just too overwhelming:


10. Head Shoulders Knees and….Tær?

Yes, Iceland does in fact have their own version of this song, being called “Höfuð, herðar, hné og tær.” If we thought we had it hard trying to memorize our body parts as children, just think about trying to pronounce “höfuð” with that little adolescent tongue. For your enjoyment I am including a lovely and energetic version of this song as sung by rowdy children:

11. Wrecking Ball…Icelandic heartthrob style

Yes, I mean Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball.” A beautiful young newcomer in the Icelandic music scene is Ásgeir Trausti, who takes this aggressive song sung by Cyrus and turns it into a mellow, melancholy emotional trip (Icelandic accent and all.)

12. Björk Explains TV

Literally do not know how to even present this video of Björk trying to explain a television without giggling and becoming very giddy. Watch Björk struggle to take apart a TV. Watch Björk pronounce the word “city” in a really adorable way. Watch Björk describe wires being like a little elevator inside of the television. And at the end, watch Björk give some very sound advice: “You shouldn’t let poets lie to you.”

13. Otherworldly Scenery

Most people know Iceland for its scenery. Everyone else knows Iceland for its music. In fact, most people assume all Icelandic music from the likes of Sigur Rós and the composer Ólafur Arnalds are deeply influenced by the nature there. Arnalds goes on to refute this by publicly telling everyone that he gets comments all the time about how he must be so inspired by the Icelandic landscape, when in reality he’s actually just writing songs for bathtub commercials (like Ljósið) and for Poland (like Poland). Either way, it doesn’t take music to know how beautiful the landscape is. It just takes a car and a lot of gas. Here is a time lapse video of a lovely drive through the island.

14. My Very First Icelandic Souvenir

On the day of the Sigur Rós concert, a very lovely friend of mine, Hunter, gave me my first piece of Iceland. He went to see the Icelandic musician Sóley play in Austin Texas and happened to snatch up a set of pins with Icelandic words on them. There were four, but I only have one remaining. It is the word “fara” which is the verb “to go” in Icelandic. I wear it with pride.


15. EyjafjallaWHAT?

The Volcano Eyjafjallajökull took the world by storm recently, in April 2010. Air travel was disrupted for a collective total of 6 days because of this strange, unpronounceable entity. Icelanders had to evacuate their homes, and a whole lot of Europe was covered in an ash cloud. It was almost as if someone finally decided to lift Iceland up out of the ocean and dust underneath it, only to find that no one had cleaned it in hundreds of years. When news reporters sought out to present this story to their viewers, they faced one minor problem: how the hell do you pronounce this?

The point of this is not to teach you how to pronounce it, which I did in this post, but rather show you how NOT to pronounce it, sighting many newscasters as examples:


Well, I could probably add onto this all day, but 15 Icelandic topics seem like a nice little handful, and a nice little celebration of the lovely (and sometimes strange) things that come out of studying Icelandic.

I would like to wish myself a happy first birthday (I was reborn as a new person after that concert last year) and I am glad all of you could celebrate with me.






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