This word comes from blær meaning “breeze” and vængur meaning “wing,” taking a simple fan and defining it as a “breeze wing.”
Speaking of blær, I want to note that Iceland has a stunning array of words to describe wind. This may certainly come from the fact that Iceland is all about their sea, and those sea breezes stop at nothing to keep fisherman focused on finding as many words as possible to describe them. Various sources I’ve found insist that there are about 56 different words for wind, others state nearly 100 or more. Here with us are a few examples from a fellow Icelander Jóhannes Benediktsson to get things flowing, from his post Counting Icelandic Words for Wind:
“The Beaufort wind force scale defines 12 different classes of wind, ranging from “calm” to “hurricane force”. Let’s compare Icelandic to English. Other languages return similar results.
My favorite here is the word gola. I like this word in Icelandic because it means “breeze” but the word “gola” makes me think “gondola” and suddenly I am picturing a light breeze pushing a gondola across the horizon.
Sigur Rós seems to take a strong influence to the wind, since two of their songs take on familiar titles from our list: Andvari and Stormur. It is amazing how well each one embodies it’s title.
The first thing this word brought to mind was English’s way of naming the pill bug: the roly poly. Often this word is also spelled “rolli polli” like “pollagalli.” Although this word has nothing to do with small rolling, grey-shelled bugs, it does have a very playful connotation as well. The word is yet another compound coming from pollurmeaning “puddle” and gallimeaning “outfit” or “overalls.” A puddle outfit!
I loved this word because it brought to mind one of Sigur Rós’ most esteemed songs “Hoppipolla.” Hoppipolla isn’t actually a word at all, but a combination of words meshed together. Split apart, it would become “hoppa í polla” or “hopping into puddles.”
The song is a beautiful, lighthearted and optimistic song with a childlike innocence. It’s catchy and one doesn’t need to understand the lyrics to feel those emotions within it. This was one of the first songs I heard by Sigur Rós, and the way the Icelandic was spoken made me attach English words to those that were in another language; there’s a familiarity in it that I think most people can capture.
Halló! This just in: SUMMER HAS STARTED. What does this mean? Well, it most certainly leads into the fact that I have a month and a half to go until I am breathing Icelandic air. I’ll be preparing for this trip in the next month, learning as much Icelandic as possible and unfortunately packing as much as I can into a camping backpack and a few duffels. On the other hand, I will also be at work listening to all the bands featured in this summer’s ATP Iceland festival, or All Tomorrow’s Parties Iceland. This is a music festival happening over four days at Ásbrú, a former NATO base in Keflavík, Iceland. This year it will feature bands and artists that do not hail from Iceland (Slowdive, Portishead, Interpol, Mogwai, and more!) as well as those that are Icelandic, which I want to highlight in a bunch of posts before I set out for Iceland.
I thought it would be appropriate to start off with a group playing at ATP that has just realized a wonderful album called “Silkidrangar” or “Silky Rock Pillars” in English. This group is Samaris, a band with a beautiful reputation of being deeply moving and gracefully melodious, like a small bud slowly blooming into a flower. One reviewer referred to them as “glacial,” moving slowly, coldly and with purpose. The album title “silkidrangar” seems to be an accurate portrayal of the soft, haunting element in their music. Imagining rock pillars, basalt columns, as silky and still stoic like stone is somewhat of a contradiction. This contradiction translates into the music by expressing the softness in melodies that reach deeply into oneself and anchor themselves like stones. Take for example, the single “Ég Vildi Fegin Verda,” the first released single off of the album:
Even if you don’t know Icelandic, the lyrics become so melodious that the mind lets them blend into their environment of instruments and digital constructions. Their lyrics actually revolve around the influence of 19th century Iceland poetry, and even if one cannot translate them, the poetic nature of them is undeniable and plainly showcased.
It is easy to imagine Samaris as a wonderful portrayal of the Icelandic landscape, as most often do with the music of Sigur Rós and Ólafur Arnalds, among other Icelandic artists. Ólafur Arnalds once said he found it funny that everyone said he must have been so inspired by Icelandic nature, because a few of his songs have nothing to do with Iceland (One, “Ljósið,” was initially made for a commercial about bathtubs!). Even if Samaris didn’t pull all of their songs from the landscape, that “glacial” feeling still remains as a key element in their work. The haunting melodies can be equated as music for the black sand beaches, the slow moving glaciers, quiet and mysterious highlands and volcanos.
Nonetheless, they are melodies that pull me into a culture that I have not yet experienced, and I will be terribly excited to feel Iceland all around me as they play in their native land.
I will leave you with a very popular and exquisite song of theirs, “Góða Tungl” or “Good Moon.” This song gives me all sorts of chills.
A lovely combination defines this one: rúm meaning “bed,” and föt, meaning “clothes.” Aha! You bed linens are literally bed clothes, clothes for your bed!
Speaking of beds and implying sleep, the verb for sleep is a rather amusing one that can’t be left untold. It is literally just “sofa.” This one was easy to remember, because a sofa is a great place to crash when you can’t keep your eyes open any longer.
And what better way to fall asleep on your sofa than to listen to a soothing Icelandic lullaby?
This beautiful piece of music, sung in this version by the popular singer Ragnheiður Gröndal, is a traditional lullaby that is used by many parents today. It is called “Sofðu Unga Ástin Mín,” or “Sleep my Young Darling.” It seems to be commonly noted as one of the most beautiful Icelandic lullabies out there. But theres a catch…
If you remember my first post on Icelandic lullabies, you’re aware that most Icelandic lullabies sung to children are actually quite terrifying, and express negativity and fear to induce a strange sense of comfort. In the lullaby Bíum Bíum Bamabló, the lyrics describe a terrifying face looming at the window, watching the human beings lying inside. What seems terrifying about this though is immediately quelled when one considers that the comfort and security inside the house outweighs the small fear lying beyond the window. These lullabies were lessons, securities being defined by the subsiding fears.
Sofðu Unga Ástin Mín tends to reach beyond this realm of security, though. It was written by Jóhann Sigurjónsson, a playwright and poet in the early 20th century. In 1911 he wrote a play about the famous outlaw Fjalla-Eyvindur which included the song in it. To understand the song, let’s give a little background:
Fjalla-Eyvindur was born in 1714, worked as a farmhand, and escaped to a remote area of Iceland after being accused of cheating. He ended up at the farm of a woman named Halla, whom he fell in love with and eventually married in the mid 1700s. It is said that they were outlawed for 20 years, although the exact reason for this seems to be unknown. It is supposed that Halla had drowned a child who stayed with them, and Eyvindur had to pay for her crimes. They decided to run off again and leave the farm, abandoning all of their children. Halla wanted to burn the farm down but Eyvindur prevented this, saving their children in the end. As outlaws, they moved constantly, avoiding those who were hunting for them. The couple had many children, and Halla seemed to always become caught when she was pregnant, but managed to escape and give birth to them. It is said that Halla always killed the children at birth, or shortly after. Why? Well, while on the run, children surely would have been a burden for this couple, so they had to make the decision to leave them behind, helpless, or kill them to save them from dying alone on their own. In one instance, Halla and Eyvindur were caught unexpectedly. Halla had a daughter with her at the time and knew that this baby would burden them on their escape. This lullaby, Sofðu Unga Ástin Mín, was the song that Halla sang to her daughter to lull her to sleep before throwing her off of a waterfall.
Tragic, yes, but in a very aching, beautiful way. The lyrics seem to really capture the pain of this woman who chose to sacrifice her children for her own life:
Sofðu, unga ástin mín, úti regnið grætur. Mamma geymir gullin þín, gamla leggi og völuskrín. Við skulum ekki vaka um dimmar nætur.
Það er margt sem myrkrið veit, minn er hugur þungur. Oft ég svarta sandinn leit svíða grænan engireit. Í jöklinum hljóða dauðadjúpar sprungur.
Sofðu lengi, sofðu rótt, seint mun bezt að vakna. Mæðan kenna mun þér fljótt, meðan hallar degi skjótt, að mennirnir elska, missa, gráta og sakna.
And condensed/roughly translated in English to understand the gist of the song:
Sleep my young love. Outside the rain cries Mother keeps your gold, old leg bones and chest of stones We shall not be awake on dark nights The darkness knows so plenty My mind is heavy Often black sands I gazed at burning green meadows In the glacier lives dead deep cracks Sleep well, sleep tight Better to wake up later Mother will teach you sooner ’til the sun reaches the horizon That men love, lose, cry and pine for.
So as you can see, these seemingly horrific lullabies have deep-rooted histories and stories in them that everyone can pull from. They are sung mournfully as well as in awe, and there is a reason they are still sung today.
I will leave you with a second version by the lovely musician Svavar Knútur, which you can listen to and purchase here.
Here we have another compound, which is comprised of hala, coming from “hali” meaning “tail” and stjarnawhich looks like it sounds: “star.” That leaves us with the idea of a comet being a “tail star” of sorts, trailing through space like an eel swimming through dark waters.
Halastjarna isn’t the only interesting compound involving “stjarna.” You also have “reikistjarna,” the word for planet that breaks down into reika and stjarna, collectively meaning “wandering/roaming star,” much like early astronomers described the planets before they realized they weren’t actually the massive, luminous spheres of plasma that we call stars.
A third one is “sjöstjarna,” broken down as sjö (seven) and stjarna. This “seven star” is the word for Pleiades, a cluster of seven stars named as the “seven sisters” of the solar system. This word also happens to be the name of a plant called the Chickweed Wintergreen, although its etymology and the beginning of this usage is unknown to me.
While on the topic of space, let us not forget to add a new word to our long list of compounds containing steinn or “stone.” In addition to dropasteinkerti, brennisteinn, augasteinn, and steinþegja, we have the lovely “loftsteinn,” meaning “meteorite” but containing loft (sky) and steinn, or “sky stone.”
If you dare to challenge yourself, here is a lovely wikipedia article in Icelandic about the reikistjarna.
Most of the words I’ve posted here have been compounds made of very poetic word combinations. Here to change this trend is the very humorous word for squid, which happens to be split into “smokk” and “fiskur.” “Fiskur” resembles nearly what it looks like: “fish.”But what is smokk?
Well, it just so happens to be the word for “condom.”
Thats right: Condom Fish. The squid is the condom fish.
Thank you Iceland, for changing the way we see creatures that were already considered strange to begin with.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the concept, the ether was a proposed concept in medieval science that was defined as the material that filled the universe above the terrestrial sphere. In the 17th an 18th centuries there were theories that proposed
the ether was a carrier of light, and then in the late 19th century something called “luminiferous æther” was defined as a medium for the spreading, or propagation, of light. This shaped the compound that we now know today as ljósvaki, or “ljós” meaning light and “vaki” meaning an awakener, inducer, or conjurer.
Today is a very significant day. It is a day in which I have been listening to Sigur Rós constantly because something very beautiful happened on this day, one year ago. My life changed. I experienced something beyond me, something that still makes me shake and tremble to this day- I saw Sigur Rós live. April 10th, 2013, I saw Sigur Rós in the flesh and my life has never been the same. I have this ticket next to me, marking the exact seat, the exact time, the exact location in which I fell apart and died, came back to life, and felt an intense beauty I didn’t think I would ever experience.
I still look at the ticket and laugh because the words SIGUR ROS should really be SIGUR RÓS, and I think it’s funny how learning Icelandic has made me come to the conclusion that mistakes like that will always bother me. Just like the way ae is not the same as æ anymore. It is strange to think that a year ago I hadn’t much of a clue what Icelandic was. I was just like others; I said, “Icelandic?? Thats a language??” and laughed. It took falling apart in tears in front of Jónsi on that stage to realize that yes, Icelandic is a language, and yes, it expresses more than the soul can surmount into words. I have no doubt about this.
A year ago, Icelandic was just a hum in my ears. Now it is a language. It is a way of expressing, a way to communicate a beauty I didn’t know how to communicate before. I discovered that beauty was endless as long as I had a way to express it.
After the night of April 10th 2013, “endless” became a word I associated pure beauty with. One of Sigur Rós’s albums, Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust” (translated to “With a Buzz in our Ears we Play Endlessly”), chimed into my mind like the first notes I had ever heard from them. Months before the concert, I came to define my life with this simply coined phrase. I spent 18 years of my life living with this constant, dull buzz in my ears, yet I kept going, and going, and going. It was a painful buzz, one of confusion and ache, and I felt that I had to keep going because it was a noise and inconvenience I had to overcome in my life. When I found Sigur Rós, that buzz became a melody. It was something I didn’t just have to endure, but something I could play along with. With a harmonious buzz in my ears, I played endlessly. Endlessly. In Icelandic, “Endalaust.” That day after the concert, I had the word tattooed onto my forearm, endalaust, a constant reminder that beauty was always an endless ache.
This endlessness to me was not linear, it didn’t flow like time, into the future. Rather, it was cyclical. It circled back around, over and over again, like a ouroboros unknowingly eating its own tail. I came to place my moment with Sigur Rós on this endless loop, hoping that one day I would loop back to the moment, and feel the same way I felt, standing between myself and a beauty only Icelandic had ever induced.
A year ago today I started this loop, I started circling, curving, like a flower curling towards a sun. I’m not quite where I started yet though, I still have three more months until I am reunited with a feeling that I didn’t know I could have ever experienced. And I will be experiencing it for a second time. In three months I will step off of a plane into a heartland of beauty and wonder, a land half covered by ice, half covered by delicate Icelandic melodies. In three months I will be in Iceland.
It is crazy to think that I have spent a year now waiting for this moment, patiently, patiently, waiting, endlessly, patiently, curving, curling, reaching, endlessly, patiently, endalaust. I have taken up a new language, I have fallen in love with a country I have never been to, I have felt more alive. A year ago today I had about 5 dollars in a savings account and now I am approaching 6 grand. Wow. To think that passion can create new realities.
I am listening to Sigur Rós right now and crying a little and I will continue to listen to them all night and all week and all month and for these next three months as I patiently wait for my moment with Iceland to come.
A few many posts ago I mentioned the inaccurate tendencies of GoogleTranslate when trying to help out with the Icelandic language. Of course, I still use it for confirmation on certain words, but when looking up the words to ask for the restroom, I came across something very bizarre:
To any beginner, “talarðu ensku” seems to difficult to misread. But to those who aren’t Icelandic learners, this could easily be taken as truth (because “talarðu ensku” is actually a phrase meaning “Do you speak Icelandic?”) That being said, I would avoid asking Icelanders if they speak English while you have your legs crossed together and can barely walk.
When you break it down though, “talarðu” is not a single word. It is a combination of two words put together, “talar” and “þú,” meaning “speak” and “you” respectively. Before I explain how this happens I’ll have to note that in questions the verb always comes before the subject. So instead of asking “do you speak Icelandic?” you would literally ask “speak you Icelandic?”
So how does “talar þú” become “talarðu” and what the heck are those ð and þ symbols? Well, to make things difficult on us foreign learners, the Icelandic alphabet actually has 32 letters:
Here you can see that á, ð, é, í, ó, ú, ý, þ, æ and ö have become new additions when compared to English. If you’ve studied foreign language, chances are you’ve run into most of those letters. But back to that ð…what is that?? a “d” speared and doubled in on itself? Since when did a P get lazy and drag itself down to a Þ? And how in the world do you pronounce these letters?
The good news is that these two have very similar sounds and follow very simple rules. Let me introduce you to the first letter called the “thorn” or “þorn.”
This letter came from the runic letter called the “thurs” which resembles the thorn but instead of a circular loop, it forms a pointed triangle at the end. It was used in Old Norse, Old English, and Icelandic before shaping itself into what we now know as the digraph “th.” Neatly enough, Icelandic is the only language that did not adopt “th” and still uses the thorn to this day. So where we call the letter “thorn,” Icelandic declares it as “þorn.” And if you haven’t guessed already, that word wouldn’t translate to “porn.” The thorn is most commonly used as a voiceless dental fricative, which is just a fancier way of describing the sound th as in the English word “thick.” So if you adapted the thorn into English, þe language would start looking like þis. You would have moþers and faþers and þanksgiving and þursdays. It is often at the beginning of a word, and occasionally crawls into the middle, for words like “Alþingi” (Icelandic Parliament) or “óþýður” (harsh/gruff). But you will never see the thorn at the end of a sentence, and that is its most important rule. You will never see ljóþ or stöþ or jörþ. Instead, you’ll encounter the letter called the “eth.”
The right way to write those words above are ljóð, stöð and jörð, (poem, station, and earth) and would sound the exact same to an English speaker as they would if they had þorns at the end. Instead of a voiceless dental fricative though, it is something called a voiced dental fricative which can be described as the th in the English “them.” The eth differs in that it may be used at the end of words but cannot be used at the beginning. An easy way to remember this is to think of “thorn” starting with “th” and “eth” ending with “th.” This is also a letter that is almost exclusive to Icelandic, but the Faroe Islands adopt it as well.
To get an inkling about how these sound in words, I’ll post a video of an Icelander citing examples for each of the letters:
Now that we know what these words are and what their rules are, let’s look back at “talar þú” and “talarðu.” Whenever a verb ends in R and is followed by þú (you), you attach the word to the verb but instead add the eth in place of the thorn. It sounds about the same but the word is abbreviated and flows better. Another example is “spilar þú – spilarðu” coming from “spila” (to play) and þú (you).
So yet again we have an example of Icelanders pushing their words together. One day I will find an entire sentence compressedtogetherintooneword and I will not be the least bit surprised.
I decided to take it upon myself to add a second word of the day because some Icelandic compounds simply cannot wait a whole day to be expressed. They are too beautiful.
This is quite a long compound, but some of these words are familiar based on last posts. We can pull out “sjón” from the beginning from learning “sjónvarp,” which is the word for television, or literally “vision caster.” So our initial key word “sjón” is vision. After vision we can break up the word into two more parts, “deild” meaning “division” and “hringur” meaning “ring/circle.” This renders our word into three parts, sjón-deildar-hringur, or “vision dividing circle.”