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My quest for Icelandic and meaning

Before droves of rain-cloaked tourists attired the landscape in Land’s End reds and blues, before the destination weddings hit the waterfalls and glaciers, before the flood of images of volcanic eruptions graced the likes of Facebook and Instagram, I loved Iceland like she was my own. 

Walk through the aisles of my memory and you will find the image of me, 1st grade, purple Icelandic sweater floating about my shoulders, three sizes too big and smelling of sheep. Then, 4th grade: me, still adorned in said sheepy sweater, giving a presentation on Icelandic poetry books I found in my dad’s study, smile faltering when the teacher asked if I could read them (I could not), hesitating, then pointing out the word for “cat” in one of the poems. Me, 16: spending my free nights practicing vocabulary related to birthdays and whales on IcelandicOnline.is.

As a child, I would walk past my dad’s study, where books rose ceiling-high on DIY shelves in the small room, and note the poem sitting on top of one of the shelves: “Gunnar, tveggja ára.” Gunnar, two years old. My grandfather had written the poem about my dad as a toddler, and the way it had been written and indented on a typewriter, framed, and the way you could tell the words in Icelandic rhymed at the end of each sentence told me even as a child that the poem was imbued with love for my dad by this man that I would never get to know. I asked my dad if he knew what the poem said. He did not.

In life, after moving to the States, my grandparents had been of the mind that if they had reared my dad with Icelandic, he would have grown up with an accent and thereby ostracized in American society; as such, my dad grew up without a word of Icelandic. Growing up, I asked him, why didn’t you ever ask them to teach you the language? And after meeting my much-older cousins, who had gotten to know our grandparents, I thought of asking them, why didn’t you ask Amma and Afi to talk to you in Icelandic? 

I was jealous, yes—not rightly so, as linguistic and cultural appreciation came later in this country. But I felt like there was a piece of me missing, maybe because it felt lonely being an only child and not really knowing any other family, and Icelandic seemed like a medium I could use to connect to my grandparents and relatives, whether or not they were still here on Earth. It was in this vein that I began my quest to learn Icelandic and to attempt to connect to the country of my ancestors. 

It was not until high school that I undertook this mission, as it was not until I had learned some French that I truly understood what a foreign language was and how one acquired language skills. I began my studies on Icelandic Online, the only website at the time dedicated to teaching people Icelandic, and this way, I learned basic vocabulary, conjugations and declensions. But I found it difficult to maintain a grasp of Icelandic vocabulary and grammar, particularly when there were no Icelandic teachers, no required daily practice, and due to the fact that I was studying this language while at the same time taking high school courses. 

I soon turned my attention to Internet searches and connecting with relatives in Iceland and seeing if I could find a way to study Icelandic in the country of origin itself. I happened upon a three-week language program up in a remote former boarding school in the Westfjords, Iceland’s northwestern province not too distant from the Arctic Circle. I had the wonderful luck of being able to go on this program, and those three weeks were perhaps the happiest of my life. I felt a deep love and connection to the fjords, the vast, treeless expanses of land between volcanoes, the  echoing baas of sheep wandering and feasting on grasses miles away. When I was in Icelandic classes and speaking sentences in the language, I thought about how my grandparents might have uttered the same sounds, the same word combinations during their lives. In my head, I lived out imaginary conversations in basic Icelandic with my grandparents, wondering what they would think of me and wondering about their lives growing up in the rural fishing villages and islands.

But when I returned home to the States, I lost much of my Icelandic; I struggled to keep up with it as I entered my senior year of high school and then as I entered college. I now miss the breath of Icelandic that I had in high school, and I wonder why this is. Why is it at all important to me to connect to this country and its language? Why is it ever important to people to connect to their heritage and ancestors, if the same kind of close community and meaning can be created through new connections, places and friends, rather than ancestry and family?

In my Chinese class right now at Carleton, we are learning about the importance of the different dialects of Chinese, how the Mandarin we learn in school here is not mutually intelligible with Hakka, Wu, Cantonese, and so many others, but how all these languages contain multitudes, how culture, family, and meaning are lost when you stop speaking a dialect. Yet this concept of meaning tied to language and culture cannot truly be defined; there is no quantitative assessment of meaning or value of a specific language to an individual. There is no concrete rationale as to why many of us feel sad when we learn a language has died out or as to why we feel sad when some of us cannot speak the language of our relatives or ancestors. When a language is lost, a world is lost. 

The same is true of my relationship with Icelandic. As of now, I think I’ll keep trying to learn it in this life—to preserve a world within me.

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