Reciting Icelandic poetry.

Posted on 27. Aug, 2015 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic grammar


Poetic graffiti by Börkur Sigurbjörnsson at

If I had to describe Icelandic as a language, one word would come to mind immediately: poetic. For most of their existence Icelanders have always valued poets highly, so highly in fact that an important person was practically assumed to be a skilled poet and even the poorest farmer could (and often would) show off if they had even a little bit of talent to rhyming. All thanks to the surprisingly high literacy rates we have plenty of proof of that!

Still, when a language learner looks at Icelandic poetry and tries to read it out loud the end result sounds awkward at best. It’s like the syllable count doesn’t work or the stress doesn’t seem to fall on the right parts of words. Good news and bad news – it really does work, except not if you simply read the text as it is. Let’s look at Kyssti mig sól by Guðmundur Böðvarsson as an example:

Kyssti mig sól og sagði:
Sérðu ekki hvað ég skín?
Gleymdu nú vetrargaddinum sára,
gleymdu honum, ástin mín.
Nú er ég átján ára.

(“The sun kissed me and said:/Don’t you see how I shine?/Forget now your sad winter frost,/forget that, my love. /Now I’m eighteen years old.”)


Photo by Axel Kristinsson at

The second and fourth lines in particular don’t seem to work at a first glance, but here’s where the trick happens. Icelandic has a strong tendency to drop vowels that end a word and also the letter H that beings a word, especially so if they’re present as a combo: one word ends with a vowel, the next begins with an H / one word ends with a vowel and the next one begins with one. Another important point: if a word ends with a single vowel + G, the G often gets unvoiced, such as in words ég and og.

Sérðu + ekki = sérðekki: these two words run into one, dropping that extra syllable. The E at beginning of ekki cannot be dropped, because that would create a very difficult to pronounce triple consonant.

Gleymdu + honum = gleymdonum: here, however, both the vowel and the H have to go.

So let’s try to read it again but with the corrections in place:

Kyssti mig sól og sagði:
Sérð’ ekki hvað ég skín?
Gleymdu nú vetrargaddinum sára,
gleymd’ ‘onum, ástin mín.
Nú er ég átján ára.


Let’s have another example of how vowels and H get dropped, two stanzas from a popular folk song Tíminn líður (= time passes by):


Það á að strýkja strákaling,
stinga honum ofan í kolabing,
loka hann úti í landsynning,
láta hann hlaupa allt um kring.

(“The boy must be strengthened / he should be stuck into a pile of coal / locked outside to south-east wind / let him run around the place.”)

The first line has eight syllables, the second ten, third nine and the last one eight again. Something has to be dropped.

Stinga + honum = stingonum.

O(fa)n: sometimes the middle part gets unvoiced, but this may depend on how the song is sung. I’ve definitely heard it voiced as well.

Loka + hann = lokann, úti + í = útí.

Láta + hann = látann.

Aw, poor lad. Sounds like he’s in for some bad times, all for his own good of course so that he’ll grow up strong… but what will happen to the girls?


Það á að strýkja stelpuna,
stinga henni ofan í mykjuna,
loka hana úti og lemja hana
og láta hann bola éta hana.

(“The girl must be strengthened / she should be stuck in manure / locked outside and beaten / and let a bull bite her.”)

Ouch. Seems like traditional life was not easy on anyone… but to make this part work poetry-wise it needs cropping as well.

Stinga + henni = stingenni.

Loka + hana + úti = lokanúti. Yup, three words can be strung together just as easily as two. 😀

Láta + hann = látann, just like above, éta + hana = étana.


Lastly, remember Winnipeg Icelander by Guttormur Guttormsson? A brilliant, hilarious poem that shows what happens when Icelandic and English get on a crash course and neither agrees to budge!

Við tókum til Winnipeg trainið-a fly,
Nick treataði always so kindly.
Hann lofði mér rjúpuna’ að bera’ upp í bæ
Ég borgaði fyrir það, mind ye.
Svo dressaði Nick hana’ í dinnerin sinni
Og duglega upp ‘ana stoppti,
Bauð Dana McMillan í dinnerinn sinn,
„Ég drepti ‘ana,“ „sagði’ ann, „á lofti.“

Alas, this poem is untranslatable; it works only as long as you understand enough of both languages. There are plenty of unvoicing examples in this stanza alone so I picked only two of them to use as examples.

Here we see that the Hs have already been helpfully removed, and even better, each unvoicing is written into the text with apostrophes.

Hann lofði mér rjúpuna’ að bera’ upp í bæ – Hann lofði mér rjúpun-að ber-upp í bæ.

„Ég drepti ‘ana,“ „sagði‘ ann, „á lofti.“ – “Ég drept-ana,” sagd-ann, “á lofti.”

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Here’s Winnipeg Icelander once more. See if you can catch all the moments where something gets dropped off!

Destroying Iceland for charity?

Posted on 20. Aug, 2015 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs


Iceland Martian Road by Dyniss Rainer on With roads like these, who even needs to drive off-road?

This week arrived with troubling news: the police were investigating two Scottish men who had apparently driven quite a long way off-road in Iceland, which is illegal. Let’s repeat, it’s illegal to drive off-road in Iceland, everywhere, no exceptions.

Why the general ban? It’s because Iceland’s highlands are moss and lichen -covered, and the damage done to the undergrowth can take up to decades or even centuries to heal. Besides the Holuhraun area is a nature park, and while I agree that Poppy Scotland is a worthwhile charity cause I would question how fair it would be that the nature of Iceland would have to pay such a heavy price for stunts like these.


Steckenbleiben by ~helmar at

However… thankfully none of the things the two adventurers claimed to have done actually happened. It turned out to be an elaborately composed story of “daring adventures and boldly-met challenges”, whereas most likely the real heroics only consisted of visiting Iceland and driving on Ring Road 1, a well-paved road (barring occasional breaks when glacier floods flush it to the sea) that goes around Iceland. The photos and videos they had taken had been staged so that they would seem to be driving off-road, and the story of how they drove on Holuhraun lava field seems to be made-up in its entirety, possibly to make their trip seem a bit more adventurous than it really was. As highlands’ representative Jóhanna Katrín Þorhallsdóttir says, the ground there is too bad for almost any vehicle and the car tracks they found were all outside of the area.

Oh well. Although the story had a bit of an embarrassing end we can at least say no harm was done, the two had a wonderful holiday in Iceland and all was for a good cause!

Related news articles

Hálendisferð ævintýramanna rannsökuð (= Highland trip of adventure-men under investigation)(link)

Ólíklegt að ekið hafi verið á Holuhrauni (= Unlikely that Holuhraun would have been driven on)(link)

Scots under investigation for criminal off-road driving turn themselves in (link)

British Holuhraun “off-roaders” innocent (link)



Talking about good causes though, when treated responsibly Icelandic nature can offer quite amazing possibilities, many that are perfectly legal and non-harmful. I’d like to specifically mention one such called (við erum með þér) Alla leið upp (= we’re with you All the Way Up) by the security company Öryggismiðstöðin. Their idea was to help disabled people climb Esjan, the beautiful mountain that rules the background of Reykjavíkians’ daily lives and is a popular climbing spot. It’s easy enough as long as you’ve got good knees, but it’s far out of reach if you need any kind of help moving around. The mountain is steep, paths are narrow and the terrain is occasionally challenging.

Öryggismiðstöðin decided to make cart/bike hybrids that people could be safely strapped on and, each manned with a small team, push them all the way up the mountain to Steinninn near the top, at around 700m. While it’s possible to climb even higher, Steinn is the point where you can say you’ve climbed Esjan and many people don’t even attempt the climb further than that. By a sheer accident I happened to climb Esjan on a day when the carts were going up and I managed to take some photos from the route above.


Two teams on their way! I took this photo between stages 4 and 5 so they’re already at least two thirds up the mountain.


The photos do no justice to how steep the mountain is, but at least taking this route they skip the really rocky area. I took another one that has a long stretch on rocks on rocks on gravel and then more rocks, which would be entirely non-passable for anything with wheels on.


Stopping to rest for a while…


I took most of these photos with a zoom, since they were actually quite far away from me. Here’s how high up the mountain they already were!


This was their goal, Steinninn, the 5th stage of the climb. Both teams reached it too as you can see in the photo album of their FB page. :)


Down at the root of the mountain the restaurant was already preparing for the teams’ return as I arrived. I had a head-start and although I took a longer route down I was there about ten minutes before a small group of children ran down the road leading up, shouting “They’re coming!” The hitherto quiet restaurant shot into action: a man started food on the grill and a lady turned the music on – We Are the Champions by the Queen – and it was so well-timed that the chorus came on just as the cart turned into view. I almost cried, something about it all was just so touching… maybe the big smile on the man who had probably never before imagined he’d one day sit on top of Esjan!

Laugadalur – hot spring valley

Posted on 13. Aug, 2015 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history


Near downtown Reykjavík is a historical site that’s almost hidden by all the other activities around it, though the whole area takes its name from this place: Laugadalur, the valley of hot springs, is now better known for the Botanical Garden, one of the best swimming pools of Reykjavík, an ice skating rink and a zoo than of the springs themselves. Perhaps it’s better that way.


This is how the place looks like today. Quite a change to the first picture, right? No more washer women, no more steam, just one little building dedicated to the long history of this site and a filled up hot spring area. I find it’s a good thing that it’s filled up, let me explain the basics…


First of all, Laugadalur was not just a random laundry washing area. It was the poor people who came here to wash their laundry in the free, hot water, that would otherwise have been a luxury far out of their reach. They often washed more than just their own laundry, working as washer women for the rich houses downtown. The text with the picture above explains that women pulled laundry carts instead of horses, two women for each cart. Those who didn’t have that opportunity carried the laundry in large baskets or buckets strapped to their backs and neck.


The work was hard and paid very little, as is typical for washer women everywhere in the world for all history. Besides that it was a year round job no matter the weather, be it sunny, stormy or snow, all the laundry had to be brought from several kilometres’ distance and in the winter most of the work was done in almost absolute darkness – Laugadalur did not have lights until very recently in history.


Washing house of the Thorvald-group, 1888. On this place stood a house that the Thorvald-group let build and gave to the city as a present. It offered blessed cover for those who toiled here washing laundry up until 1930.

The house this memorial plaque is for is gone now, but no doubt the washer women welcomed the opportunity of having a shelter from the weather!


Björg Sigurðardóttir, a 27 year old washer woman, looks at you from one of the info signs with haunting eyes. Not long after this photo was taken she was dead, gone in the same way as so many other washer women before her – by falling in the spring.

Laugadalur springs were natural springs and the temperature of the water was close to boiling. Every now and then a woman would accidentally slip, especially in the winter when the ground was icy, and fall in the water dying either by drowning (weighed down by laundry baskets tied to their backs) or of horrible burns. Children fell in the springs too – it was technically speaking banned to bring children in the area particularly because it was so dangerous, but a poor woman really had no choice in the matter. Besides children were often put to work alongside their mothers and a girl of 14 was already considered a washing woman, fully learned and capable of doing her own work. According to one sign a popular sport for the children was to jump over the ditches full of boiling water…


“Nothing against boiling a few more women alive” says the title. It comes from an angry article in Fjallkonan, a newspaper, where the author expressed their anger that nothing had been done to stop people from falling in the springs. Later on a series of metal arcs was put over the spring, probably much to the relief of the author who ended their article with a pessimistic note: “But it may be that people find this (the ironwork) unnecessary and see nothing against boiling a few more women in the springs.”

The answer to why the iron grate was finally made may be in the sad fate of Björg. Before her the two previous victims had been old women, and awful as it is people don’t see such accidents as striking as the loss of a woman age 27 who was also pregnant at the time of her death. To add to the tragedy she had a husband and a three year old son, and she worked as a specialist washing up and starching priest collars. That was what she had been doing on the day of the accident as well and was already finishing the work when she slipped and fell into the spring. A nearby washer woman helped her up, she was put on a laundry cart and wheeled several kilometres home downtown where she died three days later. No wonder that an accident like this shook the city of Reykjavík sufficiently for the safety irons to appear.


Children (= small people) says this sign. It describes both children at play and child labour, and how the ban on bringing children to the area was useless.

This is why I find it good that the pools of hot water are gone, they were dangerous and horrific accidents were all too common in Laugadalur. After reading through all the info signs I wanted to hug and kiss my washing machine out of sheer happiness that the days when this kind of work was a necessity for the poor were behind. The grass that now grows on the bottom of the spring pools marks, perhaps better than any memorial or info sign ever could, that no one needs to come here to risk their lives daily anymore.