Icelandic Language Blog

A naked tourist on the Prime Minister’s lawn. Posted by on Jan 31, 2013 in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs, Icelandic grammar

One of our current classes is now focusing on what makes written text difficult to read. The most obvious causes are very topic specific vocabulary (that can make the text hard even for the locals), proverbs and idioms that are impossible to understand unless you already know what they mean etc. Then there’s the word order. Icelandic is one of those languages where you can change the order of words almost any way you please without actually changing the meaning of the sentence, for example:

Ég heilsaði henni. (= I greeted her.)
Henni heilsaði ég. (= I greeted her/her I greeted.)

The English-speaking are already at a slight advantage here since English as a language is wonderfully flexible, but Icelandic still comes with the additional hurdle of cases. Those are what makes the meaning stay the same. They may be hard to spot from the text and even at best they make reading somewhat slow, because text where the words are in an “unusual” order often requires you to double check your own understanding of it while you read. Besides this the sentences in Icelandic are often amazingly long and have very few commas to break them into thought-size chunks. A great example of this in a police report from the Facebook page of the Reykjavík police that describes an exceptional night in 14th December, right in the middle of the Capital City. A naked man was caught running around the Prime Minister’s Office!

After watching him jog a couple of rounds they managed to get “their hands in his hair since there were few other parts to grip in sight”* to ask him what anyone would have wanted to know the most; what on earth was going on? The story began to unravel and perhaps unsurprisingly there was a woman, or in fact two, behind it.

Þarna var á ferðinni ungur ferðamaður og var hann á sokkunum einum fata.

(= There, on his way, was a young tourist dressed in nothing but socks.)

Let’s now break this sentence down a little, and translate it as word to word as possible without completely losing the meaning:

Þarna var á ferðinni: there was travelling/on a travel/on his way
ungur ferðamaður: a young tourist man
og var hann: and he was
á sokkunum einum fata: in socks as the only clothing.

Winter in Iceland: when it’s snowy, it’s very snowy. When it’s not snowy it’s still rather cold!

With the police involved, the young man became very sorry for what he had just done and explained what had happened. He had met two Icelandic girls in a bar somewhere about the town.

Maðurinn sagði að stúlkurnar hefðu manað hann til að fara úr fötunum og hlaupa um á umræddu grasi, en þær staðhæft að slíkt væri algeng hefð á Íslandi og í einskærri hjálpsemi hafi þær boðist til að halda á fötum hans á meðan hann þreytti hlaupið.

(= The man said that the girls had dared him to shed clothes and run on the aforementioned grass, and they assured him that that was normal behaviour in Iceland. And in sincere wish to help him they had offered to hold his clothes until he’d get enough of running.)

Maðurinn sagði at stúlkurnar hefðu manað hann: the man said that the girls had dared him
að fara úr fötunum: to get out of clothes
og hlaupa um á umræddu grasi: and run about the in question grass
en þær staðhæft að slíkt væri algeng hefð á Íslandi: and they assured that such would be normal behaviour in Iceland (“en” can translate as f.ex. but, than, and etc.)
og í einskærri hjálpsemi: and in pure helpfulness
hafi þær boðist til ad halda á fötum hans: had they offered to hold his clothes
á meðan hann þreytti hlaupið: while he tired of running.

What happened next was that the girls cheered him on happily and then legged it as fast as their feet could carry. With his clothes still under arm, of course.

Var honum komið á lögreglustöðina vafinn teppi en hann átti í erfiðleikum með að framvísa skilríkjum enda veskið í buxunum, sem voru í höndum stúlknanna. 

(= He was taken to the police station wrapped in a blanket and he had trouble to present his ID as the wallet was in (the pocket of) his trousers, that were in the hands of the girls.)

Var honum komið á lögreglustöðina: he was taken to the police station**
vafinn teppi: wrapped in a blanket
en hann átti í erfiðleikum með: but he had trouble to
að framvísa skilríkjum: to present an ID
enda veskið í buxunum: since the wallet in the trousers
sem voru í höndum stúlknanna: that were in the hands of the girls.

Indeed, things did not look very bright for him, but in the end they still took at least a turn for the better. Icelandic girls may pull your leg as many ways as you let them, but it would seem that they’re not thieves.

Sagan endaði samt betur á horfðist í fyrstu því að er honum var skilað á hótel sitt, biðu fötin hans í móttökunni en stúlkurnar horfnar á braut.

(= The story still ended better than it at first seemed like when as he was dropped off at his hotel, were his clothes were waiting for him at the reception, the girls had, however, disappeared.)

Sagan endaði samt betur á horfist í fyrstu: the story yet ended better than looked like at first
því að er honum var skilað á hótel sitt: because/when he was delivered to his hotel
biðu fötin hans í móttökunni: waited his clothes at the reception
en stúlkurnar horfnar á braut: but the girls disappeared on their course.

Let this be a lesson: if anyone, in any country, is trying to make you do something that sounds a bit outrageous and insists that this is toooooootally normal, be very, very suspicious!

By the way, this young man very nearly made it as the Tourist of the Year in Reykjavík Grapevine’s annual election.***

The news article for this story is here.


*This is exactly how the police put it.

**Here’s a great example of the word order shift that I mentioned in the beginning.

***He was bested by an Asian lady who lost and found herself in Iceland without ever noticing anything special going on.

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About the Author: hulda

Hi, I'm Hulda, originally Finnish but now living in the suburbs of Reykjavík. I'm here to help you in any way I can if you're considering learning Icelandic. Nice to meet you!


  1. Carter:

    One of the most humourous grammar examples and exercises that I have ever had! Thanks for always making your posts so interesting, Hulda!


    • hulda:

      @Carter I’m happy you liked it (although I’m a bit sorry for the young tourist)(just a little bit)! I think that when studying is fun learning happens faster. 🙂

  2. Corin:

    Hi, Great blog! totally off topic for this post – would you know of an icelandic book store with an online presence where I could purchase Mr Men or Tinni books? I just saw Stundin okkar (03.02.13) and in one segment i spotted Herra Hnaerri!

    They would need to be able to mail to New Zealand.

    cheers corin

    • hulda:

      @Corin You could try Eymundsson for example. I did a quick search and found both Tinni and several Mr Men books, and they ship worldwide. It would seem that the English part of their site is not completely up yet but it looks to be simple enough to navigate even in all Icelandic – and if in doubt, online translators might help. 🙂

      • corin:

        @hulda Thanks hulda