Although you have never been to Iceland and have no immediate plans to visit, you’ve recently decided that it is in your best interest to learn to speak Icelandic. The words feel thick and sticky on your tongue; they stumble over your fat, clumsy lips. Th, you say to yourself, rr. There is the thorn (þ) and the eth (ð), they are two different kinds of th sound. One as in That, one as in weather. You say them to yourself but they don’t sound very different. You think of your favorite childhood book, The Phantom Tollbooth. In it there is a sentence that seems to follow you, somehow—“For after all, it’s more important to know whether there will be weather than what the weather will be.” (You have always empathized with the Whether Man.)
You’ve thought about that sentence nearly every day for years. It’s hard to say why. Perhaps it is because you have lived in so many different climates that it hardly matters to you what the weather is anywhere. If you learned anything from moving so often, it is that everyone wants to believe his/her home has the strangest or most capricious climate. Or, perhaps it is because as a youth in Connecticut, when it was your turn to pick the example sentence for the word “whether” on that week’s spelling test, that was the sentence you chose. All your classmates complained, rightfully, because the word “weather” was also on this test. You thought you were clever. You were not very popular.
Still, you wonder what it might sound like in your new language. You wonder when you will learn enough to translate it, if you will stick to it long enough to find out.
What the weather is like outside your window: damp, but warm. But here, like everywhere, there is always the hope of change. In Iceland the weather tends to stay consistently below 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and in the winter much lower, though rarely below 15 degrees. In your online language-learning course, you are taught that the vetur months are desember, janúar, and febrúar. Later, in a match-the-month-to-its-season quiz, points are taken off because you did not also include nóvember and mars as vetur months, though it had originally grouped them into haust and vor, respectively. At first this annoys you (you are nothing if not an A student), but then you look at a globe and think about what you know about Minnesotan winters, how it snows from mid-October to early May. How Minnesota’s latitude is somewhere near 20 degrees south of Ísland. You suppose it is perfectly reasonable for them to have a five-month winter season, living so far north.
Iceland is a country of cousins. You are Icelandic on your mother’s side; your grandmother was full-blooded. This means you are only 25 percent Íslenska, but that is the largest percentage of heritage you have, so you hold it desperate and close to your chest. Your bræður have always looked like beardless Vikings. They are 6’3 and 6’7, both athletes, both hovering between 250 and 300 pounds of muscle and misguided aggression. You are the smallest person in your family. The only thing you inherited from your mother’s side of the family is her feet. You are embarrassed by them. They do not fit naturally in shoes, they are wildly different sizes. You wonder if you have Icelandic feet, if when you go there after you graduate, you will see sockless relatives and feel at home. In Iceland everyone is related.
You started to do this—learn this language—because you always feel out of place, because you do not know where home is. By the time you turned thirteen, you had already moved across the continent seven different times. Now it is ten years later and you are still in school, making little-to-no money with little-to-no post-grad prospects, stubbornly stalling the real world as long as possible. You do not want to graduate and move in with your parents (like so many of your peers), because they have recently moved to Iowa. Iowa is more boring than Iceland, you reason, because its residents are earnest and naïve (see: The Music Man), they speak English, and there are no active eldfjöll. (Otherwise, you suspect they are fairly similar.)
This is why when Íslendingar migrated to Norður-Ameríka, they went through Kanada (where some or many stayed) and to the mid-northern Bandaríkin—think Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa. This was (is) a nation of farmers. Despite the fact that you hate farming, and rural life, and Iowa, you still want to go to Ísland, to find a home and an exciting Scandinavian love interest there. You can hide in large woolen sweaters (called lopapeysa) there. You can sleep through the long winter, wake up to see the northern lights. In summer it will not get warm, but it will also not get dark.
You return to your course. It is offered through the University of Iceland’s website. You learn while lying in bed, often while eating various brands of crackers or chocolate. It is difficult for you to accurately speak the words out loud—mostly because your lips and tongue don’t naturally make those shapes or sounds, but sometimes it is made more difficult because your mouth is full. You suspect you need a shower, but you don’t get up to take one. You are so consumed in this language that you have not gotten up in several hours, or days.
You are looking at the screen wistfully, still considering The Phantom Tollbooth. You think, I would be much more fond of Susan og Peter (your online language-learning companions) if they were Milo og Tock. As a child, you felt as though perhaps you might grow up to become King Azaz, or Rhyme. You could be that single-minded. You could be that beautiful, that sweet.
You always knew you were more likely to remain pre-adventure Milo your whole life, perpetually bored by everything around you. Perhaps you would devolve a little in adulthood to become the Whether Man. Sometimes you think you are a throwaway character in the story of your own life. After all, you do so hate to make up your mind about anything. You often feel as though there is a cloud that appears to be raining only on you, especially in the swamp in which you currently reside. This is the reason you carry an umbrella.
Some of your past lovers have called you the Demon of Insincerity. You know this because they have told you, though you’ve always disagreed. I do so hate to make up my mind about anyone, you’ve told them. The allusion always makes you laugh. This has never helped anything.
In your course, Peter og Susan go on a gönguferð and get lost. They are on their way to visit a volcano when it becomes foggy. They have lost their áttavita, they do not know which direction they are walking. Susan thinks Peter is sætur og skemmtilegur. You become invested because you love a good love story. To survive, Peter has to break a window in an empty skála. Peter cooks soup and bread. Susan is smitten; she writes it in her diary. You understand how she feels, though you find Peter’s fondness for hvalir and jarðhiti terribly boring, if commendably environmentalist.
During week tvö of your single-minded attempt to learn this language, you begin to notice more and more how often you talk to yourself. To your computer.
Self, you say, we are doing vel! Við should have a delicious, high ABV bjór to celebrate our newfound ability to talk to Icelanders about veðrið og eyðileg gjandi eðli eldfjalla!
Já, and wouldn’t the Whether Man be proud? you reply.
You nod vigorously in agreement.
You leave your bedroom. You have done nothing but this course all day—all week, even. You are thinking in an Icelandic cadence. You say something to your roommate, who looks at you for a moment, then nods noncommittally, says she is glad to hear that. When you return to your room and resume your course, you realize you have no idea what you said to her.
You are one of those unfortunate souls who, despite beginning to learn Spanish at five in Texas and French when you moved to Canada shortly thereafter, has never learned to roll her Rs. This makes learning to actually speak Icelandic very difficult. You ask around. No one knows how to explain it. You look on the Internet, where you find a tutorial on wikiHow for the “vision dream” method. It seems promising. You begin following the steps. You try not to get your hopes up.
Step one: “Take a deep breath.” (Okay, you think, breathing.)
Step two: “Say ‘vision’ so that the central ‘zh’ sound is drawn out, lasting three to four seconds.” (It also includes a visual component, which is a born-digital drawing of an unshaven man’s face, with a pink background and the word ‘vizhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhion’ typed beside his mouth. This does not help you.)
Step three: “Make a huge crescendo while you’re on the zh sound. It may also help to raise the pitch gradually.” (In the visual component, the misspelled vision is stretched to look louder, and perhaps higher-pitched. You do not know who benefits from this. Its lack of artistry bothers you. You consider finding another website.)
Step four: “Make the final syllable of ‘vision’ very short, but continue to get louder. By the time you say the final ‘n’ of ‘vision’ you should be making the loudest sound you possibly can.” (You pause. You’re not alone in the house. What will your roommates think of you, sitting alone in your room, screaming ‘un’? What do they think of you now?)
Step five: “Coordinate the rest of the phrase. The ‘ion’ of ‘vision’ should only last a fraction of a second, before you launch into the ‘dr’ of ‘dream.’ The ‘dr’ of dream should be the climax of the phrase. You should be putting so much energy into your sound at this point that you may well feel somewhat faint.” (Oh dear, you think. You wonder when your roommates will leave. You feel ashamed of your inability to do this at a regular volume, or at all.)
Step six: “Switch to the ‘dr’ of dream and try to relax your tongue, especially the tip, making it feel as floppy as possible. At the same time blow air out of your mouth as hard and fast as you possibly can.” (This is the part in all the tutorials you’ve read that you can’t seem to understand. How does one relax the tip of one’s tongue when the tip of the tongue is the body part one is trying to control? What does ‘floppy’ mean in this context? You feel discouraged. You file the tutorial for later. You tell yourself you’ll try it when no one is around to hear you fail.)
Icelandic grammar is said by some to be one of the hardest in the world to learn. There are three genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter) into which each noun can fall, and within that category each noun can be classified as either strong or weak. There are six different kinds of pronouns: singular and plural versions of first, second, and third person. There are also four cases (dative, accusative, genitive, and nominative) for which each noun, adjective, and pronoun has a different declined ending. These are applicable to all the verb tenses, of which there are the same number as English. This bores and frustrates you, even though you have never loved anything the way you love English grammar.
Well, perhaps your dogs, or your little brother. Perhaps The Phantom Tollbooth or puns or living alone.
You wonder what Icelandic puns sound like. If Íslendingur love them the way you do. After a bit of research, you discover that the word for ‘pun’ is orðaleikur, which literally means “word play.” You rejoice in your head, or perhaps out loud. Orðaleikur is a much more respectable word than pun. Íslendingur must have a much more refined attitude toward puns, you say to yourself.
This must be where we belong, you agree.
You have one cousin who, in the past year, has learned to speak Íslenska fairly fluently. She lives in Minnesota. You write her messages on various social media sites, detailing your progress, your frustration with the grammar. She suggests you take a trip to Minneapolis over Christmas to meet her Icelandic teacher. You are consumed with a word you just learned—öfund. Grænn með öfund, some children’s book might say. You picture yourself as a sickly Grinch, but you can’t steal yourself a teacher like the Grinch could steal Christmas. All the other Íslendingur are too far to reach.
It’s not fair, you whine to yourself. She has a community. Við have nobody! When we try to explain how hard it is to learn this language to our roommates, they just won’t sympathize with us at all.
Já, what a shame to be so misunderstood, you reply, wallowing.
When you call your mother to complain, she tells you to move to Iowa or Minnesota if you want to learn the language with other people. Th,you say, rr. I am getting pretty good, you say. I think I will skip Iowa and just move to Ísland. Your mother sighs, as is her custom. She changes the subject, tells you about how she loves Iowa but is feeling depressed. She is having trouble adjusting; in the mid-northern states you can go days or weeks without seeing the sun.
You wonder if you will also be a sigher when you someday have börnin. You wonder how much of life is genetic. Perhaps, you think, you will not just look like your dad, you will act like him too. A workaholic, perhaps, the parent no daughter wants to disappoint but always seems to. The person who is always leaving, the one who never wants to.
Hann er ekkiÍslenskur; he is a mutt, some mix of Russian, Lithuanian, English, French-Canadian, a few others. He doesn’t care as much as your mother does about family, or as much as you do about belonging somewhere. He is a perfectionist, he gets bored easily. He is not a good hunter. He likes to cook, to go to the movies, occasionally to do yard work. You hate yard work as much as farming and rural life, but if the choice is between becoming your father or becoming your mother, you would still rather end up like him.
The further you get in your course—the first and simplest out of five—the more the consonants seem to overtake the paragraphs. Th, th, rr, you whisper desperately to yourself. You are overwhelmed. There are so many endings. There are so many accents. The sound of the vowel changes completely when it has an accent; they all begin to multiply and run together in your head, a symphony of everything that has ever confused you. You look outside. It is still warm. It is still damp. This is somewhat comforting but the wet post-autumn rot makes you sneeze. Your bones ache a little, perhaps in protest.
The course introduces you to past tense via Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. This is a book you have not read, though you vaguely remember watching the Brendan Fraser movie version in 3-D with your father and younger brother. This is a book Google cannot reliably translate. (You can’t help but wonder why it can’t use The Phantom Tollbooth. Surely it has been translated there. Surely the Icelandic population wants to read such a book. All those orðaleikur! You have wholly convinced yourself that they—being related to you as they are—also love puns.)
You feel as though you have been skipping happily along on a gönguferð, not paying enough attention to your surroundings. Now, just as the þoka begins to roll in, here you are—realizing that you were never given a reliable áttavita to forget to bring with you. And you don’t even have a Peter to rely on. You will have to break your own window.
In one exercise, the course gives you a sentence: first person, past tense. Ég hafði; Ég stundaði; Ég fyllti; Ég hvessti; Ég fékk; Ég fór. I did; I ____; I ____; I looked; I ____; I went. You know about half the verbs, and so are able without much trouble to conjugate them into first person, present tense. The other half, you’re not sure you’ve seen before. Google tells you Ég stundaði means “I studied.” You know læra means ‘to study’; you don’t know the stem of stundaði. You don’t know how to find it. You wonder if the translation is correct. You don’t have an Icelandic-English orðabók, you don’t have a teacher. You are at the mercy of the Internet’s ability to translate a language spoken by 330,000 people, or .0043% of the world’s population.
Later, as you are absentmindedly wondering whether the weather is ever going to change, you Google the Whether Man’s sentence. It’s a thrilling moment—you recognize about half the translated words. It turns out to be just as much a tongue-twister in Icelandic as English. Eftir allt, það er mikilvægara að vita hvort það verður veður en hvað veðrið verður. You say it to yourself, slowly, trip over the r and ð. You wonder aloud about the grammar, if Google has it right this time.
When you finally finish the course (somewhere around week þrjú, you think, but you’ve lost count), you celebrate with another bjór. You take a moment of silence to appreciate the fact that for the first time in a long time, you’ve completed something. You take a sip, choke a little on the carbonation. You study the page for a moment, then look at the door. You are not sure what to do now. Is the adventure over? you ask yourself. You feel panicked. But what will happen to Peter og Susan?
You’re certainly not fluent yet, but you don’t quite remember what the sun feels like. You wonder if autumn slid all the way into winter this week. Maybe it’s time to venture útandyra, you think. You poke the window beside your bed, smudge oily fingerprints on the glass. It’s awfully cold. The sky is grey and there are more leaves on the ground than in the trees.
You don’t bother getting up; no one is home to talk to, anyway. You click the next course—another beginner-level one, but this time about culture instead of nature. Peter og Susan have been replaced by Xavier og Bettina. You are excited to see that it starts from the very beginning. It’s so easy at first that you feel like you must have learned something.
Katie Prince is a poet, essayist, and graphic designer. She holds a BA from the University of Missouri and an MFA from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. In the spring of 2017, she served as artist-in-residence at Klaustrið, in Iceland’s Fljótsdalur valley. She has been named a finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award, the Philip Levine Prize, the Gigantic Sequins Poetry Contest, and the Terrain.org Poetry Contest. Her work has been published in Electric Literature, Fugue, the Adroit Journal, and Poetry Northwest, among others. She lives in Seattle, where she directs the marketing and communications efforts for Hugo House, a literary nonprofit. You can find her online at www.katieprince.com.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.