Icelandic is (maybe) not a particularly difficult language for English speakers.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

That's an assertion that I've been wanting to test out for quite some time. There are some languages out there that have an unjustified bad rap as being difficult to learn, Persian being one in particular. Persian seems difficult at first and certainly looks it, but the lack of grammatical gender, easy word order, simple verb conjugation and fairly standardized form (i.e. little regional difference) make it a treat to learn for the dedicated student. By no means is it a language that one can just pick up with exposure, but anyone willing to put in the effort will be pleasantly surprised.

The same I feel to be true about Icelandic, which is often claimed to be the most difficult Germanic language. The reasons I usually see cited are the three cases, grammatical gender, and irregularity. Yet German, which has all of these, is often claimed to be the easiest language for English speakers. My opinion is that this is largely claimed by those who have taken German for a course or two, who see immediate cognates like Das ist Wasser and Wir schwimmen und Sie trinken.

I won't get into too much detail here, but Icelandic I see as a language with middle-of-the-road difficulty for English speakers, something around the difficulty of Italian. Reasons for this are:

- Grammatical gender is usually indicated by the ending. Italian, Spanish, Bulgarian etc. have this, German is mostly random.
- Word order is similar to English, and relative clauses do not throw the verb to the end of a sentence as in German. Icelandic has the wonderful sem for this, like continental Scandinavian som.
- Verb conjugation seems to be about as irregular, but less complex, than Romance languages.
- Pronounced largely as written, and
- Almost no regional variation. In other words, no rude surprises where one learns a language, goes to a country to speak it, and finds out that everywhere has its own dialect. There is nothing wrong with dialects, but understanding them can be a nightmare for some.

However, what I am not quite certain about with Icelandic is its regularity or lack of it in other areas, and there may be other areas I have not yet considered either. Because of this, I intend to spend the next two months or so delving a bit deeper into Icelandic instead of just getting by on Norwegian and German cognates and little else as I have until now. In short, expect a lot more posts on Icelandic in the near future as I attempt to ascertain whether Icelandic really is as tricky as rumor has it, or whether this is yet another exaggeration.

I especially look forward to looking for slightly hidden cognates. Romance languages and English have a lot of obvious ones (so-called international or pan-European terminology) whereas those between English and Icelandic (and other Germanic languages) are often less recognizable. Words like hrafn for raven, landafræði for geology, or töluð (spoken), which I assume is cognate with tell/told.

By the way, why now? Tomorrow is the solstice, and at this time of year I find myself wondering about what the four hours of sunlight and sun a mere 2.8 degrees above the horizon feels like. The solstice seems like as good a time as any to begin a two-month look into the language.


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