The Icelandic language with its Old Norse roots and long compound words can sound quite intimidating to non-Icelandic speakers. Unique words that have to do with living in a small community and dealing with forces of nature have naturally emerged in daily conversations, many of which are completely indescribable in one word when you try to translate them into English. In this article, we mention some very local Icelandic words you can’t translate, that you can practice before your next visit to Iceland. Impress everyone you meet on your journey!
This is one of my favourite words in any language, because it so perfectly describes something I passionately hate: if something more complicated than it has to be, or at least more trouble than you want it to be. I guess it’s ROUGHLY equivalent to “a hassle” – but more describing that something is more complicated than it has to be.
If your friend is insisting that you drive him across town and back again to get a pizza, when he can just get one from around the corner and walk, that’s “vesen.” If someone is objectiong to something perfectly reasonable, making a big deal out of something or generally being difficult, he/she has got vesen. If you’re dealing with the tax office and you have to turn things in by mail, not email, and they insist you turn everything in in triplicate, that’s “vesen” (don’t they have a photocopier?) Actually pretty much anything that has to do with the tax office, or any government office in general, is probably “vesen,” in my experience…
This is a word roughly meaning “run off for a little while,” but only recently did I find out it is a unique cultural phenomenon. Basically, Icelanders tend to work pretty long hours, but they also are generally fairly relaxed about people running off to do an errand if the task at hand isn’t life-or-death.
So if you’re at work, but you have to go to the doctor, or the bank, you tell your boss you need to “skreppa” somewhere in the afternoon. Often, no further explanation will be required, if a man needs to “skreppa”, he needs to “skreppa”. (If you do this too much though, people will think you’re a jerk).
The closest thing English has to this is the phrase “can’t be bothered.” Except that is the exact opposite. Let me explain: “Nenna” basically means that you CAN be bothered to do something, which I like a lot more because it’s in the positive. “Nenna” is sort of a mixture of wanting to, being able to and feeling like doing whatever you nenna or don’t nenna.
If I ask you if you, for instance, want to pick us up some pizza, you can say you “nenna” it, meaning you maybe don’t particularly want to, but you don’t mind doing it if I ask you to, either. Or if you don’t “nenna” it, you can’t be asked.
“Nenna” can also be referred to, semi-seriously, as your ethereal quality of “nenna”-ing things in general, for instance when you’re stuck studying in the library, you can ask where your “nenna” went.
This infamous word can mean almost anything, or absolutely nothing, as the case may be.
In a lot of circumstances it means “Well,” – though not meaning you did something well – but rather “well, then” or “well, well, well…”
But you can use it in all sorts of situations, if you’re bored and want to go, you can give your friend an inquisitive “jæja?,” meaning “are you ready to go?” or if you don’t really wanna do something, but everyone is pushing you, you can say “jæja…” with a tone of defeat, meaning “alright then.” It also works when you really disagree with someone but don’t want to say that out loud in case that makes him/her go on talking, just answer whatever statement he/she makes with a testy “jæja”. It depends almost entirely on the situation and the tone of voice.
When it means absolutely nothing, though, is my favourite use of the word. It’s less common these days, it used to be VERY standard, when there was an awkward silence in a conversation, to simply exclaim with a long, languid “jaaaaaæjja….” to fill the silence. This could then be answered with another “jæja” from the other person, and back and forth until somebody though of something else to talk about. My generation does this almost only ironically, since to us it only serves to point out that there’s an awkward silence going on.
You could also start a conversation with “Jæja,” especially in my parent’s generations, and for men in particular. You see, it would be rude to just walk up to someone you don’t know and start talking to them – maybe they’d rather be left alone. So you would look into the air in their general vicinity and say – as if to yourself, really – “jaaaaæjja….” If the other person responded with a short, determined “jæja,” you could start making conversation. If they say nothing, you just stay quiet.
Basically it’s the only Icelandic word you need to learn.
Dugnaður (DOOG-na-thuhr) or Duglegur (DOOG-leg-uhr)
It would be too simple to translate this word as “hardworkingness.” (But even that is not a word in English, according to my spell check). It’s closer to the word “mettle,” or the Finnish concept of “sisu,” but neither of those completely capture the meaning.
Literally, “duga” just means something will “do.” It is “enough”. So when you tell someone they’re “duglegur,” really you’re just saying “You are sufficient. You’ll do.” But the word has come to encompass both hardworking-ness, determination, diligence, intelligence and a number of other undefinable traits – basically saying “you have what it takes to make things happen.”
And let’s not get into what a crazy work-culture Iceland has, that the word for being “hardworking” is the same as being “good enough.”
This word is a great example of how small a population we have on our pretty little island. The word kviðmágur translates directly to “abdomen brother/sister in law.” Sounds strange, right? If you meet a person who has had physical relations with a person you have also had physical relations with, then that person you met is your kviðmágur. It is rarely used in serious conversation but at some point, Icelandic people have found it necessary to make up a word to describe this phenomenon.
If you have travelled around Iceland by car in the winter season it is very likely that you have experienced skafrenningur to some degree, as Icelandic winter is not exactly known for its pleasant weather! This weather phenomenon happens when there is a layer of loose snow on the ground and enough wind to blow the loose snow up in the air. When the wind is rather calm, it looks beautiful and mystical, making dynamic patterns on the ground without affecting traffic or people’s lives. When it’s windy however, the snow blows all over the place, decreasing visibility to almost zero. You will feel like you’re driving into an empty nothingness.
Speaking of the Icelandic winter, did you know that during the winter solstice the sun rises so low in the sky that we barely have any daylight at all? Don’t get us wrong, travelling to Iceland is amazing – but living here all year round including the wintertime, going to work in the dark and going home from work in the dark… well, it can get kind of depressing after a long period of time! That’s why we have made this awfully long word that describes the feeling of winter depression skammdegisþunglyndi. Þunglyndi, depression, due to skammdegi, short days, which basically means lack of daylight. Luckily, we have bright and pleasant summers that completely make up for the loss of vitamin D and happiness in the winter.
Iceland is located right on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge which spews volcanic magma and gases onto the surface of the island every now and then. Sometimes there are large eruptions that affect people’s daily lives and airline traffic around the globe, but more often we have smaller eruptions which attract visitors and scientists to our island from all over the world to look at the fiery glory. These small eruptions, like the Bárðarbunga eruption in 2014, are considerably peaceful and pretty, and do not cause much damage. In conclusion, túristagos are volcanic eruptions that are not extremely hazardous and please tourists – just the way we like them. Volcano goals!
What are some of your favourite untranslatable Icelandic words – or what are some words you can’t say in Icelandic?