One Month

So now I've been in Iceland for a whole month, apparently. It really doesn't feel like that much. 

I think my ability to understand spoken Icelandic really has improved, although I'm not sure that I'm speaking much more fluently at all. As I’ve said before, my vocabulary is not too bad. It's just putting things into proper sentences that's the tricky part. For those of you who don't know, Icelandic has quite complicated grammar. It's not enough to know a noun or an adjective - you also have to know how to decline it. Conjugating verbs is simple in comparison.

This is certainly what has given Icelandic its reputation as a very difficult language to learn. As much as I'd like to make my limited proficiency look more impressive... well, I can think of harder languages for a native English-speaker to learn. Icelandic has the same alphabet, a remarkably consistent and largely phonetic relationship between spelling and pronunciation, and loads of obvious cognates with English. They also have that Germanic habit of just putting words together to make longer words, which means it’s quite easy to guess the meanings of lots of words you have never seen before.

The thing about learning Icelandic really, is that it's very difficult to get up onto the first rung, as it were. I imagine a lot of new learners give up, whence the language's reputation for fiendish difficulty. You can barely say the most basic things in Icelandic without getting your head around the dreaded cases and declensions, which are pretty much alien to most English people, unless they have studied Latin or something. There are actually fewer cases in Icelandic than there are in Latin, or Polish, but unless you understand them and are able to do a bit of declension, you'll quickly run up against a brick wall in Icelandic.

Cases haven't entirely disappeared in English. We still have them for personal pronouns - think of how the first person plural pronoun is we in a subject position, us in an object position and our when you're talking about possession. In Icelandic, all nouns behave grammatically like that, plus another case to distinguish between direct objects and indirect objects. The (admittedly ridiculous) sentence, "The dog gave the dog's dog to the dog" would be something like, "Hundurinn gaf hundinum hundinn hundsins". Hundur follows one of the regular declension patterns for masculine nouns – there are also feminine and neuter nouns, with several different declension patterns for each gender. And a few irregular nouns thrown in for good measure.

If you want to start forming basic sentences in Icelandic, you must become familiar with which case follows each verb/preposition, and learn to change the forms of words accordingly. There are no separate articles in modern, informal Icelandic, so the words also change form depending on whether you mean the indefinite (a dog - hundur) or the definite form (the dog - hundurinn). So four cases, doubled to include plural, doubled again to include definite forms – your standard declension table has sixteen fields.

But nouns are easy compared to adjectives. Adjectives change form depending on the gender, number and case of the noun(s) being described, as well as whether it/they are definite or indefinite. This makes forty-eight fields for the declension table (although not forty-eight different forms, since there is a certain amount of overlap). It does seem unnecessarily complicated, really.

All this means that often, when I’m trying to speak Icelandic, I end up floundering around, running through declension tables in my head. I don’t know whether I’ll ever be able to decline without thinking about it, but I suppose eventually I won’t have to pause for a few seconds every time I want to use an adjective in the accusative, for example.

To this end, I have enrolled in an Icelandic course for foreigners. I’ve decided to start with Íslenska 3 and just skip 1 and 2. I think I’m not really a beginner anymore, even though I’ve never had any actual instruction. I’m starting on Monday, and then it’s every weekday morning except Fridays for four or five weeks, I can’t remember. I’m actually really looking forward to being taught some Icelandic by a real, live teacher. Also I’ll sort of be a student again, which will be nice. Anyway, I’ll let you all know how it goes.

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