Icelandic Language Day, or the Day of the Icelandic Tongue, is upon us. It is a day to reflect on the unique beauty of this ancient speech and ponder its future as other contenders—English, namely—become universal.
This annual celebration coincides with the birthday of renown 19th-century Icelandic poet and scholar, Jónas Hallgrímsson.
Each year, the Minister of Education will provide someone who has “in a unique way contributed to the Icelandic language” with the Jónas Hallgrímsson Award.
Icelandic is very similar to Old Norse, so much so that Icelanders are still able to mostly read their Sagas in their original form.
It is a language of poetry and reinvention, a language that continues to evoke the tales of heroism and tragedy that have taken place here. Against all odds, it is a language that refuses to melt away into the mists of time.
And so, with ancient Viking words on the tip of our tongues, let us together look into a handful of popular Icelandic sayings, and delve into their fascinating origins.
Áfram með smjörið! (“Onwards with the butter!”)
In medieval times, churning butter was one of the most laborious, yet necessary tasks known to man. For one, it was a manual job, taking near 7000 plunges to transform the milk into butter. Second, Icelanders considered butter to give you strength during the winter, and so kept large amounts of it in storage.
Those tasked with butter churning would often attempt to find a way around the physical aspect of the job itself, or simply refuse to give it their full attention and procrastinate. This phrase today could be translated to “Just get on with it!”
Að finna einhvern í fjöru (“To find someone on a beach”)
Járnsíð was a booklet of Norwegian legal provisions valid in Iceland between 1271-1281. Naturally, the majority of the country’s earliest settlers originated from Norway, where existed the practice of punishing thieves and murderers by the seashore.
To state “Að finna einhvern í fjöru” to another is a threat, meaning you will have your vengeance and see them brought to justice, be it at the ocean or not.
Að koma einhverjum fyrir kattarnef (“To bring someone in front of a cat’s nose”)
An individual would use this phrase if threatening to kill someone—which, of course, no one would ever do on Icelandic Language Day! There is some dispute as to where exactly this phrase first arose, though there are two prevailing theories, however.
The first refers to an Icelandic bandit known as Hattur, infamous for his cruelty and murderous sprees. Bringing someone to face Hattur meant certain death. The second theory is somewhat more self-explanatory; cat’s are known predators, known to have their prey hanging from their mouth and, thus, hanging ‘in front of a cat’s nose’.
Of seint í rassinn gripið (“Too late to grab that arse”)
Iceland, an island in the North Atlantic, was built as a fishing nation due to the abundance of food off its shore and the relative infertility of its terrain. Sailors were thus the breadwinners of the nation and birthed many maxims and phrases that would live on through the centuries.
In English, this saying is closest to “that ship has sailed”, and was thought to have been said by sailors upon a death at sea, as in “too late to grab that arse… and pull him to safety”.