Most Icelanders speak English, often with remarkable fluency -- especially among younger and more urban demographics. (In 1999, English replaced Danish as the first foreign language taught in every school.) You can easily get by without learning Icelandic, but it really pays to at least learn the rules of pronunciation. Asking for directions will go far more smoothly, and Icelanders are extremely appreciative when you say their names correctly.

If you do absorb some vocabulary, be aware that Icelandic words are notorious for constantly shifting in form. All nouns are gendered, and adjectives have to match the gender, number, and case of the nouns they modify. Even proper names have multiple forms: a restaurant on a street called Strandgata would give its address as Strandgötu, and a guesthouse run by a woman named Hanna Sigga is called Gistiheimili Hönnu Siggu.

Icelanders: On a First-Name Basis -- Iceland is alone among Scandinavian countries in retaining the Old Norse system of patronymics as opposed to surnames. If a man named Einar has a son named Jón, the son's name is Jón Einarsson. If Einar has a daughter named Ásta, her name is Ásta Einarsdóttir. Women do not change names when they marry, so if a married couple has a son and a daughter, every family member has a different last name. Children are often named after their grandparents, further adding to the confusion. The upside is that when you speak to Icelanders, you always know which form of address to use. Icelanders all call each other by first name, no matter what their social relations. Even the country's single, slender phone book is alphabetized by first name.

Why Build a House with Turf?

By the mid-12th century, Iceland's climate had cooled considerably, and most of the country had been deforested. Turf housing became the norm and remained so even into the 20th century. Wood was scarce and expensive, and Icelanders roamed the coasts monogramming driftwood to claim it. Roof sod was supported by grids of flat stones and wood rafters. Icelandic grass, which is very thick, with enduring roots, held the turf together. A turf house could last as long as 100 years in areas with moderate rainfall. The roof slope was critical: too flat and it would leak, too steep and the grass would dry out. Glass was costly, too, so windows were often stretched animal skins or abdominal membranes. Turf construction lent itself to small rooms, maze-like interiors, and easy lateral expansion, but required constant repair. Even the best turf house was leaky, damp, dark, cold, and unventilated, with lingering smoke from the burning of peat and dried manure. Sleeping quarters were often directly over the stables, to take advantage of the animals' body heat.


"Hidden People" Lesson #4: Elves & Modern Iceland

In polls, only about 20% of Icelanders rule out the existence of elves. Construction projects can still be thwarted by fears of disturbing elf dwellings. In 1996, as ground was prepared for a graveyard in a Reykjavík suburb, two bulldozers leveling a suspected elf hill mysteriously broke down. Elf arbitrators were called in. "We're going to see whether we can't reach an understanding with the elves," the project supervisor told Iceland's daily newspaper, Morgunblaðið.

Many Icelanders are tired of being asked if they really believe in elves, because they can't give a simple yes or no answer. Saying "yes" would not mean they believe, in the most literal sense, that little people emerge from rocks every night and dance around. And saying "no" would not mean they dismiss related supernatural concepts and phenomena.

Icelanders by necessity have always been strongly attuned to their strange and harsh environment. Spend enough time outdoors in Iceland's long twilights -- which play strange tricks on the eyes -- and Icelanders' unwillingness to rule out hidden people starts to make intuitive sense.


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