I usually call myself a language nerd, but that seems a little too egalitarian at times.
If you were to tell me about the syntax of Arabic, Greek, or Swahili, I’d gladly listen and would probably enjoy the conversation. Would it lead me to learning those languages, though? I’d never rule it out, but for now, I can say with some confidence that it wouldn’t really.
Instead, my fascination for learning languages is limited to the Gaelic/Goidelic and Nordic categories. I recently tweeted a thread about how I came to love the Irish language, but I’ve also studied Scottish Gaelic, French, and Welsh during my formal education (and a smattering of Breton, however I remember next to nothing about that fragile yet beautiful language). When I was 16, my secondary school in Dublin sent me to live with a Danish family in Copenhagen, and attend school there for a week as part of an EU youth project. The experience was life-changing, because I fell in love with Copenhagen, and Denmark in general. When I returned from Dublin, I took out a Danish language course book and CD, and chose to return to Copenhagen for my Leaving Cert holiday two years later. I’ve been back a good few times since then, and my Duolingo calls me “65% fluent” in Danish, helping me to still consider Copenhagen as my athbhaile, my second home.
Over the years, I’ve flirted with the idea of learning another beautiful Nordic language. One that appears impossible to master to an outsider, and yet utterly seductive to me.
On a trip to Iceland last year, I found myself being able to understand Icelandic easier than its distant relative, German. From my very brief attempts of learning the language years ago, I was able to recall random words like sími (a mobile phone, one I’d remember because it was like a SIM card), kaffihús (coffee-house), and háskóli (university, literally a “high-school”). In comparison, walking through Berlin later that month, my brain couldn’t connect at all with the German language, and relied on my partner to talk to people auf Deutsch.
Learning languages has never been with a business or financial purpose in mind. If those were my priorities, I’d choose Mandarin, German, Spanish, or improve my French. Instead, I choose a language by its history and culture, especially if it has a relevance to me. Growing up in Clontarf, I was fascinated to live in a place of important Hiberno-Norse history; even as a kid, I learned of the Norse names for Irish places: Dyflin (Dublin; the Modern Icelandic is Dyflinn), Hǫfuð (Howth), Víkinga-lág (Wicklow), Veðra-fjǫrðr (Waterford).
On a less historical or cultural level, certain languages appeal to my fantasy of travelling to a different country, ordering coffee in a café, and making small talk with the folk who speak that tongue. I felt a connection with the Nordic countries long before hygge became a buzzword in the English-speaking word (hipster alert!), but the sense of belonging when walking through Kongens Nytorv in Copenhagen, or Laugavegur in Reykjavík, is inexplicably strong. Ireland is home, but those places resonate with whatever the nearest thing the atheist in me can call a soul.
With that, while I still practice my Danish on Duolingo and reading (mainly Twitter), I’ve decided to officially register for a distance-learning course at the University of Iceland, or Háskóli Íslands. I’ll be learning Icelandic with the intention of writing about Iceland in the future, but what format that will take is still something for me to decide.
Either way: Ég heiti Scott, og ég er að læra íslensku – my name is Scott, and I’m learning Icelandic.