Icelandic Language Day

November 16 is Icelandic Language Day (Icelandic: dagur íslenskrar tungu or “day of the Icelandic tongue”) in to celebrate the birthday of the Icelandic poet Jønas Hallgrímsson. It’s also an opportunity to share one of my favorite poems.

The Icelandic Language
By Bill Holm

In this language,
no industrial revolution;
no pasteurized milk;
no oxygen,
no telephone;

only sheep, fish, horses, water falling.
The middle class can hardly speak it.

In this language,
no flush toilet;
you stumble through dark and rain with a handful of rags.
The door groans;
the old smell comes up from under the earth to meet you.

But this language believes in ghosts;
chairs rock by themselves under the lamp;
horses neigh inside an empty gully,
nothing at the bottom but moonlight and black rocks.

The woman with marble hands
whispers this language to you in your sleep;
faces come to the window and sing rhymes;
old ladies wind long hair, hum, tat, fold jam inside pancakes.

In this language,
you can’t chit-chat holding a highball in your hand,
can’t even be polite.
Once the sentence starts its course,
all your grief and failure come clear at last.
Old inflections move from case to case,
gender to gender,
softening consonants,
darkening vowels,
till they sound like the sea moving
icebergs back and
forth in
its mouth.


This sketch of Jónas Hallgrímsson was originally drawn by Déssington in 1845. It is in the public domain.


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