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Old Norse, Icelandic and Faroese

Dear Dr. Arguelles.

Let me start by introducing myself: My name is Torkild Hausken, I am 16 years of age and currently reside in Norway. I have been pondering for quite some time whether I should contact you or not; in the end, I decided I should because there are only so many things one can do on one’s own. What I request is basically nothing more than some pointers, tips and maybe the answers to some of my questions.

About me: I am a native Norwegian and I love languages. I started to learn English in second grade and I am currently learning Spanish as a third language in middle school (in Norwegian: ungdomsskole). I also speak Swedish and Danish (although that isn’t that much of an achievement hehe). During a history class about a year ago, we embarked upon the subject of Norwegian history and passed the history of our language. We have a native Icelander in our class and our teacher asked her to read an Old Norse text. When I heard her read it, it was almost enchanting, I really liked the language. I have found many courses on the internet, but I feel that they are lacking somewhat. I have always loved books, so I tried to find some sources in a nearby bookstore. It did not really surprise me that I didn’t find any, Icelandic isn’t such a very common language to learn after all. However I find a small phrasebook in Faroese, and I looked it up on Youtube, for an audio sample. Also this language intrigued me and I really wish to find sources, but it is frustratingly difficult to find books. Not so long ago I noticed your “languages of the world” series on Youtube and how it delighted me when I saw that you had made videos of both Icelandic and Faroese, as well as Old Norse! It is now that I come to my main question: where did you get your sources and what are they called? (grammar books, audio et cetera.) Also, how long each day is it wise to study these languages? I really appreciate all help, as I am new to the subject (as well as the term, 8 years of English and still learning!) of polyglottery.

Thank you!
Tusen takk!

Yours sincerely

Torkild Enstad Hausken

PS: I am seriously considering of taking a higher education in languages when i get older, to continue with my great passion. However both my teacher and parents say that I would be a fool to do so, because there are little need for language specialists in today’s society. Is this really true? I am so sick and tired of people telling me to rather take an education in science subjects. Yes I love science, but I love languages so much more!

My reply:

Dear Mr. Hausken,

Thank you for writing about such a fascinating field. For a Norwegian who has already activated both Swedish and Danish, branching off into the insular Scandinavian dialects is going to involve a voyage of exploration of variations on a theme more than it involves actual learning. I suspect that if you could manage to arrange to spend some time in the Faroes or Iceland, you could simply catch on to the spoken languages rather quickly. You would probably be able to express yourself after a fashion as well, but you will emphatically have to study hard in order to do so correctly. The problem is that Icelandic in particular is both highly inflecting and highly irregular, and with your background in English and Spanish, you have yet to encounter let alone employ a language that requires you to constantly change the form of words in order to express yourself comprehensibly in a grammatically correct fashion. Since you are interested in it already, and particularly since you love books, I think the best preparation for this living encounter would be a prior philological grounding in Old Norse. Now, there emphatically must be methods in Norwegian for this, but I do not know what they are. I believe I showed some English language sources at the end of my video, but here are their full bibliographic references again.

Start with:

Sigrid Valfells and James E. Cathey. Old Icelandic: An Introductory Course.

Then work through the reader and reference grammar known as:

E.V. Gordon. An Introduction to Old Norse.

As for a dictionary, you can start with:

Geir T. Zoega. A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic.

All three are published by Oxford University Press in multiple reprints, so I will not give dates for them.

How long each day is it wise to study these languages? Systematic regularity and consistency are the keys. If you cannot budget at least 30 minutes per day, then you should not expect to actually learn the language, though you may learn about it. An hour a day would be better, and you would learn more and faster if you could manage more. As it should be relatively transparent for you, you can expect to make rapid progress and begin reading sagas and other texts very soon, which should make your study very pleasurable, so I hope you are indeed able to give more time to this.

As for your vocational question, what can I say? The world does indeed value scientists and engineers and doctors and businessmen and just about all other professions more than it does philology and polyglottery. However, if languages are your true passion, then follow them for happiness and fulfillment and excel in their study at the same time you make sure you get a rounded and balanced overall education, and in this fashion you will be able to forge your own path.

Best regards,

Alexander Arguelles

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My name is Alexander Arguelles. I have pursued foreign languages and literatures with a passion all my life. My goal is to share the knowledge and experience I have gained with others who would like to do the same. Find out more →

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