Day Twelve and Thirteen: Getting Acquainted with the Big Guys

Day Twelve & Thirteen: Monday 19th & Tuesday 20th August
Location: The University of the Westfjords in Isafjörður, Iceland

The University Centre of the Westfjords, located in the harbor area of Isafjördur.

The University Centre of the Westfjords, located in the harbor area of Isafjördur.

Okay, so, we put up our tent, we slept and then we woke up.

We didn’t have a very good night, ho no…

Basically, I repeat myself, it was just around plus five outside and in addition to that, it rained and stormed all night long. It didn’t seem so bad as we kick-started the night, I would even go as far as saying that we were quite warm and cozy (and looked like worms, stuffed into our elongated sleeping bags); but then came the storm and it wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t as bad as, let’s say, brushing your teeth with shoe polish, but it still was quite unpleasant; and cold; and cold; again.

But well, we made it out alive and in the morning we left the tent and enjoyed the gracious scent of a wet and foggy morning.

Then there was a bear. Not like a polar bear (those are extremely rare up here), but more like the heavily bearded owner of the camp ground, waiting to ambush us for money, trying to look as much as possible like a (brown) bear.

After ransacking us and leaving our pockets bleeding, short thousands of (Icelandic, worthless) kroners, we entered the University Center of the Westfjords and went to classes.

From here on it starts to become a bit difficult to maintain the illusion that I’m writing for the both of us as Linnea and I took different courses. She took the practical, modern Icelandic course and I took the odd, ancient Old Norse course. But well, I guess she’ll be posting about that at some point; it’s her blog isn’t it or what?

So yes, I entered the classroom. We were, in grand total, five students, whom I will try to present in complete random order:

From left to right: Lyonel

From left to right: Christina, Lyonel, Dylan, Craig, Jim, Alice, and Jim’s wife. Photo by William Short.

  • Lyonel: Frenchman, good looking, brilliant young man with a sharp mind and a smile that is no less than that. Knowledge in Icelandic: ultra basic (also known as “order a burger” Icelandic). Knowledge in Old Norse: basic understanding with holes as big as the grand canyon.
  • Alice: English girl just out of high school, determined to live and study in Iceland as well as translatea couple dozen Sagas in her free time. Knowledge of Icelandic:  intermediate (like, almost as good as my Swedish/Norwegian). Knowledge of Old Norse: basic + (like, totally better than mine).

    Old Icelandic book.

    Old Icelandic book.

  • Dylan: American, Old High German Scholar focusing on legalistic aspects of old Germanic poetry, plans to learn about four languages before the end of the decade. Knowledge in Icelandic: intermediate (not afraid to engage with the restless natives). Knowledge of Old Norse: basic understanding (with help from other long dead Germanic languages)
  • Craig: American, English Literature Scholar and professor; teaches Medieval Welch, Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse to undergraduate students: Knowledge of Icelandic: basic (has lived there for a good while). Knowledge of Old Norse: advanced (in case you forgot, he TEACHES it!)
  • Jim: American, Linguistic Scholar, has learned/taught/mastered German, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, Old Saxon and Old Norse (plus, I’d guess, a couple more). Knowledge of Icelandic: good (reads it like you read tweets). Knowledge of Old Norse: World Class expert (no jokes, he event wrote one of the very few Old Norse grammar in existence, see photo to the right.)
Elder Futhark. Photo from:

Elder Futhark. Photo from:

And these were only the students! As teacher, we had no less than Christina; a German professor specialized in word formation in Old Norse and expert in the Elder Futhark writing system. In case you don’t know what the Elder Futhark writing system is, here’s an example.

So, this was the situation I had put myself in that Monday: I spent most of the day discussing, or rather trying to discuss Medieval Icelandic word structure and philology, together with people who have been studying and teaching that very thing for several decades.

I can tell you, I felt quite out of place, and the first day of the course was quite harsh. Basically, the course focused on Old Norse using examples from the renowned Gisla Saga Sursonnar (The Saga of Gisli Sursson), a Saga I hadn’t read even a sentence of.

The second day of the course however, was much more positive. That’s when we started teaming up to translate passages of the Saga, and where I realized that my miniscule knowledge of Old Norse (mostly coming from an old edition of the Saga of Saint Olaf) could actually be put to good use. Basically, from the second day of the course on, I started feeling better and could comprehend more and more. When it came to translation, I repeatedly teamed up with Jim, an expert in the field, and discussed the Literary aspects of the Saga with Craig. In a very Socratic way, the more we were asking questions, the more we’d understand, and the more I would be grateful for my old literature courses I had back in High-School.

All in all, the academic aspect of the course went well, and this was just for the core sources. Indeed, we also had several courses in the afternoon that were quite different and that I will have a pleasure to introduce to you next time…


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