Thursday, May 03, 2007

On Learning Icelandic

Shortly after the week I spent learning Icelandic for the documentary 'Brainman' in 2004, I wrote down some of my thoughts on the experience. I reproduce an excerpt from them below:

"Though some might complain about the Icelandic grammar, that isn't the point. Icelandic is not grammar, Icelandic people don't speak grammar. If you learn the language, the grammar will follow. I find that the complexity of Icelandic mirrors the complexity of human thought and nature, and the rich tension within the fabric of everyday life. When paint is cast within a portrait, it becomes something more for being part of something bigger than itself. Blue and grey becomes a sky, green and white becomes a landscape, pink and orange and black becomes a human face. So it is with words which become sentences, like raindrops which form a sea. Why shouldn't 'bók' become 'bókin' at the start of a sentence and 'bókina' at the end. Icelandic sentences are composed of more than just words."


Anonymous said...

The Gracious.
Taught the Quran.
Created Man.
Taught him the art of expression.
(The Holy Quran. Al
Rehman [The Gracious]. 2 - 5.
Translated with Brief Explanatory notes by Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad – Khalifatul Masih IV. (The Bath Press, 1997).

'It's all poetry to me' says Harrison. By the same principle: Bók, bókin and bókina to me all spell Books - Why not, indeed?

Back in our silences and
sullen looks,
for all the Scotch we drink, what's still between's
not the 30 or so years, but books, books, books.

Urdu, too is one of the most difficult languages to teach, having no definitive gramnmatical rules - It can only be taught by speaking it.

Anonymous said...

Loving the post about learning languages. I've decided to try and learn Spanish in 9 days, and what you wrote makes perfect sense. The grammar aspect has never occured to me. It just falls into place.

Anonymous said...

Hi Daniel. Saw your bio on 60 minutes a while back and was struck not so much by your 'savant' abilities, but by your deep compassion for others. Your brain has not only merged left and right but the limbic system as well. Your brain seems to have no boundaries and you're able to express it for others. Especially those whom cannot speak for themselves. As for languages, words are a dull substitute for the vibrancy of life and cultures. You don't live life as most but rather feel it. You truly have a beautiful mind!

Anonymous said...

Nice commentary. Makes me want to pack my bags and head north.

And for another quote...

When I hear the hypercritical quarreling about grammar and style, the position of the particles, etc., etc., stretching or contracting every speaker to certain rules of theirs, I see that they forget that the first requisite and rule is that expression shall be vital and natural... Essentially your truest poetic sentence is as free and lawless as a lamb's bleat.
- Thoreau

Anonymous said...

Fascinated by languages myself, I've got a few theoretical questions related to your ability to learn/ see language and numerals. Have you studied any Asian languages, or Arabic? I've studied several and wondered how you would see / experience Chinese numbers, or numbers derived from Sanskrit, for example. Assuming that one reason you see images related to Western numbers is because you have been exposed to those numbers your whole life makes me guess that you would have no shapes associated with Chinese numerals/ characters. If you studied Chinese, however, I would guess that the shapes you see in relation to those would correspond across the board, similar to the way I relate new numerical symbols to Western numbers (instead of shapes). Would love to discuss this more with you.

Also, I posed this second question to my wife (we both read your book): Your ability seems to most of us to 'obviously' be a step up in the evolutionary ladder, but I also wonder if it could be part of the answer many have sought in their search for the likely hypothetical common tongue supposedly destroyed in the story of Babel. What I mean by this is: could written language and the development of written numbers have incited the demise of a common ability among everyone to think as you do; hence is it possible that your ability is not necessarily an evolutionary step in the form of a "mutation," but could it be a glance at the past? Personally, it is hard to imagine that we as a species would have 'lost' your mental skills after creating written language (as many societies never did write), but at the same time, how much would we know about what other people/ societies think/ thought without written language? Cheers, Sam

Anonymous said...

Sylvia from NC said:

“It becomes something more for being part of something bigger than itself.”

I loved your comparison to colors being used in paintings. I especially enjoyed your description of the face. When I do portraits of faces, I have about 10 different pastels out. It amazes me that out of so many different colors can come an illusion of depth and life that is recognized universally.

Well, last Saturday our school hosted the Junior/ Senior prom, a formal dance that celebrates the end of school and (if you are a senior) the transition from school to college or the workforce.

I had my hair piled on top of my head and curled. I wore a floor-length pink dress with a halter-top. I swear that for me prom evening was like “Cinderella” (except without a prince charming). I walked onto the dance floor, and everyone was surprised. People who normally ignored me at school were ooing and ahing. My friends did not recognize me. Everyone wanted to have their picture taken with me. My friend Andy told me that I was the most beautiful girl there. All the popular guys were making an effort to speak to me. People who I didn’t even know were walking up to me today and telling me that I was beautiful at prom.

I expect that it will all die down soon. People aren’t really into the smart kid that always has her arms loaded down with books and notes. They are into the girl with the curly hair, pink dress, and glowing smile. Once they discover that the second girl is hidden in the closet most of the time, things will get back to normal. Maybe, I’ll let that second girl peak out just a little. I can’t keep my hair curled and wear a nice dress everyday, but I can keep the glowing smile.

ExNihilo said...

Hi Daniel,

Sam's question is of great interest to me, as I have thought about nearly the same topic. I hope someday that scientists can better map the neurological phenomena that lead to the structure of your perceptions - the suggestion that it may have actually been a 'normal' ability in prior genetic pools is very tantalizing as a research topic.

As a student of mathematics myself it would not be surprising to learn that algorithmic treatments of arithmetic (i.e. the multiplication algorithm we all learned in grade school) actually inhibit the human brain from treating numbers in their full extent - they are merely reduced to a symbol to be processed.


Anonymous said...

Hello Daniel, I'm from Brazil, i watched some of your interviews and youtube videos. It's simple amazing and looks like you're a really nice guy :)
Well, since you learned Icelandic in one week I bet you can learn Portuguese in 3 days, specially after knowing Spanish :) Then you can come to Brazil and speak with US natively :)
Congratulations for your skills and for your sympathy.

dh said...

Salut Daniel,

Sunt foarte impresionat ca stii sa vorbesti romaneste. Mesajul acesta este un test, dar sunt sigura ca il vei trece cu brio. Am aflat despre tine cu ocazia cursului de College Writing pe care il iau la facultate unde studiam cartea lui Mark Haddon despre baiatul autist si a trebuit sa scriu o compunere creativa despre autism si oameni autisti. Eu am ales sa scriu o lucrare din perspectiva creierului tau. A fost o lucrare destul de reusita, iar procesul de cercetare a subiectului a fost interesant si placut.
Acum sunt in vacanta si am pus mana pe cartea ce ai scris-o tu. Si am ajuns la pagina 11 si m-am oprit sa iti scriu un mesaj.
Sper sa imi raspunzi pentru ca mi-ar placea sa mai povestim.

Diana Hasegan

Unknown said...


i just recently saw the Channel 5 docu, and was particularly intrigued by the segment on Icelandic - i was once quite obsessed with the nation and studied the language for a year (en ég hef glemt svoooo mikið!)

of course, i'm sure the amount of practice is a factor, but i was curious as to how much facility with a language you retain after studying a number of them. also, have you experience in learning a language written in a system other than a modified Roman alphabet?

takk fyrir!

slÖ said...

sounds like pure poëtry to me.

thanks for sharing

greetings from antwerp,

Anonymous said...


Hello, I saw the documentary of yours in Science Channel. I am really amazed with your capabilities to see numbers and you being a bilingual. Have you tried to study any languange from Asia?

Gigi from Anchorage, Alaska

Anna said...

Hello Daniel,
I read a review of your book in the Times Literary Supplement and was fascinated by your learning Icelandic, because I am of Icelandic descent (Canadian) and am trying to teach myself Icelandic by translating Icelandic poems with the aid of an on-line dictionary from the University of Wisconsin and some tapes for pronunciation. I love your poem about Gullfoss. By chance a relative in Iceland with whom I correspond sent me a beautiful postcard with a picture of Gullfoss on it. I'm glad you love Icelandic, with its strong stresses and soft sounds.

Unknown said...

I've just seen the documentary from FIVE. It really blew me away. I think you are a very unique human being and an inspiration to me and my autistic son. I've been living in Finland and trying to learn Finnish now for a long time. I've been trying to learn systematically - books, grammar study, printed word memorisation, without success. The article about learning the Icelandic language has really inspired me to learn Finnish using a different approach.