Fun Facts About Iceland from The Little Book of Icelanders

Alda Sigmundsdottir is the author behind the popular blog (now primarily a Facebook page) “The Icelandic Weather Report.” After living abroad for many years, she returned to Iceland and found herself at once “one of us” but also very much unfamiliar with the “social mores and standards that prevailed in Icelandic society.” So The Little Book of Icelanders is a short, anecdotal collection of observations (“sweeping generalizations and subjective opinions,” she admits) made by a woman who is at once inside of Icelandic culture and yet is able to view it as (almost) a foreigner as well.

There’s not a lot of analysis or deeper connections drawn in the course of Alda’s Little Book, but then again, she really hasn’t promised any such thing. It’s not an anthropology text, after all. Rather, the book is chock full of Fun Facts About Iceland, some of which, I think, circulate rather widely, and some of which were delightfully new to me. Some of the more entertaining and interesting Fun Facts Alda shares throughout are as follows:

  • Family names (as in the sort of last names used in the US) have been “unequivocally illegal” in Iceland since 1991. Traditionally, Icelandic names are patronymic and end in “-son” for men and “-dottir” for women. So Bjarn Gudmundsson is Bjarn, son of Gudmund. His son would be, hypothetically, Karl Bjarnsson. But at some point, taking non-patronymic family names became very popular in Iceland, and people were just making things up “willy-nilly.” So, to preserve tradition, no new family names can be taken.
  • Continuing with the name-related rules: Iceland has a “Name Committee” that parents must submit the name of their child to for approval. And less traditional names, such as “Pixiebell or Apple or TigerLily” can absolutely be rejected. Alda explains: “Fascist? Perhaps. But consider: Icelandic is one complicated language…and one of its more difficult features is that the nouns, as opposed to just the verbs, decline according to case. They change. Either their endings change, or the whole name changes.” So one of the Name Committee’s jobs is to make sure that it’s possible to decline a name in Icelandic without any trouble.
  • As of 2010, 92% of Icelandic households had an internet connection–one of the highest rates of connectivity in the world. Icelandic dependence on Facebook is also unusually high: the post-meltdown revolution was, according to Alda, “largely organized through Facebook.”
  • Even though the current Icelandic Prime Minister is a woman, she is–in official correspondence–referred to with a male pronoun. Says Alda, “…an official committee appointed by the Icelandic authorities declared that all people in Iceland shall be referred to as ‘men’ and use the pronoun ‘he.'”
  • Icelanders’ professions are listed in the phone book, but there isn’t really any official vetting process for what profession one lists. According to Alda, at the time of her writing, “there are six winners, nine sorcerers, three alien tamers, 18 cowboys, 52 princesses, 14 ghost busters, one former tough guy, 59 Jedi Masters, and…two hen whisperers” listed in the Icelandic phone book.
  • For Icelanders, the hot tub serves the same social purpose as the British pub or the Turkish teahouse. “It’s where people go for rest and relaxation and also where they discuss current events and social affairs of prime importance.”
  • Icelandic children are, as a rule, made to nap outdoors in their prams, regardless of the weather. “This is believed to strengthen the child’s constitution…All warmly ensconced in their lambskin-lined pouches, tucked behind a nylon net or blanket to keep out leaves, snowflakes, or other stray matter.”

There’s a lot more, all generously and humorously explained by Alda. The book is going to come out in hardback soon, but in the meantime, can be purchased as an e-book, here.

(For another observational exploration of Icelandic Culture with more structure to it–meaning, the book is actually organized around the calendar year–check out Ring of Seasons by America-to-Iceland transplant Terry G. Lacy.)

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