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The Language of Sigur Rós
by C.J. Renner
"ÉG SPRING ÚT OG FRIÐURINN Í LOFT UPP." The beauty of this passage is threefold; its beauty lies in its meaning, its pronunciation in Icelandic, and the way it is presented by Sigur Rós. As translated into English, this passage holds a double meaning and can be either "I blossom and the peace reaches sky high." Or it could be read as "I explode (due to a lack of peace) and the peace comes out of me and reaches the sky." When this passage is spoken in Icelandic it is pronounced "yek spring oot (like boot) oak free-th(edth - as in "then")ur rin ee loft u(father)p." This passage is given an important place in a Sigur Rós concert as just before the lead singer of Sigur Rós, Jonsi (the "J" is pronounced like a "Y"), sings this passage, he sings into his guitar for a minute or two, which gives his voice a very electronic and distorted sound. He then sings this passage into the microphone and the humanity and vulnerability of his voice is accentuated by the contrast of the electronic voice that he has just broken away from.
I was introduced to Sigur Rós by my aunt and uncle who gave me the band's CD for Christmas. It was a copy because the CD, Ágætis Byrjun, had not yet been released outside of Iceland. Before I had the chance to listen to the album, it quickly became buried on my desk not to resurface for a few months. During my first time that I listened to the CD, I could tell that it was something special. At the time Sigur Rós seemed to me to be the band that Radiohead (one of my favorite groups) wished they could be. I listened to the band dozens of times in the few weeks and I was surprised that I could listen to music without understanding the lyrics. I began to feel that this music and the Icelandic words that were being sung reached deeper than any English speaking band that I had ever experienced. I began to wonder if the Icelandic language had anything to do with the beauty of Sigur Rós ' music or if it was just a coincidence that they spoke Icelandic.
As I dug deeper I discovered that while many of the songs that Sigur Rós sings are in Icelandic, they also sing in a language of their own concoction called "Hopelandic." I had no idea that many of the songs I was listening to were not intended to be decipherable.
In an attempt to understand the language of Sigur Rós it is appropriate to start by examining their environment…Iceland. Iceland is an island approximately the size of Kentucky that is located near Greenland. In tourist books you will often find the heading "The Land of Fire and Ice" for Iceland. This name refers to the extreme climates that are found there. Glaciers, mountains, hot springs, and fjords cover a large portion of the country. Nearly all of the 280,000 Icelandic people live on the outside of the country due to the harsh conditions in the center of the country. About half of all Icelanders live in Reykjavik. This still amounts to only half of the population of St. Paul, MN. Even though Iceland is a very small country, one can find an Icelander in almost any part of the world.
"Even in St. Cloud, Minnesota?" That's right. I was able meet up with Ingunn, a soon to be nursing major from St. Cloud State University who lived in Iceland up until a few years ago. Many of Ingunn's personality traits mimic those that I have heard and read that Icelandic people have. How does the Icelandic environment affect the language and personalities of the Icelandic people?
It is thought that the people in Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and the Faro islands all spoke the same language about a thousand years ago. This language is what is now referred to as Old Icelandic. Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Feroese are all noticeably different from Old Icelandic. Since Iceland is an island and it is quite separated from the rest of Europe, its language has remained almost unchanged for the last millennium. In fact an old Norse settler would greet someone by saying "Ek heiti Sigurðr" whereas a modern Icelander would say "Ég (the "g" is still pronounced like a "k") heiti Sigurður." (Lugmayr, 8) The only differences here are the initial vowel switching from an "e" as in Egg sound to "ye" as in yes, and the silent "r" in Old Icelandic to the pronounced "r" at the end of the phrase in Modern Icelandic.
Changes in a language often occur when people simplify the sounds and spellings of words. Therefore, languages tend to become less complex over time. Since Modern Icelandic is still very much rooted in older pronunciation and grammar it is particularly complex language. In Icelandic there are three genders, like German. But in Icelandic there are 56 declensions where there are only 6 in German. Some Icelandic words are quite difficult to pronounce by English standards. Combinations like "hr" and "bn" coupled with rolled "r"s and very lightly stressed consonants, can wreak havoc on the inexperienced tongue. Try the word for Butterfly, "Fiðrildi" pronounced "fith (edth like "then") ri (rolled "r") ldi (the "l" is almost silent).
Because of the harsh conditions of Iceland storytelling has traditionally been a popular form of entertainment. In "Time" magazine, Björk (usually mispronounced to rhyme with "fork," her name actually rhymes with "work"), a native of Iceland, said that nearly all Icelanders still believe in elves. Ingunn says this is a gross exaggeration, but that stories about elves were very popular as little as fifty years ago and that there are still groups of Icelanders that believe in elves. Iceland's rich linguistic past has no doubt contributed to their emphasis on language today. One fact that is never left out of articles and documentaries about Iceland is their astonishingly high literacy rate of 99.9%. This is attributed to both the tendency for parents to teach their children Icelandic in the home and children's enrollment in preschools. In 1996, 84% of 3-year-olds attended preschool. (Jackson, 2)
Linguists are very proud of the idea that language is a very creative function of the brain. Perhaps it is Icelanders' high ability with language that contributes to their great creativity. While it is difficult to measure the creativity of a country, if we look intuitively at various music and stories that come out of Iceland, these texts seem to be outside the norm.
Due to Icelanders' early placement in an environment devoted to learning, Icelanders have a life-long thirst for knowledge. This makes for a very competitive environment both for jobs and for post-secondary education. This coupled with the declining economy of Iceland gives many college-bound students reason to leave Iceland and seek education in another country. Icelanders typically fare very well in other countries because of their strong work ethic.
Iceland is well ahead of the world in terms of embracing differences and breaking down racial, sexual orientation and gender barriers and biases. Iceland elected a female president in 1980 who served four, four-year terms before she decided to pursue another career. The world made a large issue of the election of a female president but the Icelanders did not push the gender subject into the media.
Politics in Iceland are very laid back compared to the politics of the United States. The president is given the power to sign or not sign bills that come across his/her desk, but only one bill has not been signed in the last twenty years. This bill was actually just postponed for a day because the female president did not want to sign it on the national women's day. The current president of Iceland ran unopposed for re-election in 2000. Although the government has done very well with education, it seems that they are ignoring very real problems with their economy.
Iceland is a very sustaining country. About 90% of their electricity comes from hydroelectric plants. They have no nuclear plants and they use fossil fuel for only .06% of their electricity production. This respect for the environment may explain why there are many words in Icelandic for things that we only have one word for in English. For Example in Icelandic there are many words that one can use to describe a river. There is word for a river that is very strong and deep, for one that is lazy, for a river that is small and shallow, for one that is just a trickle, etc…
In Iceland the people uphold the virtue that showing is more important than telling. Ingunn's main complaint of Americans' use of English is that we over-use many words. We may say that we love chocolate or that we hate the St. Louis Rams when we just mean that we think chocolate tastes really good or that we wish our football team could stop the explosive running of Marshall Faulk. In Iceland the word for love, "elska" would only be used in an incredibly serious relationship. Parents would not tell their children that they loved them except maybe in a time of extreme emotion (i.e. at a funeral or a marriage). Icelanders believe that words get tired if you use them for a mild situation. Even when Icelanders use words like elska sarcastically they always follow up with "Not!" to make sure that people see the sarcasm.
"Not" is one of the very few words that Icelanders have added to their vocabulary. Even though Icelanders are bombarded by English commercials (it is too expensive to dub television for only a couple hundred thousand people) they refuse to add words like computer and telephone to their vocabulary. Instead they use original Icelandic words to describe new technologies. For example the Icelandic word for computer is "tölva" which is a combination of "tala" which means number and "völva" which means soothsayer. (Lugmayer, 6)
One of the finest examples of the way that Icelandic culture effects Sigur Rós' music is found in their song "Flugufrelsarinn." This song, translated as "fly savior" is about a little girl who is at a creek holding on to her toy boat by string. She is trying to coax the flies to land on her boat so little fish (there is a single word for "little fish" in Icelandic) will not eat them. These lyrics are beautiful because fishing is the largest industry in Iceland and would be good for the fishers if these little fish eat the flies so the fish stock can grow. In this song, however, the girl identifies with the position of the flies and feels sorry for their place in the world.
Even though Sigur Rós writes beautiful lyrics, the band seems to want to reach even an even deeper level of the mind - a place to where perhaps even the purist and most refined language is too complex and unclear. I believe this is why they have chosen to write more and more of their songs in a sort of non-language they call "Hopelandic." The bassist, Georg Holm, the only band member that speaks English, said of their lyrics:
We're not trying to say anything with words - we're trying to say it without words…we're not a political band for example, so we don't have anything political to say. We don't write love songs…well they could be love songs. You could almost call it interactive music [he says with a chuckle]. People just get what they want out of our music; so we're not trying to paint the whole canvas, people can fill [what they want]. (Holm, Reverb)
In my research I originally hoped to find a link between Sigur Rós' Hopelandic language and the concept of Nostratic language. The Nostratic language is name given to the common language from which all languages were spawned, which may or may not have existed. Many linguists believe that there may have been a "mother tongue" at one time but very few believe that we will ever be able to reconstruct this language.
After I read some linguists' partial reconstructions of Nostratic I began to doubt that we could learn much from these reconstructions. They seemed to be very different from one another and they are all highly speculational. I also realized that their mission to figure out how we first attached meaningful sounds to objects is the opposite of what Sigur Rós is trying to accomplish with Hopelandic. Rather than trying to bring us back the time when we all spoke and understood each other through one language, Sigur Rós is trying to remove the barrier of language that stands in the way of clearer and truer meaning. This barrier is not the barrier that one witnesses in inability to converse with someone that does not speak the same language, it is the barrier felt when one "just can't find the words." The sight of a sunset, the death of someone close, or just one of those times of intense self-awareness might be the catalyst for this inability to express feelings with words.
Connecting on a level deeper than language is no small task, but after I attended a recent Sigur Rós concert, I have no doubt that there are many people out there that have felt this deep connection. Typically at a concert a crowd expresses their enthusiasm and gratitude by yelling and dancing but this crowd was the quietest that I have ever experienced. There was a collective need to hear every sound that the band produced; to yell would have been like cheering on the French Resistance in the middle of "Les Misérables" at the Ordway. The people with tears on their cheeks were in the majority. After the concert I was lucky enough to happen to be standing next to the empty exit where the band left the venue. Usually the fan is a bumbling mass of praises and questions, but in this situation words were inappropriate. The only response appropriate was a hug and the hope that someday down the line I could reach back to these four Icelanders in a way as wholly as the way they reached us that night.
Iceland has transcended many of the seemingly archaic problems of many societies in our world today (racism, abuse of the environment, social irresponsibility). Pieces of this transcendence shine through their language as the beauty of the way that Icelanders live is manifested in Icelandic. This beauty comes forth in the Icelandic lyrics of Sigur Rós. Sigur Rós' beautiful languages (Icelandic and Hopelandic) combined with their effort to convey feelings that are deeper and clearer then words make them…
Holm, Georg. Reverb, HBO. 17 Oct. 2001
Ingunn Sverrisdottir. Personal interview. 6 Dec. 2001
Jackson, Craig. The Telegram, St. John's, Newfoundland. 30 Mar. 2001
Lugmayr, Helmut. Icelandic: What kind of language is that?. Reykjavik: Iceland, 2000.
Sigur Rós. Ágætis Byrjun . Fatcat Records, 1999.
"The Wold Factbook 2000 - Iceland."
Ruhlen, Merrit. The Origin of Language. New York: Wiley and Sons, 1994.
"Response to Oswalt and Ringe." Nostratic: Sifting the Evidence. Ed. Joseph Salmons
and Brian Joseph. Amsterdam: John Benjamans, 1998.