You Are Here: Iceland, Where Björk Comes From

Björk Biophilia

Björk's 2011 album Biophilia "combines nature, music, and technology"

In honour of the inimitable musical artist Björk, who was interviewed by Stephen Colbert this week to promote her new album Biophilia, I decided to devote this edition of You Are Here to her homeland.

I know you could find it on a map, but I bet you’ve never been there and don’t intend to go any time soon; and I think you likely know as little about it as I do. So let’s see what we can find out.

Although Iceland is culturally European, it is kind of “out there”, and not just geographically. Here’s a nifty example:

Instead of using family names, Icelanders use patronymics and matronymics. Hence, the full name of the above mentioned artist, Björk Gudmundsdottir, means “Björk, Gudmund’s daughter”. For this reason, the Icelandic phonebook is listed alphabetically by first name.

This might sound impractical were it not for the fact that there are not very many Icelanders. Over the centuries the population has periodically been cut down by half as a result of plagues, famine-inducing volcanic eruptions, and mass migration to Manitoba, leaving the current population at about 320,000 (considerably smaller than Halifax) in an area of 103,000 km2 (bigger than Portugal, smaller than Cuba) — and 62.7% of that is tundra. Sound like Canada? Indeed both countries have a population density just above 3 people per  km2.

Iceland, geyser catland

Geyser Catland, Iceland. Image: Terekhova via Flickr

Iceland has many geysers, (one of which, Geysir, gives us the English word for… You guessed it!), lots of fjords and hundreds of volcanoes. What Icelanders lack in firewood, they make up for with geothermal power. Iceland kicks environmental ass.

First settled in the ninth century by the Norse (although it’s hard to think of Vikings “settling down”), but possibly previously visited by Scots, Iceland’s original population of was (according to genetic studies) of Nordic and Gaelic origin.

Iceland was granted independence from Denmark in 1918 and formally declared itself a republic on 17 June 1944 (following Allied occupation during WWII while Denmark was occupied by Germany). The current Prime Minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, has twice made Time magazine’s top ten list of female world leaders.

Icelandic Language Day (dagur íslenskrar tungu) is celebrated on 16 November. On top of Icelandic, (an inflected North Germanic language of Old Norse derivation, largely unchanged over the centuries), English and Danish are studied in school and widely spoken in Iceland. Icelandic Sign Language (based on Danish Sign Language) was officially recognised as a minority language in 2011. Your first Icelandic word is Ísland. Guess what it means. (Hint: it’s the same as the French word l’Islande and the Korean word 아이슬란드 .)

The Canadian Connection

The Icelandic currency is the króna (ISK). But with the economic crisis and the Euro looking shaky, there was talk of Iceland adopting the Canadian dollar.

There are 88,000 people of Icelandic descent living in Canada (the largest community outside of Iceland), and Islendingadagurinn, The Icelandic Festival of Manitoba, has been celebrated for well over a century. So at the end of July, after seeing my play in the Toronto Fringe, you can go to Gimli and have some wholesome Viking fun. If you can’t get to Gimli, find out what you’ve missed by reading Icelandic Connection (formerly The Icelandic Canadian magazine). Or stick to the classics, like the 14th century Eiríks saga, which describes Erik the Red’s pre-Columbian voyage to Vinland (Newfoundland).

The temperature in the capital, Reykjavik (pop. 118,000), will be a few degrees above freezing for the next week or so; yet another reason to visit Iceland without delay. And here’s one more. If you’re ever dickin’ around Iceland and find yourself hard up for entertainment, you might want to visit the The Icelandic Phallological Museum.


Now I have a regular byline that links to my blog. Henceforth, my Post City articles (such as my latest, on Black History Month) will be followed with: Evan Andrew Mackay is a Toronto playwright and humourist who writes about culture and social justice.



Filed under cross cultural understanding, geography, language, music

7 responses to “You Are Here: Iceland, Where Björk Comes From

  1. caro.

    Dickin’ around?

    • Sometimes uncalled for crassness is called for.
      (I was concerned some of my genteel readers might not immediately pick up on the meaning of phallological.)

  2. The article is interesting and excellent, with the links available for all anticipated questions. Regarding the original Nordic/Gaelic beginnings: if Gudmundsdottir is similar to MacAndrew meaning son of Andrew (in the English translation of the Gaelic) – how did Scots designate daughter of Andrew? I understood the chieftain lineage descended via the matriarchal side. This is, of course, a digression – but you see how your articles stimiulate thought. Re. your final link: the odd legally-salacious tidbit is always stimulating. So to speak.

  3. One of Canada’s 88,000 suggested I could have said something about the food of Iceland. Commentary on Icelandic food seems to range from vindictive mockery to scripted praise. Here is one of the more balanced clips I encountered: Globe Trekker’s Ian Wright

    And here is one of the many other things I wanted to mention, again relating to Canada. Look at the website of Olgeir Andresson, a native Icelander who specializes in photographing the northern lights.

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