Don’t be so homely!

Just a short one today – Real Life has been getting in the way again of late, but I’d like to share with you a wonderful piece of wordage I heard this week.

As those of you who’ve been following my musings for a while will know, I’m a big fan of analysing what a people’s language tells us about their world view, so I was delighted to be told a few days ago that, on the remote island nation of Iceland, the word for “stupid” translates literally as “one who has never been away from home”.

Heimskur. Such a beautiful little word, with so much meaning behind it. Now, I will freely admit I don’t know that much about Icelandic culture, nor do I know any Icelanders personally, but it seems to me that such a word is a perfect fit for a language spoken by only 320,000 people, most of whom have been raised on an Island almost 300 kilometres away from the next populated area (and that’s Greenland). That sort of environment can probably get quite frustrating, even if it is full of amazing natural spas, geysirs and volcanoes.

I can imagine there’s a lot of restless Icelandic teenagers wanting to get away for a while at the first opportunity, even more so than in other countries where such luxuries are now available to the younger generation. And of course, as anyone who’s ever been bitten by the travel bug will know, jetting off to see the world is a double-edged sword: it can make you glad to return home, but it can also make “home” seem that much smaller and restrictive. It can make you intolerant of those who haven’t had the same privilege, whose world view is narrowed by the geographical and cultural boundaries of the “world” in which they live. They can seem ignorant…and often stupid.

I’m a great advocate of the belief that travel broadens the mind, and the existence of the word “heimskur” indicates that the Icelanders share this view. Apparently, they even have a saying that expresses it even more explicitly: “heimskt er heimaalið barn” or “homish [or stupid] is the home-bred bairn” (the similarities between terminology in Nordic languages and modern Scots dialect is something I may delve into another time). I think it says a lot about Iceland as a nation that, though their geographical and historical situation provides them with the perfect excuse to adopt an insular view of the world, they are conscious of this danger to the extent that it is reflected in one of their most everyday words.

Incidentally, it’s interesting to note that heimskur is not a modern concept born of today’s jet-setting society, but originally came from Old Norse – the language of the Vikings. In an age where so many peoples were only interested in other countries for waging war and conquering territory, it is pleasing to think that the Vikings – despite indulging in their fair share of pillage and plunder – were also aware of the wider spiritual benefits of travel. Maybe some of the modern-day heimskir we all have to deal with could learn something from them.


P.S. I’m something of a Scandiphile anyway, but this recent revelation has endeared me to Iceland more than usual. If anyone reading this is Icelandic or knows anyone from said magical isle, I’d love to hear their views in the comments below! Thanks! 🙂

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2 Responses to Don’t be so homely!

  1. Pingback: When the language tank is full – Revitalising one’s language learning | Of Words and Worlds

  2. Aron H says:

    Great post, entertaining read. I’m from that magical isle myself, live in the US now. The etymological wisdom of the word “heimskur” is a gift from the past that will keep on giving for generations to come.

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