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Introducing Icelandic Proverbs

The Republic of Iceland is a European, volcanic island country in the North Atlantic Ocean. The country of bays and fjords, hot water springs, sheep and ponies is warmed by the Gulf Stream. The World Happiness Report (2018) has Iceland among its four top countries (WP, "World Happiness Report").

According to the Landnámabók from the end of the 1100s, Iceland began to be settled on a permanent basis in AD 874. Over the next centuries, people of Nordic and Celtic origin settled there. In the 1200s Iceland came to be ruled by Norway, and later Denmark, till it was given independence in 1944. About 320,000 people, a mixture of descendants of Norse and Celts, live on Iceland today, and about two thirds of them in its capital, Reykjavik.

Icelandic culture is based on the nation's Norse heritage. Its cultural heritage includes traditional Icelandic cuisine, the nation's poetry, and the medieval Icelandic Sagas.

The proverbs in the first part below are from medieval sources. Selections and translations: T. Kinnes.

Icelandic Proverbs in English and Icelandic

A bad rower blames his oars.
- Árinni kennir illur ræðari.

A good child sings good songs.
- Gott barn kveður góða vísu.

Bake while the fire burns. [Cf. Strike while the iron is hot.]
- Baka þig, meðan eldurinn brennur.

Blind is a man without a book.
- Blindur er bóklaus maður.

Don't ask long for little. [Njåls]
- Eigi skal lengi lítils biðja.

He who has thrown fish overboard, may well fast.
- Sá má fullvel fasta sem fisk hefur á borði. (?)

Invalid are the words of minors. [Gislas]
- Ómæt [eru] ómaga orð.

It is a friend who warns (against evil). [Grettis]
- Vinr er sás vörnuð býðr.

It is late to fence in the well when the child has fallen into it.
- Seint er að byrgja brunninn, þá barnið er dottið ofan í.

Looks do not decide (show) the good qualities. [Njålssaga]
- Eigi deilir litr kosti. [Abr.]

Many are difficult to see through. [Grettis]
- Vandsénir eru margir.

Many go to a goats' house to ask for wool. [Grettis]
- Margr ferr í geitarhús ullar at biðja.

Many kinds of persons sail across the sea. [Eyrbyggja]
- Margir eru marlíðendr.

Much happens that one expects the least. [Grettis]
- Verðr þat er varir ok svá hitt er eigi varir.

No one is excessively stupid if he can keep silent. [Grettis]
- Engi er allheimskr ef þegja má.

One thing is luck, another thing ability (or force). [Grettis]
- Sitt er hvárt gæfa eða görvileikr.

Similar children play best together.
- Lík börn leika best.

The burnt child fears the fire.
- Brennt barn forðast eldinn.

The gift expects another gift in return. [with Gislas]
- Æ sér til gildis gjöf el. æ sér gjöf til gjalda.

The more renowned woman often has fewer rings.
- Oft hefur hin frægri kona færri hringa.

The satisfied do not know where the hungry sit. (?)
- Fullur veit eigi hvar svangur situr.

There is often a witch in a fair hide (body). [Eyrbyggja]
- Opt er flagð í fögru skinni.

Things look bleak for the one who lives in a foreign country. [Njåls]
- Ilt er þeim er á ólandi er alinn.

Those who are considered good, resemble each other in much. [Grettis]
- Mart er líkt með þeim sem góðir þykjast.

Those who get praised most loudly, disappoint me the most. [Grettis]
- Ofleyfingjarnir bregðask mér mest.


Icelandic Proverbs in English

A system that works is worth gold.

All sails do not suit every ship.

All want to get older but none wants to be pestered with the cramps of old age. [Icelandic]

An able tongue often throws out words at the wrong time. [Icelandic]

An honest friend hinders evil. [Icelandic, (Stolpe, p. 53)]

Better to drink the milk than to eat the cow.

Drinks should be enjoyed only in moderate amounts.*

He who knows only few things, has little to forget.

If the icy snow carries you at midsummer, then we can expect a late spring.

If you get lost in an Icelandic forest, simply stand up and you will find your way. [There are no forests there.]

It is better to be a master in a cottage than servant in a castle.

It is better to suffer in name the truth than being rewarded for lying.

It is easier to look after hundred sheep than one girl. [Icelandic]

It is too late to cover the well when the child has fallen into it. [Icelandic]

Learning may bring renown. [Icelandic]

Loans seldom get home laughing. [Icelandic]

Love flares the hottest in secret. [Icelandic]

Many a man believes he is better than he is. [Icelandic]

Many are blamed for nothing. [Icelandic (Abr.)]

Need is a bad negotiator.

No doves come out of raven eggs. [Icelandic]

Nobody falls further than to the ground. [Icelandic]

Not everyone with a good reputation deserves it. [Icelandic]

Often a troll-woman is under fair skin, and virtue under dark hair.

Seriousness often lies behind playful words. [Icelandic]

She who dances with the chimney sweeper will eventually end up black.

Sift your speech like beer and get rid of dregs. [Icelandic]

Talk doesn't plow the field.

The child that lives solely at home, becomes short of sight. [Icelandic]

The experience is most truthful. [Icelandic]

The lazy man unwillingly leaves his warm bed. [Icelandic]

The presentiment is as good as a prophesy. [Icelandic]

There are men so poor that the only thing they have is money.

There is not much that is so good that nothing better exists. [Icelandic]

Tolerate nothing evil in the world but rejoice at everything that is good. [Havamal]

Tomorrow, says the lazy one.

Trusty as a troll.

Unbearably long is the day when the sun is not to be seen. [Icelandic]

We are to procure bread before a bride. [Icelandic]

Wealth flows to where there is gold already. [Icelandic]

What concerns those close to us concerns ourselves too. [Njåls]

When the storm abates, the waves roar. [Icelandic]

You blame your own errors the most on others. [Icelandic]


Icelandic Proverbs in English and Icelandic, Literature  

Jónsson, Finnur. Íslenskt málsháttasafn. [Icelandic Proverbs Collection]. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1920. ⍽▢⍽ Very good.

Scheving, Hallgímur Hannesson, saml. Islenzkir málshættir safnadir, uútvaldir og í stafrofsrøod færdir. Reykjavik: Reykjavíkur skóla, 1847.

Stolpe, Herman. Isländska ordspråk och skaldeord. Stockholm: LT, 1974. ⍽▢⍽ In Swedish.

Vilhjalmssón, Bjarni, and Óskar Halldórsson. Íslenzkir málshættir. 2. enl. ed. Reykjavik: bokafelagid, 1979. ⍽▢⍽ The first edition contains nearly 3250 proverbs. The number has been increased in later editions.

Harvesting the hay

Symbols, brackets, signs and text icons explained: (1) Text markers(2) Digesting.

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