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Chicago Speaks Mon Jul 21 2014

Chicago Speaks: Icelandic, as Spoken by Recruiter Lena Hallgrimsdottir

Chicago SpeaksAs a global city, Chicago is home to many languages besides English. Chicago Speaks profiles speakers of these languages, and shares some of their personal stories along the way.

When I met Lena Hallgrimsdottir at the Whole Foods in Lincoln Park, I asked her what it was like to have a native language shared by some 300,000 of the world's inhabitants -- fewer people, perhaps, than would visit that Whole Foods location over the next couple of months.

"We always look at it almost as our secret language," she says. "We're very careless. If we were walking around here, we would just be speaking about whatever, without ever worrying that anyone understands."

On a handful of occasions since she and her husband moved to Chicago from Iceland in 1996, they have run into someone who understands. But they're generally safe in assuming they won't: In an estimate based on surveys done between 2006 and 2008, the U.S. Census Bureau put at 110 the number of Illinois residents who speak Icelandic at home.

chicago speaks icelandic
Lena Hallgrimsdottir. Photo by Einar Steinsson

A Theory About People Who Want to Study Icelandic

A few more, at least, are trying to learn -- some of them from Hallgrimsdottir, who occasionally gives lessons in addition to working as a recruiter for a translation and interpretation services company.

"I have my theory about people who want to study Icelandic," she says. "And I of course don't know how it was before, but now it's really because of the Icelandic music scene. People who love Bjork or Sigur Ros or, lately, Of Monsters and Men . . . . They're all dreamers [who] just want to learn the language, think it sounds beautiful."

Does she ever get sick of the inevitable Bjork references that follow questions about where she's from? "Sometimes maybe you do a little bit," she says. "But immediately you remind yourself you should just be proud and happy."

How Chicago is Like Saint Petersburg

Hallgrimsdottir grew up in Akureyri, a town whose website points out that, in Iceland, it is "the second largest urban area after the capital area of Reykjavik, with a population of about 18,000."

"It's a beautiful little town," Hallgrimsdottir says. "It's at the bottom of one of the big fjords up north... We have very beautiful winters, a lot of snow, cold weather, no wind. And the summers get really warm... But of course warm in Iceland is, what, maybe about 60 degrees?"

Hallgrimsdottir left when her husband decided he wanted to pursue an MBA in the United States. Before then, she'd never considered moving here. She was more interested in Russian language and culture, which she had studied in college.

But she quickly took to Chicago, which at first reminded her of Saint Petersburg, where she'd spent a year abroad. Both are big cities, she explains, on a scale you wouldn't find in Iceland. "The trains... and just all these people everywhere -- I had experienced that in Saint Petersburg. So to me, coming here to Chicago, it was the same. I was always comparing: Oh, this is just like in Russia. Going on the el: just like in Russia."

Icelandic in Chicago

Nearly two decades later, she and her husband are still here, members of a small but long-lived Icelandic community. They both hold leadership positions in the Icelandic Association of Chicago, a 91-year-old group of Icelanders and people of Icelandic descent. Hallgrimsdottir estimates that about 40 percent of the members speak Icelandic.

When we spoke, the association was in the midst of planning its Þorrablót celebration, a traditional feast for which members were importing food from Iceland.

But Icelandic products don't always have to be ordered directly from their place of origin. You can find some, for example, at Whole Foods. "We're always very happy when that happens," Hallgrimsdottir says.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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