Eurovision Song of the Week: Sjúbídú (Iceland, 1996)

If you listen to Eurovision songs because you love different languages, then you must miss the ESC language restrictions! From 1966 to 1972 and again from 1977 to 1998, ESC countries could only enter songs in their official languages. This gave Eurovision’s three English-speaking countries a great advantage . . . and all the other countries a great challenge! Let’s look at how Iceland did in 1996, with Sjúbídú.

I’m not sure about the 1990s, but today there are only about 310,000 native Icelandic speakers. It is a popular foreign language only among Danish students. The country’s official site admits that Icelandic is very “insular” and has not changed much since the 12th century (Link). If you had to write a song in Icelandic that would appeal to twenty-eight other European countries, what would you do? Would you try some of the gimmicks in Sjúbídú?

First Impressions

Last week, with Switzerland’s Swiss Lady, we already heard the effect of dropping English words into a non-English text (Link). That song is from 1977, so Iceland wasn’t doing anything new in 1996. When you listen to the studio version of Sjúbídú, check how many words and famous names you can recognize . . .

Before I looked up the lyrics, I recognized the names Ella, Elvis, and Billie Holliday — and the title of Elvis’s famous song Love Me Tender. And of course I remembered Timbuktu: a place that people love to sing about and hardly anyone can find on a map! (Isn’t it interesting that none of these references are European?) For the rest of the names, however, I needed the photos that Anna Mjöll Ölafsdottir points to in the video.

I also tried listening with my “German ears,” but Icelandic has the least in common with Deutsch than the other Germanic languages I’ve tried. “Syngja” and “söng” are definitely related to the German “singen” (to sing). And “heyrõir” is very similar to “hören” (to hear). But that seems to be all.

Further Consideration

Now let’s watch Anna Mjöll’s live performance of Sjúbídú! I wish I knew what language the TV announcer was speaking.

It was easy to hum along to the chorus. I’ve been singing “Shoo-be-doo” for years, for other songs! And knowing half the chorus made me want to learn the rest of it.

Sjúbídú, sjúbídú
Menn skilja jafnt á Skagaströnd og Tímbúktú
Sjúbídú, sjúbídú
Í öllum heimi einum rómi sjúbídú

The Diggiloo Thrush site translates the second line as: “People understand it even on Skagaströnd and Timbuktu” (Link). I love the pairing of these two very different, equally exotic places! And I wish there were also many songs about Skagaströnd. Sadly, however, others don’t find it as fun to say as Timbuktu.

Lost (and Found) in Translation

There are no versions of Sjúbídú in other languages — partly because of 1990s trends and partly because it doesn’t really need them. The song is already universal: Everyone can sing “Shoo-be-do.” I imagine the live audience singing along with Ölafsdottir as I just did at home.

Eurovision 1996 was one of the last without a televote. But I ask my usual final question because I want to hear your opinion now.

Would you have voted for Sjúbídú in 1996?

3 thoughts on “Eurovision Song of the Week: Sjúbídú (Iceland, 1996)

  1. I don’t know that I would have voted for it. It’s catchy but very bland, if that’s not too much of an oxymoron. I think it does sound very much like an old song you’d find in English, though; the Icelandic lends itself very well to an English-like rhythm, so I imagine an Anglophone who just happened to hear the song would have probably thought it was translated from English.

    1. Cristina @Linguavert

      “Catchy but very bland” is a decent description! Did the English names sound odd to you among the Icelandic words, or did they fit right in?

      1. I thought they fit in pretty well. At least, I didn’t myself find it jarring.

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