From Iceland — Words Mean Things

Words Mean Things

Published June 20, 2011

Words Mean Things

Baldur Kristjánsson, a parish priest with a Masters in theology from Harvard University, is also a blogger on the popular news website Eyjan. Recently, he put forward the idea in an article that Icelanders need to change the terms they have for foreigners. His recommendation: drop ‘nýbúi’ (“someone newly living here”) and ‘innflytjendur’ (“someone who has moved in”) and replace them with their nationalities (e.g., Thai-Icelanders). The Grapevine caught up with Baldur to ask him about this idea, and why he thinks it’s important.
In your article, you say that you consider it important to move away from terms such as “nýkomna, nýbúa og innflytjendur” and move towards saying e.g. Thai-Icelandic or Polish-Icelandic. Why do you consider this change in terminology to be important?
It is obvious that the Icelandic language, as other parts of the Icelandic culture, was not well prepared to deal with the development towards multicultural society. The word ‘nýbúi’ as a term involving those who are of foreign origin is a shining example of this. The world ‘innflytjendur’ is not good either. That refers to those who are moving but are not settled. These are not proper
Icelanders in our minds. Our mindset was and is that being an Icelander is not something you can have partly or buy cheaply. These words exclude, rather than include. And the notion of an Icelander, and also something else, does not exist. You are either an Icelander or not. Therefore we don’t really have words for those who are gradually becoming Icelanders but are also children of other cultures and other countries.
As the terms we use to refer to foreigners are often a reflection of current attitudes towards them, what do you think terms like ‘nýbúi’ and ‘útlendingur’ say about Icelandic attitudes towards foreigners? Are these terms in sync with current attitudes, or rather a reflection of attitudes that are either changing or are no longer prevalent?
We must stop looking at ‘immigrants’ as an example of how other people are. We must actually begin to understand them as a part of our identity. They are Icelanders. All those who live in Iceland (have a permanent address and intend to stay on) are Icelanders. But those who have moved from abroad are also something else. They are, from a certain perspective, richer than those who have just one country. So you should not think of Icelanders and immigrants or Icelanders and newcomers. We are all Icelanders, but some of us are also something else. To become Icelandic is not to speak the language or this or that. It is, or should be, a term over those who are here and intend to stay and are willing to see themselves as Icelanders. It is not even necessary they like the country or other people.
Another reason that we shouldn’t use these general terms is that all generalisation is dangerous. Immigrants are not bad or good. Immigrants are all kinds of people, just as those who have never immigrated. They come from different parts of the world—some have been here for a long time, others for shorter time, some are with their families, others not. Some intend to stay forever—others for short period of time. These are not the same people that travel between countries to commit crimes. They have nothing in common except that they are not born in Iceland (some are of course born in Iceland). But language generalisations tend to put everyone who are not homemade under the same hat and many Icelanders suffer because of that, suffer from prejudices and discrimination.
Because those who come here from abroad tend to keep their culture and their old identity we should accept this fact, accept their origin, accept their way of life, but also accept that they are Icelanders and not foreigners or immigrants or newcomers—accept all this and call them Thai-Icelanders and Polish-Icelanders and so on. It should be clear that Icelanders new or old should have the freedom to behave as they wish (of course everyone has to obey the Constitution and the law and therefore the values these build upon but that goes for everyone living in this country). We should, if anything, encourage people to keep their language, culture, belief, and habits. That way they make Icelandic society richer and we don’t have to worry they will not learn Icelandic.
How do you think the average Icelander would respond to your proposed terminology?
The average Icelanders would respond negatively to my proposed terminology. It takes the average Icelander many years to accept new ideas.
What are your thoughts on the evolution of terminology about foreigners in general? It wasn’t too long ago that certain terms, which today are considered offensive, were once considered acceptable terminology. While other cultures, such as in the US (note the change from ‘coloured’ to ‘negro’ to ‘black’ to ‘African-American’), have experienced a similar evolution, do you think Iceland’s relationship with its own language had an influence on how the language referred to foreigners?
The idea has been that people assimilate gradually. Even the term ‘integration’ has meant ‘assimilation’ (“aðlögun”) where the immigrant has a just a little bit of influence on his new culture, e.g., bringing with him a new soup or a dress to use on International Days.
The reality is that you have parallel societies. It has always been like that, and in the world as it has become it will become much more so, where you can watch television stations from your home country and talk to your friend and mother on Skype and fly cheap, people will more and more be part of their old culture and their old language.
So we have to accept and value this new point of view. We in Iceland are going to have Thai-Icelanders, Vietnamese-Icelanders, Polish-Icelanders and so on as part of our society and we should therefore have them as part of our identity and call them what they are. Stop this language hiding.

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