Published October 23, 2013
The Icelandic state broadcaster RÚV and the humanities department of the University of Iceland have launched a contest to find the most beautiful word in the Icelandic language. People can submit their suggestions online and explain why they think their word of choice is especially beautiful. Then a committee will select a few of the submissions and the wider public can vote for their favourite one online.
Online voting? You just know someone’s gonna figure out a way to make the winner a word too rude to say in public, let alone print.
That hopefully will not happen because one suspects that the impetus behind the contest is to encourage positive discussion about the Icelandic language. As it is, discussion about the language among Icelanders, at least the part of it that takes place online, is notoriously vitriolic, even by the notoriously vitriolic standards of the notoriously vitriolic Icelandic online vitriol.
So, if I understand you correctly, online discussion in Iceland is vitriolic?
The unofficial motto of the Icelandic part of the internet is: “If you can’t stand the heat, take your face off the stovetop.” That said, if I actually wrote that on an Icelandic online discussion forum, I would probably get yelled at, figuratively speaking, for using an American phrase as the basis for a motto for something Icelandic. To which I would say: “Well, it was first coined by President Harry S. Truman, who was a badass mofo who nuked the hell out of people sooner than look at them.” And then they would say…
You’re angrily arguing with voices in your head now.
Sorry. This is what happens to people who are exposed to Icelandic online discussion, a constant state of anger over everything. This leads to quick polarization. Icelanders who are persnickety and pedantic about language refer to those who they feel are too permissive and loose in their language use as “málsóðar,” which means “language slob” or “language besmircher.” Those who prefer playfulness and freedom tend to call the other side “tungumálafasista,” which means “language fascist.”
I suppose the irony of using terms like “slob” and “fascist” with such lack of precision is lost on everyone.
Online discussions about language in Iceland tend to be on the level of kindergarten fights and it is impossible to take part without coming out of it wearing a black shirt covered in poo. Language is always a hotly debated topic in any society, but in Iceland this is especially fraught because the foundational stone of the independence movement of the 19th and 20th Century was the idea that Icelanders were special because of their language and their literature, i.e. what they did with their language. What follows from this is that anxieties about a changing society often express themselves as anxieties about language.
Ah, so a fear of language change is really a fear of social change.
This can sometimes be seen in strange ways. On September 17, the top story on the front page of the newspaper Fréttablaðið was: “One out of ten infants has a mother tongue other than Icelandic.” The article led with the somewhat alarming sentence: “Difficulties lie ahead for primary schools if there is no response to the great increase of children with another language than Icelandic.” The rest of the article is a fairly dry survey of how primary schools and their administrations are responding to this new reality.
I don’t see why that’s so strange, it’s a fairly interesting story and on a slow news day I can easily see why that’s the top story.
The story at the bottom of the front page was about intense sandstorms stripping paint off cars, cracking windows and scaring the bejesus out of everyone who got caught up in it. It says something about the importance of language that the fact that one in ten babies under six have parents who speak a tongue other than Icelandic is considered more newsworthy than life-endangering sandstorm.
Makes sense to me, it’s newsworthy that anyone born outside Iceland would want to raise their children in a country where the weather can strip paint off cars.
I see your point. As the news article goes on to say, this is a fairly recent development, historically speaking, and children of non-Icelandic parents only became common in the school system 10 years ago. Worries about change in Icelandic society are expressed in fears about language. The reverse of that is the fact that all of these children will be taught Icelandic. Bilingual Icelandic speakers can interpret and translate beautiful words between cultures, which will enrich both societies, though I suppose that makes for a less snappy headline.