From Iceland — To Weep Loudly

To Weep Loudly

Published June 2, 2006

To Weep Loudly

A friend of mine was a huge fan of Superman comics when he was a kid. However, he was taken aback and gravely offended whenever Superman, the epitome of masculine strength, blurted out: “To weep loudly!” In my friend’s young mind, Superman didn’t weep (and if he did, he wouldn’t publicly announce it). It wasn’t until my friend grew older and learned English that he realized that Superman’s exclamation “For crying out loud!” had been translated to Icelandic with these results.
My friend, like the rest of my generation, has grown up in a society where the majority of entertainment is in English, whether it be music, movies or TV programmes. English has slowly but surely become the dominant language on the globe. Although Mandarin and Hindi have more native speakers, English is currently the most common second language around the world. It is also, by international treaty, the official language for aircraft/airport and maritime communication, as well as being one of the official languages of both the European Union, the United Nations and the Olympic Committee. The entertainment industry has also furthered the spread of English, as my generation bears witness to.
For decades, Iceland has had a language preservation policy that fights to protect Icelandic from foreign language influences. In this struggle, the titles of Hollywood movies are occasionally translated to Icelandic, sometimes with rather awkward results. For example, we recall the 80’s hit Naked Gun as ‘Directly Edgeways’ (Beint á ská). However, the language preservation policy doesn’t reach the dubbing level with superstars like Bruce Willis and Nicole Kidman speaking Icelandic, because of how costly it would be. Instead, movies and TV programmes for adults are accompanied with Icelandic subtitles, leaving dubbing to children’s entertainment.
It may be difficult for foreigners to understand our passion to defend our language. After all, it’s only spoken by 300,000 people in the world, as opposed to the estimated 600-700 million people use the various dialects of English regularly. Nations like Denmark have partly succumbed to the English invasion by adopting words directly from English, such as “computer” and “weekend”. In the meantime, Icelanders stubbornly invent new words for new technological inventions such as cell phone (‘farsími’ or ‘gemsi’) and laptop computer (‘fartölva’ or ‘fistölva’). I have repeatedly gotten into heated debates with native speakers of English who don’t understand our obsession with keeping Icelandic from adapting English words, it being the global language and all. To illustrate the distortion that other languages face if they were to adapt to English, I’ve turned the tables around in this example below. This is what the lyrics to the Red Hot Chilli Pepper’s song Aeroplane would look like if Icelandic was the dominating language on the globe, infiltrating English:

I like pleasure spiked with pain and
Music is my aeroplane
It’s my aeroplane

Sitting in my kitchen, hey girl
I’m turning into dust again
My melancholy baby
The star of mazzy* must
Push her voice inside of me
I’m overcoming gravity
I’m overcoming gravity

*not listed in any major dictionary

I like pleasure spiked with wound increment and
tone art is my flight machine
Is my flight machine

Sitting in my firehouse, hey girl
I’m turning into dust again
My heavy mood baby
The star of mazzy must
Push her voice inside of me
I’m overcoming weight force
I’m overcoming weight force

(translations with liberty on the columnist’s behalf)
To those who respect and adore the English language, the above example is probably horrifying (and to Red Hot Chilli Pepper’s fans as well). In the same way, native speakers of languages who are becoming more and more affected by English shudder when they hear its impact on their mother tongue. In this year’s Miss Iceland contest, every single contestant said that she “comes from”* this or that place, which is correct in English, but terribly wrong in Icelandic. Here, you “are from”* this or that place, unless you’re describing where you just came from (ex. I just came from the store.)
Having been a speaker of both English and Icelandic for most of my life, I am quite fond of the differences between the two languages, which are most obvious to me in nouns, as seen in the example above. The word ‘honeymoon’, a beautifully picturesque word in English, is called ‘wheat bread days’ in Icelandic (hveitibrauðsdagar), referring to the luxury that comes with being newlywed whereas wheat bread was considered a luxury back in the day. Other words that are interesting when translated from Icelandic into English are for example ‘period plug’ (túrtappi,) the word for tampon, ‘lady tie’ (dömubindi,) the word for sanitary napkins and ‘inside shoes’, the word for slippers.
Living in modern day Iceland, I have been influenced. When I slam the car door on my knee, I catch myself blurting out curse words in English with great fury, most commonly the ones used to describe poop and copulation. However, I am a fervent supporter of language preservation because of the history, culture and richness each language possesses. As I am writing this, I am sitting in my firehouse, wearing my inside shoes, thinking that Superman probably weeps every now and then. Even if he doesn’t admit it.

*Ég kem úr Hafnarfirði.
*Ég er úr Hafnarfirði.

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