Endangered Language - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Endangered Language

Endangered Language

Photos by
Art Bicnick

They’re saying you’re killing our language. What do you think about that? You and the smartphones. You don’t understand us, so we speak English to you, because we all watched ‘Baywatch’ undubbed as children. What happens when the Internet of Things arrives? Will my toilet be able to speak Icelandic to me? Hardly. I will have to communicate with it using my precious Baywatch-English, asking it to read me a Volvo owner’s manual while I release my waste into it. And this is the problem now. In all sincerity and seriousness this is causing us worries. Will globalization try to kill our language? Will Facebook and the other Guardians of the Future try to gradually force us and others like us into using English because, well, it’s more convenient for them to conduct their global control that way? Or will they see the light and try to help us?

It is true that you hear English everywhere these days and, yes, it’s flowing from the lips of Icelanders as well. Is it because of the smartphones? The lack of proper Netflix subtitles? The media is saying we need something like a billion Krónur to propel our ancient language into the digital realm. Will that save the language? Really? Is the problem really that Siri thinks I’m asking for something called a “pussy store” when I’m actually asking her to Google “Passíusálmarnir,” an epic 16th century collection of hymns recounting the history of the pain and suffering of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ?

We could call it the Seinfeldization of the Mind.

One is tempted to think the problem runs a little deeper than that. Maybe it’s just the Baywatch-curse—the other side of the coin of learning to speak good English at an early age. We could call it the Seinfeldization of the Mind. It would actually be interesting to see research that compared how many Icelanders have seen every single episode of ‘Seinfeld’ with the number who’ve read every book by Halldór Laxness. We now have generations that are much more familiar with something we could—rather naively—call “Free World Pop Culture” than with their own unexciting cultural heritage of mud farms, repulsive food and stories of poor people. It has its downside. Their whole world of references, ideas and humour comes from the FWPC, and that’s why they increasingly use English to communicate. It’s not that they don’t know or don’t want to speak Icelandic or that their smartphone is manipulating them into using English only, but that their inner world can increasingly only—well, at least fully—be communicated through English. A nice example is the word “actually” that now seems to be part of common Icelandic usage.

This is of course the trend everywhere. We live in a world that rejects isolation, which is a necessary ingredient of everything “local.” Local is disappearing, that’s why it’s been a trend in advertising for years (“We’re a local nicotine gum manufacturer with a passion for creating artisan gum for addicts using only environmentally friendly and sustainable…”). Icelandic will perhaps sooner than we think be on the Endangered Species list of languages. Or not. Who knows really. Right now at least it looks destined to become a sad mockery of itself. People were saying the same thing in the 19th century, yea yea I know, but at least they didn’t have to worry about the Big Leak, when their frequent searches for “Pussy Stores” and other wonders would come to light.


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