Published April 23, 2017
The Icelandic language is vulnerable – and it’s not because of foreign loan words.
In any discussion about Icelandic, Icelanders will invariably contend that their language is threatened with extinction. These threats can come from any number of speculated sources, from the increased use of English amongst Icelandic kids, to foreign films and television, to increased immigration. But is Icelandic actually in a vulnerable position, and if so, where do the threats to it actually come from?
We called Statistics Iceland in the hopes of getting some raw data on the number of Icelandic speakers in the country, and whether those numbers have grown or decreased over the past few years. Amazingly, they have no such data. The number of people born in Iceland has been increasing—and presumably, with them, the number of Icelandic speakers—but presumptions are not the same as facts.
Our economy is killing Icelandic
We spoke first with Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson, a professor of Icelandic at the University of Iceland; one of his main areas of study has been the status of the Icelandic language. Eiríkur is amongst those who believe Icelandic is indeed in a vulnerable position, and offers a uniquely class-based explanation for how Icelandic is being threatened. This explanation is comprised of two parts.
First, young Icelanders are increasingly seeing their future outside of Iceland. “Young people in Iceland don’t necessarily see the country as where they’ll live in the future,” he says. “They look at the whole world and they want to go abroad to study and work. They know that Icelandic is useless outside of Iceland. So maybe they don’t think it’s that important to be that good at Icelandic. So many young people will say, ‘OK, let’s go abroad to study, and maybe we’ll come back, but maybe not.’ Given the current situation, it’s impossible for them to come back.”
At the same time, the Icelandic government is not doing enough to help those moving here. “We are doing a terrible job of teaching Icelandic to foreigners,” Eiríkur contends. “Not all of the courses are suited to the learners, and we should be offering Icelandic classes during the day, as a part of their jobs. Many people will come to this country, get low-paying jobs, and they’re stuck there. We import people to come work in Iceland, and they don’t have the time to learn Icelandic [on top of working full time].”
These two combined effects are creating what Eiríkur calls “a low-salary society,” wherein Iceland is effectively divided into two classes: low-wage earners who don’t speak the language, and a professional managerial class of people who do.
But what about English?
Eiríkur also addressed the oft-repeated fear that English is taking over. While he acknowledges English is beginning to dominate aspects of Icelandic society, he has its doubts that it is causing any real damage.
“The biggest threat to the Icelandic language is not English loan words, or that some people inflect words differently than before,” he says. “The real threat is that Icelandic might become unusable in large areas.”
The large areas in which Icelandic may become unusable, he cautions, is in technology. In fact, Eiríkur has spent the past fifteen years warning that Icelandic may experience what some linguists describe as “digital death”: the disappearance of a language from the technological world.
Your RÚV; Not Ours
Author Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, more popularly known as Sjón, also believes technology plays a part in threatening the Icelandic language. However, Sjón also takes the position that Iceland’s cultural life is too excluding of foreigners, to the detriment of Icelandic itself.
“I think the majority of the Icelandic population is, willfully or not, ignoring this new part of the population,” Sjón says. “We have a city theatre, we have a municipal arts museum, and other cultural institutions run by the city, yet I think it’s only the library that has made any effort towards the immigrant community and really opened the doors to them. And then there’s the national broadcasters, RÚV. There are no programmes on RÚV for the immigrant community.”
At the heart of this, Sjón believes, is a paradox: on the one hand, Icelandic is a special and wonderful language; on the other hand, the government does nothing to preserve it.
“It’s been very strange for someone like myself, who’s been involved in Icelandic culture for nearly 40 years now, to experience this paradox,” he says. “We’ve had one Cultural Minister after another who’ve been completely blind to the reality: up to 13% of the population is from elsewhere. If these Cultural Ministers and public figures really care about the Icelandic language, then they should really put an effort into doing whatever this host country of immigrants can do to open up the language for them.”
Those who teach it
Freyja Auðunsdóttir teaches Icelandic at Flensborg secondary school in Hafnarfjörður. Despite all the talk about how Icelandic is under threat, she remains optimistic. “The technical world is, more or less, all in English, and that does present some kind of danger as the world gets ever smaller,” she says. “But I still think we can be a bit relaxed about this, as long as we’re using Icelandic. These two things can exist side by side. We have rappers, and stand-up comics, musicians writing their material in Icelandic. And that’s before we talk about television and movies in Icelandic, and there have never been as many books published in Icelandic as there are now.”
At the same time, Freyja also takes a decidedly descriptivist approach to why she believes Icelandic will ultimately survive. “My students often times will use Icelandic words that I don’t know,” Freyja tells us. “It could be some form of slang or loan words, but that is a big part of language. Language is a living thing. It’s a creature that we can’t control. Some words are born, others fade away. So when we talk about ‘protecting the language,’ I don’t think that should mean locking the language up in a museum and let it collect dust in a glass box. I’d actually be more worried if Icelandic never changed. We protect Icelandic by using Icelandic. That’s how it survives, and we’ve survived a lot.”