Earlier this week, Icelanders downtown were greeted by one of the more visually unavoidable advertisements in recent years: a giant H&M shopping bag. “GRAND OPENING,” the bag screams at you. “See you at Smáralind!” it says, referring to one of the capital area’s large shopping mall in Kópavogur.
Apart from its very conspicuous placement (note: it has since been moved to Smáralind), the ad had another aspect that attracted the attention of Icelanders— it’s in English. By Icelandic law, advertisements aimed at Icelanders must be in Icelandic. Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson, a professor of Icelandic at the University of Iceland, has been one of the more vocal critics of the ad, and has contacted the Consumer Agency to ask if and how they have been enforcing the law in this regard.
Who’s to blame?
“Like so many things that are related to the Icelandic language, no one sees it as their role or responsibility to see to it that people adhere to the law,” Eiríkur told Grapevine. “Of course, one single instance doesn’t matter. It has no effect on the future of Icelandic. But it’s typical. No one sees it as their responsibility to safeguard the language. We get more and more used to having English all around us. That weakens Icelandic.”
But it isn’t just the Consumer Agency who bears responsibility. The City of Reykjavík, by granting a permit for the ad, must also share some of the blame. At the same time, Eiríkur does not take an absolutist stance on this issue.
The erosive effect
“It’s normal to have advertisements in English at, for example, the airport in Keflavík,” he says. “But that’s quite another story. This particular advertisements is directed towards Icelanders.”
Eiríkur has noticed an increase in English-language advertisements that are directed at Icelanders, and sees it as having a slow erosion on the language.
“It all comes down to individual speakers,” Eiríkur told us. “Maybe ordinary Icelanders think they don’t care. If they find this OK, maybe then I’m just a grumpy old man who should shut up because this is the future. But then again, I think the future of the language is uncertain.”