Iceland's Unofficial Motto Has Disputed Roots - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Iceland’s Unofficial Motto Has Disputed Roots

Published January 10, 2019

Andie Fontaine
Photos by
Bjarni Brynjólfsson

A two-word phrase, common in Icelandic and attributed by some to the country’s governing philosophy, might not be from Iceland after all.

“Þetta reddast” (pronounced “THETTA red-ahst”), is a very common phrase in Iceland. It loosely translates as “everything will work out in the end”. If you live in Iceland, you are very likely to hear this phrase used in response to any complicated or frustrating situation that has no apparent solution. The phrase is so characteristic of the Icelanders that even the BBC has covered it.

Fréttablaðið reports that the phrase may actually have roots in Denmark, but the response to this news has called this origin story into question.

Linguist Guðrún Kvaran pointed out on radio station Bylgjan that the Danes have an almost identical phrase, “Det reddes”, which she contends mean the same thing as “þetta reddast” and is used in the same manner. On the surface, this makes a lot of sense: Iceland was once a colony of Denmark, Danish is still taught in Icelandic schools, and Denmark has undoubtedly had a cultural impact on Iceland.

However, another linguist, Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson, has expressed doubts that the matter is this simple.

As Eiríkur points out, the first time “þetta reddast” appeared in print in Iceland was in 1966, and did not gain popularity until 1980—long after the Danish language ceased to have a significant effect on the Icelandic language. At the same time, he acknowledges that the verb “redda” has been in use since the 19th century.

That being the case, it is entirely possible that “þetta reddast” is an Icelandification of the Danish verb, and constructed long after Danish stopped being an important second language in Iceland.

Regardless of origin, “þetta reddast” is a very handy phrase to know in Iceland, and the attitude behind it is certainly reflected in many aspects of Icelandic society.


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