From Iceland — Language Professor Emeritus: "Icelandic Is For Everyone"

Language Professor Emeritus: “Icelandic Is For Everyone”

Published August 10, 2020

Sam O'Donnell
Photo by
Art Bicnick

Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson, professor emeritus of Icelandic grammar at the University of Iceland, said that it does nobody any favours to get offended by someone else’s use of the language.

He made this statement shortly before leaving Málvöndunarþáttinn, a Facebook group dedicated to Icelandic language, and founded a new group which he says will be a forum to foster more positive discussion about the language, RÚV reports.

He said that he was a member of Málvöndunarþættin for several years. However, about a year ago, he noticed an attitude prevailing in the group that shocked him. At that time, he made a concerted effort to change the spirit of the group. He made posts in the group daily, which got mostly positive attention.

Lately, however, he said that the discussion in the group has been rather negative. The last straw was when the group jumped on Minister of Education Lilja Alfreðsdóttir’s pronunciation of the word “skólarnir,” in which she dropped the letter “r”. In the opinion of the majority of those who participated in the discussion, Lilja’s pronunciation was incorrect, and warranted harsh criticism.

Eiríkur contradicted this criticism, however, saying that Lilja’s pronunciation of the word is in accordance with a well-known pronunciation connected to Suðurland. He posted as much in the group before he left:

“This type of discourse is intolerable and to the detriment of those who engage in it. It is offensive and hurtful – in fact, an attack on the language that people have acquired at their own pace, and an attack on their own personal identity. It is certainly not conducive to strengthening the Icelandic language because it makes people insecure and scares them from using the language – encourages fear. Often the purpose seems to be to brag about one’s own skills rather than to guide others. But talking down to people is never effective. Icelandic is for everyone – and it should be.”

When asked whether the general discussion about the Icelandic language is always so scathing in the group, he said probably not. He had the feeling it was a vocal minority bringing the tone of the group down. However, in his opinion, the discussion of the Icelandic language is generally very undeveloped, which is reflected in standardised exams and the way the language is taught in schools.

“I think that the Icelandic language debate would support the future of Icelandic much better if it were more positive and open, instead of teaching us how things should be and always have been,” he said. Indeed, he has spoken openly and frequently about the future of Icelandic.

Eiríkur said that many linguists feel like the language should be exactly the same as what they grew up with. As a result, young people in Iceland are often harshly criticised for the way they speak the language, which can make their attitude towards learning the language negative. In his opinion, people can lose interest in Icelandic if they are constantly being corrected and criticised. And if people are not interested in learning the language, the language will eventually die.

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