Coping with the dominance of English: a view from Iceland

Posted by on March 07, 2013

© SuperstockFollowing Michael Rundell’s post on International Mother Language Day, last week Lars Trap-Jensen discussed the role of English as a lingua franca in Denmark. This week we continue with the same topic – this time from an Icelandic point of view. Our guest blogger is Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, Assistant Professor at the Department of History of the University of Iceland. Guðni is author of the History of Iceland, published earlier this year.

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‘Land, þjóð og tunga.’ Containing strange letters like þ (pronounced as the th-sound in think) and the ð (th in there), Icelandic must look incomprehensible to those who do not know this Norse language that has remained relatively unchanged since Iceland was settled in the ninth century CE. Still, a close look at the words above might be revealing. ‘Land’ means the same in Icelandic as English, ‘tunga’ is tongue (as in language), but ‘þjóð’ may remain impenetrable, admittedly.

What does the sentence say? With ‘þjóð’ meaning ‘nation’, the sentence is the opening line in a famous poem from the mid-twentieth century, an ode to the three main components in Icelandic nationhood – the country, the people and the language. That notion was not new. When Icelandic intellectuals launched the struggle for independence from Denmark in the early nineteenth century, Danish was considered the main threat and the fight against the influx of Danish words proved successful. Today, spoken Icelandic contains fewer words from the Danish language than it did a century or so ago.

The new threat is much bigger, however, as the protectors of Icelandic have been saying more or less since the Second World War. The relative isolation of Iceland was then broken with the arrival of British and American troops, protecting the country against the enemy but putting the language under threat, as it were. During the war, the outsiders drove their jeeps to a shop, greeting the locals with hi and bye. The hostilities ended but the alien words remained. To this day, Icelanders speak of jeppi and sjoppa, and and are at least as common as the old greeting of komdu sæll og blessaður (hello to a male person) and vertu sæl og blessuð (good-bye to a female person).

To their credit, Icelandic linguists and language enthusiasts invented brilliant words for new inventions, like sími (old Icelandic word for thread) for telephone, and tölva for computer (the new word a combination of tala (number) and völva (soothsayer)). Other battles were lost, however. Officially, stores and restaurants were not allowed to bear foreign names, but such regulations were rarely enforced. Thus, the company known in official files as Hart Rokk Kaffi operated Hard Rock Café, as it was known by everyone.

In the modern age of globalization and integration, the struggle against foreign names for enterprises is long lost and the introduction of foreign words continues at a steady pace. For the traditionalists, each assault must be fought in order to keep Icelandic pure – to use the expressions they use themselves. The more moderate camp contends that the language should not be static or sterile. For instance, they would applaud the fact that when Icelandic teenagers join a LAN party, they say that they are að lana, thus inventing a new word, a verb which non-Icelandic speakers would probably not comprehend on its own.

Similarly, while knowledge of English is essential at Icelandic universities, Icelandic remains the lingua franca. In fact, Icelandic students tend to overestimate their knowledge of English. It is one thing to play a computer game in English, quite another to write an essay or deliver a presentation. The same probably goes for most of the staff as well. Although I studied and lived in England for eight years, I still find it much harder to write in English than Icelandic. I like to interpret that as a sign of how strong the good old mother tongue remains.

For more information on the Icelandic language, see the webpages of The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies and The Icelandic Language Institute.

For more blog posts in this series discussing the dominance of English, or English as a lingua franca, please see this page.

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Comments (1)
  • Land, þjóð og tunga – Even the second of these words isn’t quite as alien as you might think. It’s cognate with deutsch/Dutch/Teutonic. The origin is an Indo-European root meaning a group of people, a tribe. So ‘deutsch’ echoes an ancient sense of equivalence between nation and language; ‘we are the people (Wir sind das Volk!) and this is our language’.

    Posted by Jonathan Marks on 8th March, 2013
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