Last week I celebrated my birthday in the beautiful city of Reykjavik. It was my first visit and it won’t be my last. Iceland is unique in so many ways: it is the most peaceful country in the world; the Icelandic phone book lists every person by their first name; and it boasts one of the most difficult to learn languages. As a bit a of language obsessive and aspiring polyglot this seriously interested me.
Icelandic is one of a group of Nordic languages which includes Swedish and Danish but, interestingly, not Finnish, which is way out there on its own and apparently completely incomprehensible to the Swedes, Danes, and Icelanders.
Although Icelandic has been the national language of Iceland throughout the country’s history, it only became the official language in 2011. This is actually similar to English which I am told only became recognised as the ‘official language’ of England in 2002!*
Icelandic has been consistently rated as one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn. This is largely down to its archaic (the Icelanders agree this one) vocabulary, and its complicated grammar. And this is what makes it so interesting.
Many old languages die out due to a combination of young people leaving and outsiders moving in. In the normal course of events, young people take their native language with them when they leave and drop it in their new residence. Outsiders bring their own new language with them. Over time this dilutes the native one. Eventually, we all begin to speak one common tongue.
My dad was born in Cork, Ireland in 1940, and he remembers it being unremarkable to hear older people speak Irish Gaelic. You won’t hear it now. You could probably say the same about dialects in England. For example, the Geordie and Scouse dialects spoken by people in Newcastle and Liverpool in the early to mid 20th century do not really exist any more save for the odd word or expression.
In Iceland, although the number of Icelandic speakers probably is diminishing due to demographic reasons, the fact that the language has remained pretty untouched since the Vikings spoke it is quite staggering. Why should this be?
Well, as above, Iceland has had very little immigration so no one has come along to dilute their language. There are about 340,000 people living there which is less than half the size of Leeds in the UK. This has helped to keep the Icelandic language pure. The real challenge however has been how to develop vocabulary in a rapidly changing world.
As we can imagine, topics of conversation have changed a little since medieval times and many new words and phrases have since been developed. Whereas some languages have simply adopted words from other languages e.g. the German for ‘mobile phone’ is ‘Mobil-telefon’, Icelanders have often chose to create their own from scratch. So, when Iceland decided it needed a word for ‘computer’ – which obviously the Vikings had not already invented – they could have just adopted ‘computer’ which is what the Germans also did. Instead, they invented a new word ‘tolva’. This is a hybrid of the words ‘tala’ which means ‘number’, and ‘volva’ which means … witch! So the Icelandic word for computer is literally translated as a witch with numbers! How cool is that? Icelandic is full of these wonderful examples of creativity. Check out Island.is for more examples.
Another thing which surprised me when I was in Iceland was just how well everyone seemed to speak English.
I have often surmised (to much argument!) that it is easier for non-English speakers to learn English, than it is for native English speakers to learn another language. This is because nearly all pop culture is in the English language. In my experience, it doesn’t matter where you go in the world, if you are a native English speaker you will find yourself talking about any of: football, UK politics, The Beatles, pop music generally, American movies, Irish pubs, the British Royal Family, and any number of English language literary greats. And that’s before we acknowledge that the internet, computer games, semaphore, Morse code, and most naval languages are usually in English.
Iceland was no exception to this, and we found ourselves answering questions about Brexit in a grocery store. In Paris a few weeks previously we had been talking about Leeds United with the taxi driver who took us to the train station.
While at school, Icelandic children learn both English and Danish. English simply because it is the world’s lingua franca (yes it is – see above!), and Danish because of the historic ties between the two countries. Students can also choose a third language while at school and, traditionally, this was French or German.
Icelandic children, often find themselves reading English language books simply because as Iceland is such a small country there just haven’t been that many Icelandic language books published. But nearly every child in the world has seen an English language copy of Harry Potter! Those who are interested in literature generally will gravitate to Jane Austen or JD Salinger. Then there is TV, and MTV-type channels.
The Icelandic language television market is, obviously, quite limited and so it follows that it’s expensive to produce quality TV shows for such a small market. This explains why conversely there is such a massive market for Bollywood films, and Nigerian and Latin American TV shows; they are huge markets with captive own-language audiences. Very few TV shows will have Icelandic subtitles (again, they are expensive to add) so there is an added incentive to learn English.
So ultimately, while Icelanders have been exposed to more English in their everyday lives, than most of us realise, they have made a very conscious and determined effort to retain their own language recognising what an important part of their culture it is.
George Orwell knew how important a country’s language is and used his Newspeak in 1984 as a tool by which the State limited freedom of thought. During the Maze Prison hunger strikes, the Nationalist prisoners made access to Irish language classes one of their key demands, the point being that they saw the Gaelic language as a key part of their Irish identity. There is a saying which I paraphrase as ‘when we lose our langauge, we lose part of ourselves’. In a rapidly changing world, it’s both remarkable and reassuring that Iceland has made sure that that hasn’t happened.
Do you think I am right that it is easier for non-English speakers to learn English due to the exposure to it they receive?
*I’m told that, as with most things in countries with very very long histories, nobody actually bothered to write down what language we were all required to speak. We all just drifted into English via French and Latin. When the Life in the UK test was established in 2002, someone questioned why it had to be written in English? To which the reply was, ‘because it’s our official language’ of course. A lawyer then asked, ‘where does it say that then … ?’. I do like this story, and it sounds totally plausible to me. It was told to me by a someone who works at a high level providing translation services and advice for the UK government. I must confess though that I haven’t been able to find any specific note or written evidence of it yet.