Icelanders vs. English

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Mar 24 13:51:48 UTC 2005

>>From the Houston Chronicle

March 19, 2005, 8:18PM

Icelanders on a mission: Fighting English invasion
Can proud people preserve their ancient language?


I hand the agent my "brottfarerspjald," step on board Icelandair Flight
642. Just before takeoff, the flight attendant stands before us clasping a
seat-belt buckle and droning through the "oryggisbunadur um bord." About
five hours later, we begin our descent into Reykjavik, the capital. At the
airport, I get my passport stamped at "vagabraeftirlit," make a quick
refresher stop in the "snyrtingar," exchange dollars for "kronurs" at the
"gjaldeyrir" and pick up tourist information at the "upplysingapjonustu
fyrir feroafolk."

I have come to this nation of 280,000 inhabitants, who speak to each other
in a language that is incomprehensible to 19,999 of every 20,000 people on
Earth, to see how they are holding up against the onslaught of English.
Iceland's linguistic patriots go to incredible lengths to preserve their
language. Foreign words are ruthlessly screened out by a special agency,
which also invents words for new things and ideas. There's a word for
everything in Icelandic  or there will be shortly.

Icelanders have a strong belief in their own national greatness, and that
conviction is rooted unshakably in language and words. Literacy isn't a
problem there; it's a given. Icelanders believe that men and women should
turn a verse as easily as they turn a profit, and both endeavors are
considered important to one's well-being.

Iceland has more bookstores per capita than any other nation in the world
("better shoeless than bookless" is an unofficial national motto). Sales
of a new novel in Iceland will compare favorably with sales for a similar
book in Britain  while a volume of poetry would do even better in Iceland
with a population about 1/200th that of Britain.

The most important tomes are the sagas. Written in the 12th and 13th
centuries, these are the great prose narratives of medieval Iceland,
bloodthirsty tales of Viking derring-do. Icelandic schoolchildren read
their national literature exactly as it was written hundreds of years ago.
Modern Icelanders speak virtually the same language as their forefathers
of the 10th century. Tomorrow morning's Reykjavik newspapers will be
written in the same language as the ancient sagas  that would be like this
newspaper using Chaucerian English.

Language preservation worked nicely for centuries because Icelanders lived
diphthongs apart from the rest of the world, but in recent decades the
cultural floodgates have been opened. English is everywhere  on
televisions, VCRs, the Internet and commercial products.

It's part of a global problem: About 400 million people speak English as
their first language, an additional 700 million or so use it as a second
language and a billion people more are struggling to learn how to speak
it. Meanwhile, other languages are disappearing at the rate of two per
month. There are about 6,800 languages in the world, but the expert
consensus is that 400 of them will soon be extinct.

Why care?

"When you lose a language," the late linguistics professor Kenneth Hale
once said, "you lose a culture, intellectual wealth, a work of art. It's
like dropping a bomb on a museum."

The front line of Iceland's preservation battle is in Reykjavik, the home
of the Icelandic Language Institute (Islensk Malstod); this government
agency was set up in 1964 to devise new words when existing language
proves inadequate. When AIDS first came to national attention in Iceland,
the main discussion was what to call it rather than how to prevent it. The
institute does not believe that AIDS should be called AIDS, and thus the
disease is officially known as "alnaemi," an ancient Icelandic word
meaning "totally vulnerable," which the institute settled on after some
three years of study.

The preservationists often resurrect words from the sagas. A computer is
called "tolva," a fusion of the old Icelandic words for number and
prophetess, and a TV screen is a "skjar," a sheep's placenta once used by
farmers as window panes. My favorite is "friopjofur," the word for pager,
which means "thief of peace."

I left Iceland pessimistic. Everywhere I went, I heard English spoken.
Although a written language can be purged of foreign words and phrases,
policing how people speak is another matter. Many young Icelanders cannot
be bothered with a language that is a minefield of subjunctive,
inflections and gender (the number 2 has three genders).

In one sense, the Icelanders have no one to blame but themselves. Just as
they have earnestly defended their language, they have with equal
enthusiasm made sure that every schoolchild has a computer and learns
English. Thus Microsoft sees no need to translate Windows into Icelandic.

The publishers of popular books are beginning to skip translation as well.
It's what the Icelandic language purists call a "sjalfhelda"  a Catch-22.
I fear the handwriting is on the wall  and it's in English.

Ecenbarger was a longtime reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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