Losing a living language by Quentin Bates

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What the hell have you people done to your language? Languages are supposedly dying off at the rate one every few days, and the way Icelandic has become bastardised, it’s nowhere near the back of the queue. It seems that the Nordic language that has altered least since the Saga age has changed more in the last twenty years  than in the preceding two hundred.

To scroll back, at the end of the 70s I arrived in Iceland and spent my daylight hours and more in a workshop where little English was spoken. The younger staff were all apprentices and sat on the school bench in the mornings, leaving me with the older generation for whom anything more complex than ‘coffee time’ stretched their English vocabularies. There was no option but to learn enough to get by and not get an ill-understood bollocking every time I made a mistake.

It wasn’t difficult to misunderstand these people who seemed ancient, but who were probably only in their fifties. That generation had been born under Danish rule and Danish was the language taught in schools. Denmark was where people went to study and where authority stemmed from.

There was a coolness towards Denmark, the colonial power that had done Iceland few favours in the preceding centuries, and it was noticeable how Danish and Icelandic were kept separate. There was a pride people’s own language that wouldn’t allow them to adulterate it. Struggling to make sense and speak to people, I’d try out odd phrases and knock together awkward sentences. One day I tried something new and one of the old men at work immediately wagged a finger, frowned and shook his head.

Þetta er Dönsk slétta,‘ he warned. ’That’s Danish slang’

The message was clear. Danish loan words weren’t welcome in the slow, thoughtful, crystal clear Icelandic that the old man spoke.

In fact, there were a few odd words that had made their way into Icelandic from Danish. Reading through the book of regulations to prepare for my driving test, there were words I’d never seen before and had to ask what tengsli and hemlar meant. It turned out that these were clutch and brakes, and that the familiar words, kúpling and bremsur, were in fact, you guessed it, borrowed from Danish. Although they were used in colloquial speech, these words had no place in official literature.

That’s still the way it is. Official Icelandic is still the clear, sharp, undiluted language that was spoken decades ago but now bears increasingly little resemblance to everyday speech since English exploded on the scene with the arrival of the internet and cable TV. A purer version of Icelandic can still be found here and there. State broadcaster RÚV’s Rás 1, otherwise known as Gufan (steam radio) is a breath of fresh air after a few minutes of pop broadcaster Bylgjan’s baffling inanities in a mind-numbing aural soup of Icelandic and garbled English loan words.

It’s something that pervades the media, with spoken Icelandic on the radio in particular awash with English words dropped incongruously into Icelandic. Business is infested with the same phenomenon. When you hear a sentence like; ‘þetta produkt er kominn með name,‘ you genuinely wonder which language is being spoken and I’ve made one or two lifelong enemies by asking just that question.

Officialdom naturally holds on tight to clean Icelandic and can hardly do otherwise when legalese may have to be interpreted at some point when misused and confusing loan words won’t do. So will Icelandic become an isolated, legal language that only lawyers and government officials speak? It’s a real possibility. I have encountered youngsters who have trouble understanding what would have been normal language a dozen years ago, and who complain about being addressed in forn Íslensku – ancient Icelandic.

Speaking grammatically correctly and using a vocabulary that isn’t snatched from somewhere else is considered thoroughly uncool these days. When comedian and Reykjavík’s mayor Jón Gnarr wanted to portray Georg Bjarnfreðarson as an narrow-minded old fart, he had the character speak in a form of correct Icelandic that belongs to an earlier age. It worked, the character was beautifully crafted, but it’s a pity that a careful and correct use of language is a key ingredient in making the ludicrous Georg such a figure of fun.

It makes you wonder where the pride in one’s own language has gone when it’s gleefully speckled with foreign terms. Personally, I have to stifle the urge to poke someone in the eye when they replace ‘stórt’ with ‘hyooge’ for no apparent reason, or says ‘focking brilljant!’ instead of ‘frábært!’ or ‘meiriháttar!’

It’s not easy to understand why it was such a point of pride a generation ago to keep speech clear of Danish loan words, while for present-day Icelanders, it’s perfectly acceptable to litter speech with bizarre usages of English words at every turn, even when a simpler Icelandic word or phrase exists.

Language changes, that’s a given. It’s the mark of a language that’s in daily use. As a native English speaker, I recognise that my own language is a glorious mess of French, Latin, Germanic languages and some Norse, plus odd terms imported from Hindi, Inuit, Romany, Gaelic and elsewhere. That’s precisely what Icelandic isn’t – or wasn’t until the internet and Sky TV started to steal it away.

It’s a shame that Icelandic may be set to disappear within a few generations. The language that survived for centuries in virtual isolation among farmers and fishermen in treasured books and the thrust-and-parry of words games, taut verse and argument over smoky peat fires is being eaten alive, and the shock is that it’s happened so fast. In the space of a single generation Icelandic has taken a series of body blows. Maybe it’s just a symptom of my own Bjarnfreðarson-esque fogeyishness that I have an old-fashioned preference for thoughtful and correct use of language, but it’s worth wondering how this fiendishly difficult but enormously rich and rewarding language will survive in daily usage, or if it will have vanished completely within a generation or two.

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Quentin Bates

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