According to Mayor Gnarr and some linguists, there is a distinct possibility that the Icelandic language will be obscure within this century as more and more people adopt the English language. He believes that this is an unavoidable certainty unless something is done to preserve Icelandic, a North Germanic language that originated from Old Norse and had remained relatively unchanged. Another person who believes that Icelandic might be lost is Ari Páll Kristinsson. He is in-charge of language planning at the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, which is the language research agency of Iceland.
Kristinsson said that English is all over Iceland today. The medical devices used in maternity clinics have English instructions, thus hospital staff must learn English to be able to read and understand them. Even during funerals, English songs are sung by family and friends.
If the Icelandic language is lost, then the Icelandic nation is lost as well, according to Kristinsson. If that happens, then Icelandic sovereignty will be gone. The country became fully independent only on June 17, 1944. It was formerly under Denmark’s rule. However, with the arrival of 40,000 U.S. troops in the country during the war, the Icelandic language was challenged, and that challenge was not immediately noticed. It was only in 2006 when the U.S. military completely pulled out of Iceland. By that time a large section of the Icelandic population was already fluent in the English language, making many of them bilingual.
The Internet, satellite TV, air travel and urbanization did not help matters. The country is no longer isolated and younger people are now growing up speaking English and gaining many friends around the world through social media. The mayor said that his own children speak better English than him, which he countered by saying that he speaks better Icelandic than his children.
Language purists in Iceland believe that they could help their language survive by resisting the importation of English words into Icelandic and maintain its complicated and archaic grammar. There are also after school programs that remind people to be proud of their mother tongue.
There were two suggestions on how to keep the local language alive. One is to zero in on the Icelanders’ penchant for storytelling, which means encouraging local novelists and poets to continue writing in Icelandic.
The next suggestion was to encourage immigration. One example they cited is the story of Azeb Kahssay, an Ethiopian restaurant owner in Flúðir. Her husband is an Icelander. When she came to Iceland seven years ago, she learned the language rather than English. She proudly says that she has mastered the language while her English is still far from perfect. She and her husband converse in Icelandic.
While other people fear that immigration will further dilute their language, others see it as the way to go, since language should always be inventive, creative and alive, according to novelist Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir.