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Kvaran - English



Guðrún Kvaran, Icelandic Language Council

Icelandic Language Policy in Past, Present and Future

The Icelandic language community is very small, compared to the language communities which are represented at this conference. About 280,000 people have Icelandic as their mother tongue. The language structure is for the most part the same as at the age of the settlement in the 10th century. Of course there have been some changes, especially within the field of phonology, but an Icelander today can, without great trouble, read all that has been written down from the 13th century to this day. He certainly has to look up some words and phrases, which are now obsolete or have got a new meaning, but he has no other major difficulties.

Iceland has for a long time been known for the cultivation of the language. The main characteristic features are preservation of the language and a rather conservative language policy. When the words ”Icelandic language policy” are used, most people assume that they refer to a text that has been defined and put in words by official authorities, the ministry of education or the Althing (the Icelandic legislative assembly), and that can be referred to when needed. How we shall use the language, what is it we are supposed to preserve and what are we fighting against. This is not the fact. No resolutions are to be found about an official Icelandic language policy, and the authorities deal much less directly with the preservation of the language than many think, especially abroad where it is a received opinion that the Icelandic language is governed successfully from above.

Even if no formal resolutions exist concerning the Icelandic language policy they are indirectly to be found in the law of the Icelandic Language Council. There the main items of what can be called an Icelandic language policy are mentioned. Already in the first  paragraph we read: ”The main task of the Icelandic Language Council is to work for the growth of the Icelandic language and work on its preservation in its written as well as in its  spoken form.” The Council's field of work is large, and it has to deal with many different assignments. It has not been given specific rules to work with when it instructs, and no instructions how it shall strengthen and preserve the Icelandic language. Theses rules the Council has to make itself. But what is it that the Language Council has to deal with, what danger is imminent when the language is concerned, and what is there to be done? I will try to answer these questions even if the answer to the last one is not obvious.

One can maintain that the status of the conservative language preservation is quite strong in Iceland, but the Icelandic community is under the influence of constantly growing impulses from a fast changing world. The Council’s opinion is that the main problems of the Icelandic language do not only consist in the factors that regard changes in the forms and meanings of words or in changes within the field of syntax, but they are direct consequences of the              globalization and rapid development of information technology where the English language is dominating, and often the only language which can be used.

If we look at the situation today, there are mainly three reasons why the languages of small nations now have less changes than ever to survive. The first one is the Internet and World Wide Web. In Iceland most homes have a Internet connection, and the younger generation  has got used to the computerized world of the information technology. It looks increasingly for common knowledge on the Internet, the schools point their pupils at the Internet for looking up information for all kinds of works and papers, and they also seek there all kinds of material they can use for hobby and amusement. Besides many play with computer gamesand look at foreign television programmes where English is the dominating language. The consequences are that children and teenagers, and increasingly adults too, do not read as much in Icelandic as before, since most of the material they are dealing with is written in a foreign language – mostly English.

The second reason is the satellite television. A great part of the inhabitants of the capital and surroundings, where half of the population lives, can now with help of cable connections choose to look at foreign television stations, among them all the Scandinavian stations, but the programmes that are usually chosen to look at and listen to are in English.

The third reason is the increasing production of all kinds of materials on CD-Rom. Among              them there are the popular computer games used among others by quite young children, but  also all kinds of information and materials for teaching that can be bought quite cheaply,              mostly in English. Quite many of the younger generation use these three factors every day. They sit in front of their computers looking for some information, at school as well as at              home, play games on CD-Rom, and use the rest of their spare time looking at television or              playing English or American pop music on CDs. There is not much time left for strengthening the mother tongue. Even if some of you think that I have painted the situation              with too dark colours, I think that I am not too far from the reality, and that the greatest danger for the Icelandic language today is English which will bit by bit win domains, if we              are not always on watch. But what is to be done to cope with the situation?

A new committee was elected to run the Icelandic Language Council at the beginning of the year 2002. Its first task was to study the Council’s fields of work, and to decide what domains should be especially in focus the next four years. It particularly took into account              new reports on loss of domains that had been written in all the Nordic countries, and where              increasing English influence in many fields of the Nordic societies where pointed at, having the consequences that the possibilities of using the native languages have decreased. The author of the Icelandic report studied mainly the situation within the school system, in the              mass media, in teaching and research at the university, and within the administration. His              results were that English influence is not threatening within these domains in Iceland, at              least not so that one can maintain that English is becoming the dominating language. He,              however, pointed out that the negative stand against English in some firms is changing.

The Icelandic Language Council created a programme for the period of the years 2002–              2005, where the problems of the loss of domains are emphazised and some practical projects              pointed out, which are to be focussed on in the years to come. It chose three fields which it              meant to be the most urgent to pay attention to the next four years. These fields are: a)              children and teenagers, b) firms and services, and c) immigrants.

I have already mentioned the English influence on children and teenagers. What firms and              services concerns English is increasingly the language of interactive relations. The market              has become international, the invitations to submit tenders are international, and the              advertisements are more and more made for international purposes. Increasing cooperation              calls for foreign employees, and a considerable amount of immigrants settled down in              Iceland in the last decade. Around 3 % of the inhabitants are now of foreign origin, and              simultaneously to the fact that the immigrants are increasing the probabilities become larger              that their mutual language, and the language they use when communicating with Icelanders              will be English.

I will now deal with these three domains. As already mentioned many children use much time on the Internet and playing computer games. Many parents are proud of their childrens’ skill in English, and the Language Council has nothing against that. It, on the other hand,  believes that because of this increasing contact with English it is very important that the  children are taught the best Icelandic possible, written as well as spoken, in a constructive way so that they learn the values of the language for themselves as individuals and for the community as a whole, and the goal is that they find Icelandic a self-evident, desirable and positive language to use to express themselves in all situations. This can be done by increasing their knowledge of the language, its history and its part of the Icelandic culture as well as their own identity. One should not use all strength on correcting morphological errors. Instead it is important to practice reading, creative writing, and the understanding of  the language. It is also important to work with the mass media that produce programmes for children and teenagers, and with the firms that sponsor these programmes, for their responsibility and part of the upbringing is greater than the managements perhaps realize.

But sometimes something unexpected happens which strengthens again a domain that was loosing ground, at least for a while. Within the pop world more and more song writers use Icelandic for their texts, and the reason is that an Icelandic pop singer, Björk, and an Icelandic pop group, Sigur-Rós, have become known abroad, and they often sing their texts in Icelandic. Now other groups no longer find it lousy to sing in Icelandic, at least at the moment.

It is the Council’s opinion that what firms concerns it is very important at strengthen the managements’ awareness of the fact that the Icelandic people have the right to user their mother tongue at work and that Icelandic always should be the first language in firms that are dealing with the domestic market. This concerns among others advertisements, reports,  descriptions of projects, and meetings. Some firms, that work on common and foreign market, already choose English as the main language of communication, as for example the Icelandic airline Icelandair where English now has become the first language in the airplanes.

Pure English is seldom to be seen in advertisements. The daily papers have fairly strict rules, and the same goes for television and radio. Still English influence has won domains, especially within the syntax. A change has also found place concerning firm names. Large chain stores have discovered a new market in Iceland, and started new branches there. Names as McDonalds, Debenhams, Hennes and Mauritz and several others are now to be found in Icelandic shopping centres The result is that many new Icelandic firms now choose  foreign names, especially fashion shops. Grumbling and negative discussion will not change this tendency. Therefore the Language Council has contacted the association of the  advertising agencies which every year gives a prize for the best advertisement, chosen from their point of view. The ceremony attracts attention, and next time the Council will have a part in the ceremony and give prize for the best text used in an advertisement. Hopefully we will find the result in better texts.

On the 16th of November every year the ”Day of the Icelandic Tongue” is celebrated. Next  time the Council in cooperation with the Association of Name Studies will give prize to the best new Icelandic firm name. It is the Council’s opinion that if one wants to preserve  existing domains then one should emphasis on what is positive, win those back that believe that something foreign is more modern than their own language.

The language within large domains, as for example the financial world, politic debate, and the language of the law, seems not to be in danger. New words are made where they are needed. At the ministry of foreign affaires, for example, a group of people is working on the              translation of the law of the EU. A lot of neologisms are needed which are accessible on the Internet for others to use.

At the University of Iceland, which were for a long time the only university of the country,              most of the courses are taught in Icelandic and Icelandic words exist for most terms. Lately new universities have been established, and there some subjects are already taught in              English, and the pressure on the University of Iceland to do the same is increasing. There domains will get lost if nothing is done to prevent it.

The third field that the Language Council will emphasize during the four years period              concerns immigrants, and it is in fact closely related to firms and services. As I mentioned before those inhabitants have increased that have another mother tongue than Icelandic. They are part of the Icelandic economic life, and in some fields of work they are in the majority. If we want them to become active participants in the Icelandic community and that Icelandic becomes the dominating language in daily relations between different groups we will have to offer good courses in Icelandic suitable to their needs. Otherwise it is more than possible that the new inhabitants choose to avoid Icelandic and pursue English diligently as a language they use to communicate with Icelanders and immigrants from other countries as is the case in several European countries.

My opinion is that in the nearest future there is possible to work at many positive projects within the three domains which the Icelandic Language Council has chosen. But that is not enough. The language’s greatest danger lies, as I mentioned before, within the field of information technology, and there others will have to assist. When people can not use their  mother tongue in all daily situations then a language starts to die. The Icelandic people are known for their language purism, and for making new words for new concepts. In spite of that new words are increasingly lacking. The reason to be worried is perhaps not great as long as the structure of the language does not change, and we can use Icelandic in all daily situations. But if the mother tongue no longer is the main language, it is only to be use at home, but is not valid at school and at work then it does not help to refer to the sagas and make new words for single terms. We can not change the globalization and the information technology, there is no one that earnestly suggests that, and we have to accept the fact that  English will be dominating as an international language of communication in the nearest future.

Concerning the technology it will be one the Council’s main tasks to urge the politicians to support the researches and projects within the language technology. It is expensive to keep up a small language community in times of increasing globalization. This fact the authorities will have to accept and support the preservation of the language.             


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