Icelandic: On the Brink?

Patrick Cox has a “World in Words” segment called “Will Icelanders one day ditch their language for English?” Needless to say, Betteridge’s law of headlines applies, but it’s a fun read:

“When I was growing up, very few people spoke English,” says Gnarr. “With my generation, through TV and music it became necessary to understand English.”

Gnarr’s children speak much better English than he does. They have friends all over the world who they converse with on social media.

“But they don’t speak as good Icelandic as I do,” says Gnarr. “It’s a drastic change in a very short time.”

The conclusion is clear: Icelandic, like everything else, is going to hell in a handbasket. And of course there are the purists who “believe that the best chance for survival would be to resist importing words from English, and to hang on to the language’s archaic and complicated grammar.” Good plan, purists! (Hat tip for the link goes to Trevor.)

Comments

  1. I liked how second mention of an interviewee was by her patronym “Just like the language of the Sagas many centuries ago, says Ólafsdóttir.”

  2. As far as I know, Holland is one of the countries with largest percentage of people speaking English as a second language (90% according to Wiki) and somehow they are not worried

  3. “I liked how second mention of an interviewee was by her patronym”

    Wikipedia suggests that’s wrong. But I’m not sure whether it ought to have been “Just like the language of the Sagas many centuries ago, says Auður Ava” or “Just like the language of the Sagas many centuries ago, says Auður”.

  4. cardinal gaius sextus von bladet says:

    As far as I know, Holland is one of the countries with largest percentage of people speaking English as a second language (90% according to Wiki) and somehow they are not worried.

    Except when they are. The fashionable complaint is that university lectures are routinely given in English by Dutch-speakers with mediocre English to Dutch-speakers with mediocre English.

  5. ‘Archaic grammar’ makes me think of the row over calling animals ‘primitive’ just because they look more similar to their ancient ancestors than some other animals do. If they’re living now, they’re modern animals living a modern life.

  6. As far as I know, Holland is one of the countries with largest percentage of people speaking English as a second language (90% according to Wiki) and somehow they are not worried

    With over 18 million native speakers (if you include Flemish), there still must be more monolingual Dutch speakers in the world than there are, say, monolingual Norwegian, Swedish or Danish speakers. I would guess there are more monolingual Dutch speakers than the total number of speakers of small European languages like Latvian, Slovenian or Icelandic. Dutch will probably survive for a while.

  7. ‘Archaic grammar’ makes me think of the row over calling animals ‘primitive’ just because they look more similar to their ancient ancestors than some other animals do. If they’re living now, they’re modern animals living a modern life.

    Yes, that’s a long-standing bugaboo of mine (Lithuanian is regularly called “ancient” and the like); in the immortal words of Elvis Costello, I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused.

  8. @languagehat

    ‘Lithuanian is regularly called “ancient”’

    What’s a better word? I’m not a native English speaker, so I’m not sure if “ancient” necessarily has negative connotations, but to me it seems like a fitting description of something that has changed very little over time. I agree, however, that “archaic” has an “outdated” ring to it.

    As for Icelandic, Dutch and the Scandinavian languages, I’m pretty sure they’ll survive as long as they have populations receiving compulsory schooling in them, which I don’t see changing anytime soon.

  9. J. W. Brewer says:

    I like the cutting-the-other-way upbeat detail of “probably the world’s only Ethiopian who speaks better Icelandic than English.” But I find it bizarre that there’s a quote from one guy just asserting that The Kids Today don’t speak Icelandic as well as his generation does with absolutely zero supporting evidence adduced. Is the reader to assume a zero-sum situation where increasing English proficiency necessarily impairs Icelandic proficiency? Because that’s not invariably the way things work. There’s a hint about certain specialized domains where things aren’t translated out of English (before medical equipment came with English-language instructions, were they all translated into Icelandic? Or were they in Danish or perhaps German? or was medicine just a lower-tech enterprise so the issue didn’t arise?), but one can have a pretty stable diglossia for a pretty long period where one language is used to the exclusion of the other in certain domains. And “everyone at the hospital can read technical instructions in English, so they’re not translated” is not quite the same as “L1 Icelandic speakers working at the hospital speak to each other in English while performing surgery etc.”

  10. What’s a better word? I’m not a native English speaker, so I’m not sure if “ancient” necessarily has negative connotations, but to me it seems like a fitting description of something that has changed very little over time.

    It’s not the word that’s the problem, it’s the idea. Lithuanian hasn’t “changed very little over time,” it’s changed just like every language — it’s just that it’s retained certain features that stand out to the casual observer as looking archaic, and the Lithuanians themselves are happy to promote the idea that their language is uniquely conservative (just as the Greeks tend to delude themselves that their own language has hardly changed since the days of Socrates). Similarly, it’s common wisdom that the English spoken in Appalachia is somehow ancient/archaic/unchanging because it’s preserved certain features other dialects have lost (while, of course, losing other features that common wisdom doesn’t pay attention to).

  11. Is the reader to assume a zero-sum situation where increasing English proficiency necessarily impairs Icelandic proficiency? Because that’s not invariably the way things work.

    Yes, but it’s the way popular media work!

  12. I mean, putting things in that simple-minded way is the way popular media work.

  13. David Eddyshaw says:

    Just returned from Switzerland. To my joy, lots of largely impenetrable Swiss German all around (in an officially Italian speaking canton); the only standard German about was that written down and that from the mouths of German tourists.

    Swiss German seems to be in no danger whatsoever, and it isn’t even a single dialect, let alone a standard.

  14. “But they don’t speak as good Icelandic as I do,” says Gnarr. “It’s a drastic change in a very short time.”

    His generation perhaps spoke Icelandic in a wider variety of contexts.

    EA Annamalai has been researching this issue for Tamil — how there is a shrinkage of fluency even for native speakers because they are using Tamil in more limited contexts (i.e. not for education, professionally, etc), and their vocabulary is becoming less sophisticated, their ways of using the language are less sophisticated.

  15. I’ve read similar comments about Mongolian in Inner Mongolia. People remember how their parents spoke much better Mongolian than they do. The problem is that Chinese is usurping many of the roles of Mongolian, leaving a diminished domain for Mongolian. This leads to a gradual atrophy of Mongolian language abilities. The situation is different from that in Mongolia, where Mongolian is used for all the functions of a “modern national language”. In Inner Mongolia many of those functions are fulfilled by Chinese.

  16. @Hat I wouldn’t say the Greeks are very much under the impression that their language has changed little since Socrates’ time, the institution of modern Demotic Greek as the national language was a very long and (from what I can gather) contentious one, with modern Greek frequently derided as a ‘peasant’ or ‘degenerate’ language compared to Ancient Greek and modern Katharevousa.
    However, I can see your point being externally valid (“our Greek vs other modern Indo-European languages”).

  17. @languagehat
    ‘Lithuanian hasn’t “changed very little over time,”’

    I can’t really speak for Lithuanian, but I don’t think it’s wrong to say that Icelandic grammar has changed less than that of other descendants of Old Norse.

    And given that Icelandic people can read the eddas with only some notes, it seems the same can be said for vocabulary.

    As for phonology, I realize Icelandic has changed quite a bit, although I can’t really say if it’s less or more than other Old Norse descendants.

    I agree that all natural languages change, but I don’t think it’s impossible that some (or at least certain features of some) change more slowly than others. Whether “ancient” is a good description of that, I don’t know. I can see why you might think it somehow creates the false impression that it hasn’t changed at all, or that languages spoken long time ago are fundamentally different from or more primitive than the ones spoken now.

  18. Both those false impressions are incredibly widespread, so I feel it’s more important to combat them fiercely; once that battle has been won, we can move on to the niceties of which features of which languages are more conservative.

  19. What makes Icelandic unusual is that the changes have been smooth ones that do not incur phonemic restructuring. Similar changes in RP are /oʊ/ > /əu/ and /ɚ/ > /ə/.

    I think it’s only in its phonology that Greeks think their language is the same as Ancient Greek.

  20. That’s why I said “has hardly changed” rather than “hasn’t changed at all.” Of course they will grudgingly admit that they’ve fallen off from the high standards of their ancestors by failing to use the dative and suchlike, but the idea that Modern Greek is to Ancient Greek as Italian is to Latin is anathema to them.

  21. As is the notion that Hellenic is a small language family rather than just one language, Greek.

  22. J. W. Brewer says:

    The mechanism fisheyed describes is certainly not implausible (for either Icelandic or Tamil), but I’d like some evidence for Icelandic that it’s actually happening, rather than just assuming that some guy complaining about The Kids Today must have some empirically valid basis for his complaint. That two L1 Icelandic-speaking professional colleagues could have a fluent workplace conversation with each other in English doesn’t mean they will (or at least will do so predominantly or exclusively). Being off on a sparsely-populated island not particularly near anything else means that the odds of a significant number of people who can’t speak Icelandic also being present in a school or workplace context are rather less than in some other places — it would take some considerable transformation for Iceland to become a place like Wales where everyone is fluent in English and some but not most people are also fluent in Welsh.

  23. A friend of mine is a teacher at a secondary school (I guess you’d call it) in Reykjavík where there are a lot of immigrant children. Many, perhaps most, do very badly at school.

    In many cases their parents aren’t really immigrants. They’ve come to Iceland to work and they’re planning on returning back home in x many years. Or when things are looking up a bit. Perhaps this is especially true of Poles (about 50% of the immigrants in Iceland are Poles) and other Eastern Europeans.

    Because the grownups don’t see their future in Iceland they don’t bother to learn Icelandic. They gravitate towards jobs where knowing a smattering of English will suffice. They see no value in learning a language so small, so utterly useless in the Greater World. Of course this attitude rubs off on their kids. So not only are the parents unable to help kids with their homework, they more or less relay the message that school is a waste of time. Because they’re only staying in Iceland temporarily.

    So when these kids go back to their “homeland” (if they ever do) it will be as totally uneducated people. Their chances of making up for lost time is probably next to nil.

  24. The PRI article abounds in really funny sentences. This is my favourite:

    “Births take places with the aid of medical devices whose instructions are in English, so hospital staff must be able to read English.”

  25. David Marjanović says:

    I’ve read similar comments about Mongolian in Inner Mongolia. People remember how their parents spoke much better Mongolian than they do. The problem is that Chinese is usurping many of the roles of Mongolian, leaving a diminished domain for Mongolian. This leads to a gradual atrophy of Mongolian language abilities.

    Even this does not automatically follow. Not only does Standard German fulfill all the “modern national language” roles in Austria and (to a slightly lesser extent) Switzerland, but Upper German dialects have e.g. a lot fewer abstract nouns than the European average to begin with; and yet, the dialects are only endangered in Vienna, where there’s a Standard-speaking upperclass to imitate.

  26. and yet, the dialects are only endangered in Vienna, where there’s a Standard-speaking upperclass to imitate.

    Can you define “endangered”? Bc Annamalai’s argument is to distinguish between language-shift (or dialect shift) and shrinkage (in which people use fewer synonyms, narrower vocabulary, etc, use it on fewer occasions etc), and argue that the latter is also a kind of endangerment even when the former is not really happening.

    Because the grownups don’t see their future in Iceland they don’t bother to learn Icelandic. They gravitate towards jobs where knowing a smattering of English will suffice.

    This is a serious problem in India as well, where migrants don’t see much point in learning Marathi or Kannada. These tensions have led to violence and lumpen political parties and many other problems.

  27. David Marjanović says:

    Can you define “endangered”? Bc Annamalai’s argument is to distinguish between language-shift (or dialect shift) and shrinkage (in which people use fewer synonyms, narrower vocabulary, etc, use it on fewer occasions etc), and argue that the latter is also a kind of endangerment even when the former is not really happening.

    Shrinkage is certainly happening, but only up to a point that still lies pretty high. In Vienna, there’s shift.

  28. And they should know.

  29. David Marjanović says:

    Shrinkage is certainly happening

    It’s actually reversing in Switzerland. Often the weather is announced on TV in the presenter’s dialect.

  30. Is that “the presenter’s dialect” or what I’d call “General Schwyzerdütsch”? You know, the kind of standardized Swiss German they e.g. use in advertising?

  31. David Marjanović says:

    Quite possibly.

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