Icelanders Get Angry Over “Grandparent” Skip to content
Crowds gathered at Austurvöllur to show solidarity with Norway.
Photo: Golli. LGBTQ+ solidarity gathering at Austurvöllur square following the Oslo shootings.

Icelanders Get Angry Over “Grandparent”

The National Queer Organisation of Iceland (Samtökin ’78) is asking the public to help it coin new Icelandic words to reflect the reality of queer people, including a general neutral term for grandparent, which exists in English but not in Icelandic. The competition is being held for the third time but has sparked harsh reactions as many believed its intention was to replace the Icelandic words “grandma” and “grandpa” with a gender-neutral term. National Broadcaster RÚV has been criticised for its coverage of the controversy, which many assert did not clear up this misunderstanding and made room for bigotry towards queer people.

Only want what English and Danish already have

The English language already has a gender-neutral alternative to the words “grandma” and “grandpa:” the word “grandparent,” as do many languages even more closely related to Icelandic, such as Danish. Although Icelandic, like English, does have gender-neutral terms for other family members, such as parent (foreldri) and sibling (systkini), the Icelandic language currently only has the gendered terms afi (grandpa) and amma (grandma) to refer to the parents of someone’s parents. (You can also build gendered compound words to refer to grandparents such as móðurmóðir, mother’s mother.) The Queer Association’s competition calls on the public to submit suggestions for a gender-netural term such as grandparent that could be adopted into the Icelandic language. It also asks for submissions for other terms that are lacking in Icelandic but exist in other languages to reflect the lived experience of the LGBTQ+ community.

No intention to replace “grandma” and “grandpa”

An mbl.is article on the competition engendered some 1,000 comments on social media, many in protest of the initiative. A closer look revealed that many authors misunderstood the nature of the competition and believed the Queer Association was looking to replace the words “grandma” and “grandpa,” amma and afi, in Icelandic. “This isn’t about changing the way people talk,” Ásta Kristín Benediktsdóttir, one of the competition’s judges and an Assistant Professor of Icelandic Literature at the University of Iceland told RÚV. “It’s just about the language needing more words.” Asked why she thinks the competition has received negative reactions, she stated: “I think it’s about some sort of fear that someone’s trying to change the language without people being able to have a say in it.”

RÚV criticised for not correcting misunderstanding

Ásta later criticised RÚV’s editing of her interview, however, saying it had left out the key points she made on the issue. Others from the queer community criticised RÚV’s coverage of the issue as well, pointing out that the broadcaster prioritised asking people on the street what they thought about the competition rather than clarifying what it was about and prioritising expert analysis. “It is not especially responsible, especially now that there is a backlash against queer rights, to use news space to talk about the reactions rather than using the opportunity to correct a misunderstanding that seems to have made a lot of people quite upset,” stated Samtökin ’78 Vice-Chair Bjarndís Helga Tómasdóttir.

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