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Give Icelandic a Chance

Words by
Erik Pomrenke

Photography by
Erik Pomrenke and Golli

As ever more tourists stroll around downtown Reykjavík, a debate has intensified within Icelandic society about the changes they bring with them. Minister of Tourism, Trade, and Culture Lilja Dögg Alfreðsdóttir has been especially outspoken in her critique of the increasing visibility of English in public life. Much signage in Keflavík International Airport, Reykjavík shops, and even rural restaurants is not even in Icelandic and English, but, increasingly, just English.

Many Icelanders, who pride themselves on a linguistic and literary legacy that reaches far back into history, are understandably upset. And tourists ought to be as well. After all, they travel to experience the specificity of a place, the collection of things that makes it here, and not there. Language is, of course, a major part of this. 

While there’s much to be said from a policy perspective regarding the accessibility of Icelandic language learning, some have already rolled up their sleeves and gotten to work. Not content to abandon the defence of this old and beautiful language to nationalist cranks, a small programme in the Westfjords is trying to give Icelandic a chance.

Growing up with a German father and Icelandic mother, I developed a fascination with languages and history from an early age. You can picture it easily enough: Tolkien and Beowulf were early touchstones, culminating in graduate work in mediaeval literature and historical linguistics. Icelandic is sometimes compared to Latin, a fellow Indo-European language, because of its retention of a highly developed declension system, in addition to several other conservative tendencies. Long after it ceased to be a vernacular language, Latin led an afterlife as a scholarly language, written and read, but not spoken outside the church. But unlike Latin, Icelandic survives, spoken daily by a nation of some 375,000. My Icelandic, however, has unfortunately developed into the scholarly kind, my studies leaving me more able to parse a manuscript than to chat over coffee. Languages need to be spoken to live, and when I recently had the opportunity to truly immerse myself in Icelandic in no less beautiful a setting than the Westfjords, I knew I had to head West and dive in.

Peter Weiss

peter weiss ísafjörður

Peter Weiss, or as he’s sometimes known, Pétur Hvíti, has called the Westfjords home for many years, having directed the University Centre of the Westfjords since its founding in 2005.

“We originally began the language program here in 2007,” Peter tells me in his office which overlooks the Ísafjörður harbour. Originally, the programme was intended for exchange students, mostly on Erasmus and Nordplus grants. “In the beginning, the goal was just to help students be able to order a beer in town,” Peter explains. “Most of them wouldn’t go on to stay in Iceland, but it brings so much more to the experience to live like a local while they were here.” The approach was more hands-on, with less emphasis on grammar. A typical homework assignment for an exchange student that wanted to join the university choir, for example, might simply have been to call the choir director and ask to join. Due to changes from Brussels, students across Europe no longer receive Erasmus grants to study in Ísafjörður. While enrolment has declined slightly, it’s had the side effect that more and more students living in Iceland seem to be interested in coming to the Westfjords to learn the language.

ísafjörður

A language can survive some mistakes, but it dies in silence.

Peter firmly believes in simply getting students talking, even taking out classified ads in the local newspaper to remind locals to speak Icelandic with the students here. As he likes to say, “a language can survive some mistakes, but it dies in silence.” A major part of this philosophy is getting the community involved through programmes like Gefum íslensku séns (Let’s Give Icelandic a Chance), a series of events including lectures, concerts, art exhibits, and “speed dating” meant to bridge the gap between the classroom and the world outside. 

Spearheaded by Ísafjörður resident and Icelandic teacher Ólafur Guðsteinn Kristjánsson, Gefum íslensku séns is breathing new life into Ísafjörður. In response to the cruise ships which often flood the small community with more passengers than residents, Ólafur (who goes by Óli), began a poster campaign in 2021. Shopkeepers could place a poster in their window to identify as “Icelandic friendly,” somewhere locals could go and still feel at home. By 2022, the poster campaign had turned into a lecture and event series known as Íslenskuvænt samfélag: Við erum öll almannakennarar (Icelandic-Friendly Society: We Are All Teachers). This year, the programme has grown and changed yet again into its current form: Gefum íslensku séns. And although the University Centre of the Westfjords has always taught Icelandic with these principles in mind, the degree of community involvement that accompanies the new initiative is a game changer.

icelandic language learning
ísafjörður language learning

“What we really want to do here,” Peter tells me, “is to work against this reflex to always start a conversation in English. We want the entire community to also act as teachers. The easiest thing, for everyone, is of course to just stay in their mother language. What’s second-hardest is to just stay in their second language, at work for example. But we’re asking the hardest from people, to navigate a way between Icelandic and their native language, to stay in Icelandic for as long as they can, to ask questions, to ask people to repeat, and so on.” 

The Westfjords also represent a good learning environment, far away from the English signs and menus of downtown Reykjavík. In a Reykjavík filled with “brunch” and “happy hours,” where stores are increasingly “open” or “closed,” rural Iceland may become not just a tour destination, but also a language-learning destination. “I think it’s a very positive development,” Peter tells me. “The population in the Westfjords has decreased significantly since the Second World War, by around 30%. So whenever something new starts, there’s excitement in the air. Life is coming back to the Westfjords.” 

Of course, it isn’t just Icelandic that’s taught at the University Centre of the Westfjords. There are also international MA programmes in Marine Management and Rural Development on offer. “Obviously, we’re happy to see the region beginning to grow again, and having these other programmes is an important part of that,” Peter continues. “But we also think that the Icelandic courses here and Gefum íslensku séns are just as important in building up the image of the Westfjords. I think that people are often surprised by how much the Westfjords have to offer –maybe that’s why we see more and more creative people moving here.”

Inga Daníelsdóttir

“I’m retired, but I still think it’s good to give something of my time to people,” Inga Daníelsdóttir tells me. “And coming to these events is fun, too.”

The event that we attend is a presentation on contemporary immigrant literature in Iceland. Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl, internationally recognised author and native son of Ísafjörður, is also in attendance. Inga enjoys popping in to some of the events hosted by Gefum íslensku séns, especially “Icelandic speed dating,” in which locals and language learners convene at the local brewery to meet, greet, and practise Icelandic. Past events have proved popular enough that there were too many locals per language learner, locals having to wait their turn to chat. Admittedly, the event may be popular among locals for the possibility of getting a beer on the house.

inga daníelssdóttir

Always start in Icelandic. Have a little patience, and talk clearly. And it’s fine if people switch to English sometimes. Let them switch back to Icelandic when they want. It doesn’t need to be either or.

“I used to work in the music school here in Ísafjörður,” Inga continues. “But most musicians in Iceland move to Reykjavík.” She mentions a notable exception, the internationally acclaimed Mugison who is based here in Ísafjörður. “So often we had to hire music teachers from abroad,” Inga explains. “If you’re teaching small children, then of course you should learn some Icelandic. Not all teachers will learn immediately, but even phrases like well done, first finger, and practise at home make a difference. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but you have to start somewhere.”

Inga admits that the creep of English into everyday life in Iceland can be frustrating. She notes that when she recently travelled near Húsavík, a destination popular with tourists for its prime whale watching, she was hard-pressed to find a restaurant with an Icelandic menu. She was also in the market for a new front door recently: “I went to a couple different stores for an estimate. Only one of them sent it to me in Icelandic! It’s one thing to use loanwords for some technology, but we have perfectly good words for price, delivery, installation, and so on. I just don’t understand it sometimes.”

Gefum íslensku séns

Although the events have proven a success, Inga thinks that the way forward is through less formal relationships. “People can meet for coffee, for instance,” Inga tells me. “I have a friend in the Westman Islands who helps children learn Icelandic. She’s a ‘reading grandmother’ who helps a child that doesn’t have native Icelandic parents.”

Inga has been impressed with the success of Gefum íslensku séns and thinks that Icelandic learners should “get themselves a nice shirt from Óli.” The shirts, and matching buttons, state simply: I Want to Speak Icelandic.

Of course, the matter isn’t as simple as immigrants and language learners practising more. Inga also has advice for her fellow Icelanders: “Always start a conversation in Icelandic. Have a little patience, and talk clearly. And it’s fine if people switch to English sometimes. Let them switch back to Icelandic when they want. It doesn’t need to be either or.”

Helen Cova

Helen Cova is a Venezuelan writer who moved to Iceland in 2015. She now lives in Flateyri, a small village in the Westfjords, and she’s come to Ísafjörður to give a talk on how the personal experience of immigrants is affecting modern Icelandic.

When Helen first moved to Iceland, she was interested in entering a book in the annual Icelandic Literary Prize. “But when I found out they don’t accept works in translation,” she tells me, “I thought, ok, if you want a book in Icelandic, I’ll give you one!” Since those days, Helen already has two original books in Icelandic under her belt, Snulli Likes Being Alone and Snulli Learns to Say No, in addition to a translated collection of short stories entitled Autosarcophagy: To Eat Oneself

helen cova

You wouldn’t guess it from speaking to Helen in her adopted language, but she also had her own struggles in learning Icelandic. “It can be very difficult for learners to find opportunities to speak and practice,” she explains. “Especially in Reykjavík.” Indeed, simply being able to speak Icelandic with her neighbours is one of the aspects of living in Flateyri she appreciates most: “It’s always the same people you see everyday, in the pool, for example. It’s much easier to have a rapport with people when they know you as someone who speaks Icelandic.”

Not even the most trenchant of prescriptivists would find much fault with Helen’s Icelandic, but she also thinks it’s for the best that the language has gotten some fresh perspectives lately. “I think we’re all carrying our own personal experiences,” she elaborates. “And it’s these experiences that will change contemporary Icelandic. I speak Spanish, for example. How does that influence how I speak Icelandic? Some things I’m conscious of, but there are definitely times when I express myself differently from how a native Icelander might. But we’re still speaking the same language. Or when I’m writing, I’m definitely thinking about how I might say this or that in Spanish. I don’t write in ‘pure’ or ‘perfect’ Icelandic – if something simply comes to me in Spanish, I just go with it and return to it later.” 

helen cova author

When I found out they don’t accept works in translation, I thought, ok, if you want a book in Icelandic, I’ll give you one!

Helen also happens to be something of a tabletop game fanatic, with over 400 board and card games crammed into the shelves of her Westfjords home. “I worked on this game with my friend, Fan Sissoko,” Helen tells me. “She was learning Icelandic and she experienced what so many of us have experienced: it can be very hard to practise speaking with others. She wanted to change this, and there weren’t any native resources. So as usual, it was up to the people who needed these resources to make them.”

Next year, Helen and Fan will be releasing B.EYJA (a play on the words for island and inflection which I am tempted to render as Destination: Declination). Play tested with Icelandic language learners, B.EYJA takes place in a dreamy land filled with coffee and sleeping babies and challenges players to tell stories and describe things in Icelandic, without the fear of making mistakes. Helen and Fan also plan on touring Iceland with the game upon its release next year.

In addition to more resources like B.EYJA, Helen also thinks that a shift in attitude is important, both for native Icelanders and language learners. “Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that Icelandic is a hard language,” Helen cautions learners. “I think so often we get caught up in this negativity, and it becomes self-reinforcing. I think we all need to be less shy. It’s ok to just ask people to speak Icelandic with you.”

Regarding native Icelanders, Helen says it’s important to allow learners to practise, but also to not push or judge when they can’t. “I’m so lucky to be able to speak this language,” Helen says. “But not every hour needs to be class time for learners. You might need to explain something important in English sometimes, but you should still try as much as you can. I love Icelandic, but sometimes language is just a tool for expression, and it’s the message that matters, not the packaging.”

Vaida Bražiūnaitė

“The first winter I ever spent in Iceland was in a yurt near Þingeyri with my husband,” Vaida tells me. After meeting her husband while studying visual anthropology in Norway, she fell in love with Iceland as well, skipping Reykjavík and moving right to the Westfjords.

When Vaida first met her Icelandic in-laws, there was a little confusion about her name. Væta in Icelandic can mean damp, drizzle, or showers, and her mother-in-law kindly teased her about a name that she was sure to get her fill of in the Westfjords.

Vaida Bražiūnaitė

Now, Vaida has lived in Iceland for 10 years, working on a variety of creative projects including the Ísafjörður Museum of Everyday Life and Gefum íslensku séns. When she was chosen in 2022 as Ísafjörður’s Fjallkona, the feminine personification of Iceland chosen during National Day celebrations, she composed the following poem about her first experience with the Icelandic language and landscape:

Intermittent showers here and there, expect cooler weather.

Slight showers in the forecast.

Cloudy across the country, and showers now and then.

 

Showers, væta, was my first Icelandic word.

For good reason.

Vaida is a name I carry from my homeland, Lithuania.

Could I have asked for a sweeter name here in this land?

ísafjörður

Once we put someone in an English space in our minds, it can be very difficult to change. That’s why I think speaking Icelandic is so important when you form a new relationship. We associate a person with a language, even if it’s not their native language. You can have an Icelandic relationship with someone, even if neither of you speak Icelandic natively.

“I think it’s a little bit sad that some people feel they have to come all the way to Ísafjörður to just come together, to talk, and learn Icelandic,” Vaida tells me. “But at the same time, I think it’s exciting to have something like this happening outside the capital area.” The Westfjords are a beautiful region of Iceland, and moving to a small community outside the capital region has much to recommend it for a language learner. There are, of course, still some difficulties. “There were definitely some hard times,” she continues. “With my education and interests, it was hard to find the kind of work I like doing. Everything is very practical out here, but as a visual anthropologist, I’m more likely to step back and ask questions like ‘what is this?’ and ‘who are these people?’”

After 10 years of living in the Westfjords, Vaida speaks excellent Icelandic, coming to teach guest lectures at the University Centre of the Westfjords. But she’s still learning, too. “I think I still speak English too often,” she admits. “My husband and I met each other in English, studying abroad in Norway. It was an international programme, so of course you use English to get around. But once we put someone in an English space in our minds, it can be very difficult to change. That’s why I think speaking Icelandic is so important when you form a new relationship. We associate a person with a language, even if it’s not their native language. You can have an Icelandic relationship with someone, even if neither of you speak Icelandic natively.”

This is why Vaida thinks that, in addition to learning a language through living in a community, it’s still important to take classes. “We often have these bubbles in our daily lives, we settle into our routines and habits,” Vaida continues. “Learning in an environment like the one we have in the Westfjords is so important because it allows you to switch over, to become a new person.”

Vaida is herself still continuing to learn Icelandic, and she’s been enrolled in the Icelandic as a Second Language Programme at the University of Iceland since 2021. Despite all the work that learning Icelandic requires, Vaida says it’s important to not let the memorisation of charts and paradigms get in the way of the joy of learning. “Learning Icelandic is so creative and fun,” she tells me. “It’s good to not dwell on the hard things.”

ísafjörður

A new chance

As Helen Cova and I get up to say goodbye from our brief conversation, I cannot help but wonder at what just took place. That Helen, a Venezuelan writer, and I, can talk about such things in a language that neither of us have as a mother tongue represents a minor miracle.

One of the words that came up regularly in these conversations was móðurmál, or mother tongue. In English, mother tongue has a romantic resonance, but in Icelandic, it’s simply the word for one’s native language. I admit the word fills me with a certain sadness. Icelandic, after all, was in fact my mother’s native language. Growing up in an international family, I was filled with a wonder and love for languages at a young age that I still carry with me today. Long before I learned what umlaut mutation was, I felt something natural about the way mamma bends to mömmu, and how this might have to do with a deep history.

Perfect Icelandic still eludes me, and when I think of this word móðurmál, it is not simply a sadness for what I never had – it’s a loss that runs deeper, more like of a parent or beloved. That, perhaps, is why I came to Ísafjörður: to deepen a connection with my mother’s tongue. Though I missed the chance for a móðurmál, Icelandic might yet be my ömmumál, my mother’s mother tongue.

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