A Fisherman by Any Other Name: Terminology in New Law Sparks Debate Skip to content
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Photo: Fishing boats moored to the dock in Sauðárkrókur.

A Fisherman by Any Other Name: Terminology in New Law Sparks Debate

A new law regarding ships’ crews that went into effect at the beginning of the month is sparking considerable debate throughout Iceland, but not because of the content of the law. Rather, critics have taken issue with the choice of wording in it, namely the use of the word fiskari, most easily translatable as ‘fisher,’ in lieu of the term fiskimaður, which literally means ‘fisher+man.’ Mbl.is, RÚV, and Vísir have all reported.

Critics, including some in the industry and current or former politicians, have called the word choice an example of the sterilization of Icelandic, or even an example of the language’s slide into nýlenska, or Orwellian Newspeak. Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson, Professor emeritus in Icelandic Language and Linguistics at the University of Iceland, takes a different view, however, noting that the word fiskari is actually a centuries-old Icelandic word and one that was in use long before modern debates about gender neutrality in language.

Law aims to ‘promote equal access of the sexes to education, training, and jobs aboard Icelandic ships’

According to the text of the “Law concerning ships’ crews,” 2022 nr. 82, its aim is to “ensure the safety of crews, passengers, and ships, and increase protections against the pollution of the seas. These goals will be achieved by making certain mandates about the education and training, age, sailing time, health, vision, and hearing of those who work onboard and in so doing ensure the professional competence of crews based on the size of the ship, its role, and its area of operation.”

This overview goes on to say that the law “is intended to promote equal access of the sexes to education, training, and jobs aboard Icelandic ships.” It then includes an extensive  definition of terms, in which it defines a fiskari as “he or she who works or is hired to work on a fishing vessel…harbour pilots, law enforcement officers, other parties in staff positions working with the public, employees on land who perform work onboard fishing vessels, or fishing inspectors are not considered to be fishers.”

It is worth noting that while the word fiskari is being interpreted by critics as inherently gender-neutral because it does not make use of the suffix –maður, meaning ‘man’ (-menn in the plural), fiskari is still a masculine-gendered word in Icelandic. [Note: Icelandic has three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter.] It is also worth noting that in the Icelandic, the above-quoted definition also includes the use of three additional masculine-gendered terms for different roles/jobs: hafnsögumenn (harbour pilots); starfsmenn (employees); eftirlitsmenn (inspectors).

‘The most ‘woke’ government in the history of Iceland’

Critics, some of whom work within the industry, were quick to voice their dissatisfaction with the word choice.

Fiskari is a malaprop in my opinion,” said Valmundur Valmundsson, the chair of the Icelandic Seamen’s Association. “Sjómannadagurinn [Fishermen’s Day] is never going to be called Fiskaradagurinn [Fishers’ Day].” Eiríkur Óli Dagbjartsson, fishing manager of the Grindavík-based fishing company Þorbjörn hf. felt similarly, telling Morgunblaðið that he thought the shift to the word fiskari was “preposterous.”

Current and former politicians have also taken to social media to voice their dissatisfaction. Former Prime Minister and chair of the Centre Party Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson wrote a Facebook post in which he said the use of the word fiskari was part of the “PC-powers’ ongoing attempt to turn Icelandic into Newspeak, in the manner of Orwell” and fretted that “the most ‘woke’ government in the history of Iceland will hardly stop with this.”

“It used to be common knowledge that women were also -menn [the plural form of maður, men],” Sigmundur Davíð continued. “That knowledge seems to be getting lost now, as can be observed from the strange explanations of those who think the change [i.e. removing the suffix -maður] is an important step in equality issues.” Sigmundur Davíð then concluded his post by listing off a number of job titles that incorporate the suffix -maður [-man] and which he said were at risk of falling victim next, i.e. that talsmaður [spokesman] might be converted to talari [speaker/spokesperson].

‘It is important to respect their origin and traditional usage’

In a post on Facebook, former Social Democratic Alliance MP, now a professor in the Department of Social Sciences at Bifröst University, Ólina Kjerúlf Þorvarðardóttir said she could hardly formulate a response.

“The words that we use are something other, something more, than just sterile units of meaning, cut and dried,” she wrote. “If that were the case, we couldn’t talk about a living language, about creative manners of expression. Our words are laden with feeling, the way we see life, our circumstances, our history and culture.

“The word ‘sjómaður’ has deep-seated emotional implications for many Icelanders, who are familiar with our nation’s struggle for survival over the centuries. Some job titles are compound words using the word ‘maður’ [-man]—flugmaður [pilot], hermaður [soldier], etc—and others aren’t—kennari [teacher], læknir [doctor], prestur [pastor]. It’s well and good that words aren’t all formed in the same way. It is more important, I think, to respect their origin and traditional usage, instead of bending and buckling…the language [according to] some puritanical policy about how words should be created.”

Ólina continued: “Sterlization in linguistics is, at best, indifference and incomprehension, and at worst, hostility: to creation, history, and emotion.”

The word fiskari dates back to the 16th century

What the overriding criticism belies, however, is the word fiskari enjoys a long history and centuries-old usage in Iceland. “This word dates back to the 16th century at least,” says Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson, Professor emeritus in Icelandic Language and Linguistics at the University of Iceland. “It was in the first book that was printed in Iceland, Oddur Gottskálksson’s translation of the New Testament.”

“According to the sources I’ve looked at, it seems that from the 16th century to the 19th century, this was the primary word used for [people who fish], much more common than the word fiskimaður.” Eiríkur points out that in the census from 1845, which recorded Icelanders’ occupations, around 150 people called themselves a fiskari, while only seven called themselves a fiskimaður.

Fiskari is used up until the 20th century,” says Eiríkur. After that, the word fell out of common use and the word fiskimaður became more prevalent. The most common useage, however, is the word sjómaður [seaman].”

(As an interesting corollary to Eiríkur’s points, one might consider these words’ frequency in the work of Halldór Laxness, the country’s sole Nobel Prize winner and a passionate advocate for the Icelandic language who is still considered one of its preeminent stylists and practitioners. Per data compiled in the comprehensive online Icelandic dictionary Snara, fiskari appears 20 times in his writings and fiskimaður appears with the exact same frequency: 20 times. The word sjómaður, on the other hand, appears some 65 times.)

Returning to the text of the law itself, Eiríkur points to the section where various terms are defined. “A number of words that are used in the law are clarified. In legal texts, it’s important that the meaning of words are clear. It is clear [in the text] that fiskari is a word for people who work on fishing vessels. This is to say, it’s a special term. It is common for legal texts and regulations to use words that have specific and set meanings, where other words are frequently used in everyday speech.”

Speaking to concerns related to the fate of other Icelandic words that end in –maður [-man], Eiríkur continues:

“Words that end in –maður have an undeniably strong connection to men in many people’s minds. In old rural society, there was a clear difference between male and female laborers,” he explains, giving the examples of the gender-specific words vinnumaður [working man] and vinnukona [working woman] and kaupamaður [merchant-man] and kaupakona [merchant-woman].

“For people who want to demasculinize the language, these words that end in –maður are much more masculine than other words that are grammatically masculine. People ask: why just this one? Why won’t other words that end in –maður be taken? The answer to this is maybe, first and foremost, that this word, fiskari, already existed. In this instance, there was an existing word that could be utilized, a synonym. There is no similar word for sjómaður [seaman] and farmaður [merchant sailor]. We have the word sjóari [seafarer, grammatically masculine but formed in the same way that fiskari is formed; more implicitly gender-neutral], but it’s completely different [in meaning] than the word sjómaður.” [Note: the word sjóari implies that the individual in question is a very experienced sailor, comparable to ‘old salt’ in English.]

By using the word fiskari in the text of the new law, lawmakers are reviving an old, existing Icelandic word, says Eiríkur, something that can’t fairly be considered malapropism or ‘incorrect’ language. Language necessarily changes and morphs over time, he says, through common use. “Isn’t that the very definition of ‘correct’ language?” he asks. “That it’s the language people speak?”

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