Icelandic As A Weapon

Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson is known both as a fervent defender of the language who advocates for its protection, as well as someone ready, willing, and able to shut down conversations about the language’s survival when they turn xenophobic, while at the same time fielding questions regarding history, etymology, and Icelandic inflections arguably one of the more […]

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PISA: Icelandic Students Lagging Behind Nordic Peers


The 2022 PISA results show a decline in literacy and other skills among Nordic countries, particularly in Iceland. Professor Emeritus Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson has suggested that the growing influence of English in Iceland’s linguistic environment may be a key factor affecting reading comprehension.

Declining literacy across the Nordic countries

The results of the OECD’s 2022 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) were published yesterday. The assessment measures the proficiency of 15-year-old students in reading comprehension, science literacy, and mathematics literacy.

As noted in a press release on the government’s website yesterday, the results indicate a decline in student performance in participating countries compared to previous assessments. This decline is observed across all of the Nordic countries, with a more significant decrease having occurred among Icelandic participants.

Iceland ranks below the average of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in all three categories, and a lower percentage of Icelandic students possess basic and exceptional skills compared to the Nordic and the OECD average.

Signs of increasing inequality

Among other notable findings in the assessment is that students with parents in lower socio-economic positions fare worse in the survey across participating countries. As noted on the government’s website, there are — similar to other Nordic countries — signs of increasing inequality in educational achievement in Iceland over time, especially in reading comprehension.

A lower percentage of Icelandic boys achieve basic competency in science literacy (61%) compared to girls (68%), with the most significant gender gap in basic competency in reading comprehension (53% for boys versus 68% for girls).

“It is clear from the PISA 2022 results that authorities, municipalities, institutions, and organisations need to unite in understanding the reasons behind the negative trends in reading comprehension and literacy revealed in the survey and respond accordingly,” the government website notes.

It all comes down to reading comprehension

Having published an article entitled “The Bleak PISA Findings” (Kolsvört PISA-skýrsla), Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson, Professor Emeritus of Icelandic and Linguistics at the University of Iceland, discussed the PISA results on the evening news yesterday.

“I think it all comes down to reading comprehension, although there are three aspects to the test: reading, science, and mathematics, both the mathematics and science portions of the assessment are based on reading comprehension. These are text-based tasks,” Eiríkur remarked.

“Reading comprehension is deteriorating, and that’s linked to the status of the Icelandic language in society. We are faced with a drastically changed linguistic environment where English has become a much larger part of teenagers’ linguistic surroundings than it used to be.”

Eiríkur also noted, as he had done in his article, that the Icelandic translation of the PISA tests had not always been adequate. Referring to a 2020 research paper by Auður Pálsdóttir and Sigríður Ólafsdóttir — which demonstrated significant discrepancies in word frequency categories between the original texts and their translations (meaning the Icelandic words in the tests are often rarer than their English counterparts) — Eirikur suggested that the Icelandic translation of the assessment may simply be too heavy when compared to the assessment in other languages.

Eiríkur noted, however, that he had not examined the texts of the latest PISA survey.

Alarming trends

Eiríkur observed that these two considerations were not the only causes for concern. The latest assessment, as previously noted, indicated that children from poorer social and economic backgrounds performed worse in the assessment. Eiríkur characterised this trend as being particularly “alarming.”

“It’s a major concern. It means that these teenagers are highly likely to drop out of school and then be trapped in low-wage jobs that require little education when they enter the job market,” Eiríkur stated.

When asked what he would do if he were in the shoes of the Minister of Education, Eiríkur replied: “I don’t think it would be enough to just be the Minister of Education because this isn’t just about the school system. It’s about the entire society; we need to change the status of the Icelandic language. Parents and homes play a significant role, and society as a whole needs to prioritise Icelandic much more.”

Pandemic effects

As noted on the government’s website, the pandemic had various impacts on school operations, teachers, and students in the OECD countries. Two-thirds of the countries participating in PISA 2022 closed schools for three months or longer. The overall performance trend of countries from 2018 to 2022 suggests the pandemic’s impact, particularly in mathematical literacy and reading comprehension.

Home Goods Store Rúmfatalagerinn Changes Name to JYSK

jysk rúmfatalagerinn

Rúmfatalagerinn, the Icelandic franchise of the Danish home goods store JYSK, will be changing its name.

The store, whose name means “the linen warehouse,” will now simply be known by the original Danish JYSK.

What’s in a name?

The name change has occasioned discussion on the role of Icelandic in the public sphere.

In an interview with Vísir, professor emeritus Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson stated: “One name at a time doesn’t matter per se, but we have to look at this in context and what such a name change indicates about our ideas regarding Icelandic and foreign languages. Why do we always avoid Icelandic?” Although Eiríkur admits that this name change in particular seems relatively inconsequential, he remains concerned about the usage of Icelandic as a public language. Additionally, he stated that the name JYSK does not conform well to Icelandic pronunciation or grammar.

Notably, the Danish store is also known by the German “Dänisches Bettenlager” in many other nations throughout Europe, including Germany and Austria, and also Spain, France, and Portugal.

According to representatives from Rúmfatalagerinn, the name change is intended to reflect that the store offers much more than bed linens.

“Such isolated examples don’t matter much,” Eiríkur stated. “It makes no difference even if someone like Toppur [an Icelandic beverage company which recently changed its name to Bonaqua] or some company like Rúmfatalagerinn changes their name. What I am much more concerned about is what lies behind it. This attitude, or idea, or belief that foreign names are somehow better and that Icelandic names are awkward is what worries me.”

A larger context

The recent debate over the name change is just one part of a larger conversation taking place in Iceland. As mass tourism and shifting demographics change the face of Icelandic society, some have expressed concern that the Icelandic language is slowly being supplanted by English.

Minister of Tourism, Commerce, and Culture Lilja Dögg Alfreðsdóttir has recently spoken out against the increasing prevalence of English on signage in downtown Reykavík, saying that “we have gone off track.”

“All signs must have Icelandic first,” continued Lilja. English has become increasingly common as a language of commerce not just in the capital, but throughout Iceland, in the wake of the tourism boom. Indeed, some establishments, especially those oriented towards tourism, may only have signs and information available in English.

Lilja has also stated that visible usage of Icelandic is especially important for immigrants who are learning Icelandic: “We are collaborating with the tourism industry and business sector to take steps to make the Icelandic language more visible.”

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

overfishing iceland

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.’, 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?”

Icelandic to Take Precedence on Keflavík Airport Signage

Keflavík Airport

The board of directors at Isavia, the national airport and air navigation service provider of Iceland, has decided to renew the signage at Keflavík Airport so as to emphasise the Icelandic language; Isavia will foreground Icelandic on all instructional and informational signs at the airport.

The Icelandic Language Council

The Icelandic Language Council was established in 1964 and operates according to Article 6 of Law No. 61/2011 regarding the status of the Icelandic language and Icelandic sign language: “The role of the Icelandic Language Council shall be to provide public authorities with academically-informed advice on matters concerning the Icelandic language, and to make proposals to the Minister regarding language policy.”

The law also stipulates that the Council may “take the initiative to draw attention to both positive and negative aspects of the ways in which the Icelandic language is used in the public sphere.”

With a view to this provision of the law, the Icelandic Language Council has persistently drawn attention to the conspicuously anglicised signage at the Keflavík National Airport: “English is the primary language on almost all of the signs at the airport,” a journalist at RÚV writes, “with information in Icelandic playing a secondary role or none at all.”

Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson, Professor Emeritus at the University of Iceland, brought attention to the issue again after Icelandair announced that it would resume the custom of addressing passengers in Icelandic first, prior to reverting to other languages.

Isavia responded with reference to security concerns, but critics pushed back, noting that local languages were foregrounded in many international airports without such a thing being a cause of concern; Gaelic is foregrounded at Irish airports ahead of English.

Lilja Alfreðsdóttir intervenes

An article on notes that Lilja Alfreðsdóttir, Minister of Culture and Business Affairs, emphasised these concerns to the Board of Directors of Isavia, the national airport and air navigation service provider of Iceland. According to, Lilja had “commented on the marginalisation of the Icelandic language at the airport at the time before reemphasising her concerns following Icelandair’s decision.” Lilja reached out to former minister Kristján Þór Júlíusson, the newly-elected Chairman of the Board for Isavia, who then raised the issue at a board meeting (see below entry:

“Concerns have been raised, and comments made, in public, by, among other parties, the board of the Icelandic Language Council in 2016 and 2017, regarding the use of language on informational and instructional signs at the Keflavík Airport. Isavia’s board discussed these issues in 2018. Over the recent days, criticism has resurfaced. In light of this criticism, Isavia’s board hsa agreed upon the following:

‘Extensive renovations are currently underway at Keflavík Airport. Alongside the current alterations, Isavia’s board of directors has decided to devise a plan to renew the airport’s signage, in phases, in the near future. During this renewal, the principle of ensuring the foregrounding of the Icelandic language on instructional and informational signs will be followed.’”

Professor Emeritus Speaks to Need for Better Icelandic Education

Icelandic language education course

Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson, Professor Emeritus at Háskóli Íslands, has recently expressed the need for better Icelandic education in an interview with Vísir.

Eiríkur stated that foreign labour is projected to play a larger role in Iceland’s economy in the coming years, and that it is imperative to provide immigrants with more opportunities to learn Icelandic.

Specifically, he fears that Iceland’s workforce may split into an Icelandic-speaking overclass with an English-speaking underclass in the service, restaurant, and hotel industries.

“I think it’s quite clear that if we want to continue the Icelandic language, then we have to do something,” Eiríkur stated.

Additionally, he called for more and better teaching materials and courses to be offered to foreign workers. “It must be possible for people to study Icelandic during working hours and so on,” he said.

He has been critical of Icelandic prescriptivists in the past, saying that an image of a pristine Icelandic language that does not change with the times and Iceland’s shifting demographics cannot be continued. Eiríkur has also called for the need for more openness in the Icelandic language community, saying that it is too easy for foreigners to revert to English, and not integrate themselves into life in Iceland.

Eiríkur is also active as the moderator of a popular Facebook page, Málspjall, in which Icelanders discuss grammar, innovation, and other current issues with the Icelandic language and its evolution.

On Icelandic language education and policy, read more of our coverage here.