Cold facts?

The growing influence of English is a threat to Icelandic, according to an opinion piece in the The Guardian by Icelandic crime fiction author Ragnar Jónasson. Should we, or more importantly Iceland, be worried?

No, definitely not. Based on the spurious evidence Jónasson uses to justify this claim, Icelanders can go back to worrying about more important things, like trolls or not accidentally marrying a relative.

I do actually think it’s worth taking a closer look at pieces like this every now and then. Reporting on language issues should go beyond sensationalized headlines like “Can the language of the Vikings fight off the invasion of English?” even if it means fewer clicks for content producers overall.

So, time look a little closer at the reasons Jónasson believes Icelandic is in danger. The first is the growing influence of the tourism industry.

And everyone is catering to the tourists in English, of course. At restaurants and coffee shops, people are frequently greeted in English rather than Icelandic, and often Icelandic will get you nowhere if you want to order food or drink. Companies use English names or are rebranding themselves in English. The importance of tourists to the economy is rapidly making English not only a second language in the service industry, but almost the first language.

Right, so English is appearing on signs and being used more in the service industry. I can definitely see how that would make the language more visible, but not how it affects vitality of Icelandic. Does he really think advertising to tourists is going to change what people speak at home? As someone who comes from a country with a large tourist industry (NZ), I’ve never considered signs written in Mandarin or Korean to be a threat to any of NZ’s offical languages.

Have Thai people stopped speaking Thai because of a booming tourism industry? Of course they haven’t. Believe it or not, you don’t lose anything by being bilingual/multilingual. Even if English were to spoken on a daily basis by most Icelanders as a direct result of tourism, it wouldn’t stop them speaking Icelandic at home, in the pub or on Facebook. Domain-specific use of a second language is just that, domain-specific.

Moreover, Jónasson seems to be ignoring that fact that English proficiency in the country has been high for some time and that the language is compulsory in schools. If you’re going to level a shot at English, why aim at something as trivial as a coffee shop sign?

Jónasson’s second piece of ‘evidence’ has to do with declining book sales in Iceland.

Icelanders bought 47% fewer books in 2017 than they did in 2010, a very sharp decrease in a matter of only six years. In a recent poll in Iceland, 13.5% of those who responded had not read a single book in 2017, compared to 7% in 2010.

I don’t know where these statistics come from (no source is provided), but assuming they’re accurate, the point is just as irrelevant as the first.

Icelanders may very well be buying and reading fewer books. There are plenty of reasons to think this is a bad thing, especially if, like Jónasson, you’re and author. However, a decline in book sales can’t be conflated with a decline in literacy, nor with overall language decline. It should also be noted that no comparison is made with book sales elsewhere. How atypical is Iceland when it comes to falling sales? I would expect the numbers to be similar in other modern industrialized countries.

On the subject of diminishing exposure to cultural works in Icelandic, it’s pointed out that children now have “almost an unlimited access to entertainment in English.” While this is true, it is equally the case that the social media and networking technologies responsible have led to a flourishing of written Icelandic.

It’s easy to forget just how pervasive written communication has become in modern societies. All that messaging and commenting and blogging and tweeting amounts to an awful lot of language by an awful lot of people. And while for Icelanders some of that may be in English, I’d feel confident saying that almost all day-to-day interaction with other Icelanders online is in Icelandic. That alone calls into question Jónasson’s argument that the written language in particular is endangered.

To wrap this up, I’d like to say that I’m all for drawing attention to endangered languages. And I’m all for criticizing the long history of English speakers suppressing the languages of other peoples. But opinion pieces like this one are simply misleading. Language contact and second language acquisition really are fascinating to talk about, just so long as the discourse isn’t full of reactionary scaremongering.