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In Focus: Icelandic Faces Challenges

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In Focus: Icelandic Faces Challenges

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ReadingPhoto: Stewart Butterfield

The Icelandic language is facing challenges on a number of fronts. The language has always had to fight for its existence as the number of native speakers has been relatively low throughout history. Iceland currently faces new and different challenges in the dynamic world of the modern, digital age. The number of books sold has decreased rapidly in the country since 2014, RÚV reports. At the same time that smartphone usage has increased, book reading and buying has taken a hit. It is an alarming trend, especially since the Icelandic language has, in recent years, been succumbing to English in the digital world.

Icelanders have historically had a love-affair with books and it has been named the world’s literary nation. Reykjavík city was the UNESCO City of Literature in 2011, and in doing so became the first city to receive the honour where English is not an official language. Each year there are published 3.5 titles for every 1,000 inhabitants – a number around twice as high as per capita rates in other Nordic countries. Authors and publishers race to release books for the yearly ‘jólabókaflóð’ (Christmas book flood) as Icelanders purchase 8 books on year on average. A study performed by Capacent for the Icelandic Publishers’ Association reported that 86.7% of Icelanders read at least one book per year, which is one of the highest rates of readership in the world. However, in the last couple of years, the number of Icelanders who have never read a book in their life nearly doubled in a span of four years. The percentage jumped from 7% of the nation in 2011 to 13.3% in 2015.

Book sales have already taken a nosedive but they may still continue to do so. “We haven’t hit rock bottom yet ” warns publisher Kristján B. Jónsson. He comments further “The trend is still a downwards one. We don’t know exactly where the bottom is”. There was a major contraction in the market between the years of 2012 to 2015. Kristján calls for a clear strategy from the government in matters of literature and adds that there are solutions available – they just need to be put into action. Kristján says that the current system in place, which relies mainly on private publishers, is ready to crumble with increased changes. He adds that the Icelandic language itself is in grave danger as the culture of the Icelandic language largely revolves around literature.

Kristján’s ideas call for a cultural focus on our literary heritage. The government has been criticized for its part in the book’s decreasing popularity. The VAT taxation on books was raised from 7% to 11% last year, and some publishers claim the increased tax rate directly correlates with decreasing book sales. Kristján wants taxation on books largely removed, alongside an effort to improve public school libraries to ensure that they provide an adequate selection of reading material. Furthermore, there are 18 million pages that need to be transcribed into an electronic form. With the lowered price of books side by side with optimal electronic access book sales will increase, claims Kristján. Icelandic is currently one of four languages in Europe considered to be facing digital extinction, along with Latvian, Lithuanian, and Maltese. A study published by the University of Manchester revealed this staggering fact in 2012.

Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson, a professor in Icelandic at the University of Iceland, worries about Icelandic dying a ‘digital death’. He feels that the language needs to be more prevalent in smartphones and technological language. Sigríður Sigurjónsdóttir, a fellow professor in Icelandic at the university, is spearheading the project alongside Eiríkur. The tandem research project was recently honoured with the largest grant a project has ever received in Iceland. it aims to pinpoint how the digital invasion has affected the use of Icelandic in daily life to shed a light on how English has affected the Icelandic language. Sigríður adds that studies on the Icelandic language are a test drive for the wilderness of how digital technology has affected languages all over the world. “We are few and it is easier to get an overview of the whole language community.”, Sigíður commented.

The use of English has recently stirred some controversy in the country, as it has increased alongside mass tourism. The domestic airline in Iceland, Flugfélag Íslands, caused a stir when they adopted the name Air Iceland Connect in May 2017. The name change was criticized heavily by academics and citizens alike. Icelandic is also experiencing more pressure as the number of foreign migrants rises. As of now, immigrants make up 9.1% of the total Icelandic population (The website www.icelandiconline.is, an online course in Icelandic put up by the University of Iceland, is intended to assist foreigners to study Icelandic). It is not all doom and gloom, however, as increased international recognition has led to a record number of foreigners studying Icelandic as a second language at the University of Iceland this fall.

The Icelandic language is not in grave danger of becoming extinct in the near future, according to Dr. Sebastian Drude, the newly appointed director of the Vigdís International Centre for Multilingualism. The professor remarked on the status of the Icelandic language in the ‘Midnight’ issue of Iceland Review (iss. 4, 2017): “In several ways, there is no reason to worry. The country is highly developed with a high standard of living and social welfare, in addition to the high literacy rate. It’s in a far better situation than many other languages. I don’t fear for Icelandic for the coming two to three generations”, Dr. Drude commented.

In Focus is a series of articles intended to shed a light on contemporary issues in Iceland, keeping readers informed on subjects and matters present in the national discussion.

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