Linguistic Equity (JB)

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Júlíana Björnsdóttir's picture

Iceland. One of the unique features of Iceland is the Icelandic language. Icelandic is only spoken by a few hundred thousand people and as such is perhaps at risk. To assume the language will remain unchanged in the passing of time is a naive position to hold. Language is always influenced by the culture in which it exists and changes accordingly, whether we like it or not. Language is a toy that we play with and a tool that we use to communicate our desires, frustrations, and feelings. Language is not just the thing we say out loud but also the things we say in silence within and never share with another being. It’s also the words we leave unsaid when in dispute with our spouses, friends and families.

The most political tool we have is language. We negotiate our way through life with language. We represent ourselves with our use of the language and when we do a poor job, we feel ashamed and poorly represented. We then use the very same tool to re-convey our true meaning and make amends with words by saying, “I am sorry,” in a tone of voice that expresses our honest regret. My interest in language came to me at an early age. I began my passion for the written word before I could read myself. My parents would read to me and I would so look forward to bedtime and rainy afternoons because I knew I’d be read to. My vivid imagination would capture each word and use them as a pencil to create an imaginary world, so that I could literally see the stories unfold before my very eyes. Later in life I grew interested in English, Arabic and the Latin languages.

English was my first love so to speak. I loved the sound of the language and the variable speed with which its speakers seemed to convey their meaning and the many different accents they used to do so. I was only eight years old when I began to collect English words and phrases in a box by writing them on a torn piece of paper, and later pull them out of the box, one by one, and look them up in a dictionary, and apply them to familiar circumstances. But I was to travel further in my language acquisition than just to the Anglophonic world. At nine, I went to France for three weeks and when exposed to the beauty of Paris, I fell in love. The city was not only vibrant because of its exquisite decor and broad boulevards. It was the enchanting language that back then was an incomprehensible music to my ears.

A year or two later, when it was time to officially learn the “first” foreign language, I was disappointed that I had no choice but to learn Danish, not my beloved French. But as an adult, I realize the simple value of learning this peculiar language and the brain’s incredible capacity for memory even when unappreciated and unpracticed for years and even decades. Despite my inability to speak Danish (at least in comparison to my other languages) I have a comprehension of it that is rooted in the classes I attended grudgingly. Later in life came French, Portuguese and Spanish, all languages that I grew to love. Portuguese was the key to my success in these languages as the learning curve was localized in central regions of Brazil and I literally bathed in the language for a whole year. Portuguese is deeply rooted in my linguistic memory, as the acquisition was profound. But Icelandic is the first language I knew and used for years without considering its place in my life, nor the value of the words that I use and what they say about me as a person, as an individual.

Having learned a few other languages since my first encounter with Icelandic, I have grown interested in its properties, and how the language shapes the little nation in the north. It is the very entity that defines the natural character. Without it, we would be a still life portrait, silent and breathless. We would be without character, without heart, without a soul. It happens often that I find myself overhearing a single word, phrase, proverb or a sentence, shared between strangers passing me by on the streets of life, awakening within me a response. Sometimes, I am appalled at the resounding of foul curse words, and at other times, I am amused by the vividness of the language, by a person’s manner of speaking and choice of words. Modern day Icelandic, the spoken language that surrounds us every day, has so many characteristics. Sometimes, it is infused with slang. The older generations seem to be the heirs of Danish influences, and the young ones by American English in particular. 

I understand both influences are a contempary heritage of their day and age. The linguistic purist in me questions the tsunami of English influences invading the language. The repetitive use of curse words such as the f-bomb or use of words culturally acknowledged as degrading is not to be encouraged. But at the same time, as the young language users mature and become adult speakers, they too will grow a set of linguistic values. It’s almost safe to say that at any given time, several “dialects” of Icelandic exist, surviving within the society of its users. Icelandic is a language that will continue to grow and we do indeed need to nurture its properties. But as a living language, it must continue to grow, to continue its role as the source code where the cultural changes of the ages to come is written. After all, history is written in the very properties of language.

Júlíana Björnsdóttir – julianabjornsdottir@gmail.com

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.