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Welcoming Colonialization (ESA)

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Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir's picture

The best doughnut I’ve ever tasted was a freshly-fried Icelandic doughnut, warm and soft without any chocolate covering or topping. I received it at my local bakery in Akureyri in exchange for a song on a frosty Ash Wednesday.

(I don’t remember which song it was but it may have been choir favorite ‘Óskasteinar’ (‘Wishing Stones’), with lyrics by Hildigunnur Halldórsdóttir, an example of beautiful Icelandic poetry).

I was cold and hungry after hours of marching from store to store and singing for candy, and the doughnut was pure heaven.

This happened some 25 years ago and I haven’t seen such doughnuts, delicious simplicity, in Icelandic bakeries for about as long.

The news that Dunkin’ Donuts were opening 16 restaurants in Iceland provoked intense reaction on our Facebook page. At the time of writing, more than 30 readers had commented on the story and none of them approved.

Readers praised Icelandic pastries, especially kleinur (twisted doughnuts), commenting: “Quit letting American corporations in!! Support your own independent small businesses!!”; “Do not let the big companies start dominating your food culture”; “We were going to Iceland to avoid all that”; and even: “It’s the end of the world as we know it.”

We have a 10-11 store, which made the franchise contract with Dunkin’ Donuts, across the street from the IR office, and I wonder if one of the 16 restaurants will open there. It might be a good idea, since there are many workplaces in the area.

It would be located opposite and compete with the neighborhood bakery, which carries traditional Icelandic pastries, such as kleinur, along with international sweet treats. It’s also a favored hangout by taxi drivers who have their morning coffee there.

I occasionally go to the bakery when I crave something chocolaty towards the end of a long workday but I doubt I would head for Dunkin’ Donuts’ instead—I must admit their pastries did not look particularly tempting in the pictures I saw.

However, to many of my fellow countrymen, anything American is tempting. It’s been the case ever since the allied forces occupied Iceland during World War II.

Icelandic women—and some men—fell for the handsome soldiers and American culture; the music, fashion and food was considered to be superior to the backwards rural Icelandic countryside culture. English slang quickly became hip.

(Friðrik Þór Friðriksson’s Djöflaeyjan from 1996 describes the situation quite colorfully.)

At the time, Iceland was a young nation trying to find its place in the world, and didn’t even become independent from Denmark until four years after the allied forces invaded the country, in 1944.

The authorities strongly disapproved of American influences on Icelandic culture and did their best to prevent it—but in vain.

Some 90 years earlier, in 1851, Iceland’s fight for independence peaked, leading to sovereignty from Denmark being achieved in 1918.

During the Danish colonialization, Danish traditions and slang had entered the Icelandic culture, but now Icelanders were eager to distance themselves from the colonial power, celebrating the Icelandic saga heroes and national poets, including Jónas Hallgrímsson, bringing the Icelandic language to new heights with immortal poetry.

Yet some Danish influences remained, including the aforementioned kleinur.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Icelanders identified with the settlers who set sail for Iceland to escape the power of King Harald Fairhair of Norway when breaking away from Danish rule, but not that many years later they embraced a different kind of colonialization.

The influx of American fast food chains and American television shows and movies is one thing—taking a liking to a different culture doesn’t mean that one automatically disregards one’s own—but the influence of English on the Icelandic language is another.

On RÚV’s news magazine Kastljós yesterday, speech therapist Linda Björk Markúsdóttir reasoned that increased usage of smartphones and other smart technology leads to Icelanders, especially children, choosing English words above Icelandic.

Icelandic is only spoken by 320,000 people and the language is in serious danger of becoming extinct if the attitude of Icelanders towards our heritage doesn’t change.

I’m not too concerned about Dunkin’ Donuts. Or the U.S. flag which was flown outside the Icelandic-owned American Bar in Reykjavík city center, but was taken down after complaints from Alþingi, the Icelandic parliament.

(MP Vilhjálmur Bjarnason and Speaker of Parliament Einar K. Guðfinnsson commented that they found it “intolerable” having to walk under the American flag on their way to work.)

But the fate of our language concerns me.

Soon the 16 Dunkin’ Donuts joints in Iceland will be crowded by smartphone-using Icelanders resorting to English slang in every other word they utter, the doughnut and wishing stones from my youth a distant memory.

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir – eyglo(at)icelandreview.com

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