March 14, 2005

One day I’ll get to Iceland. The more I read about the country, the stronger grows my desire to visit, the more confident I become that I’ll enjoy the place and the people. Case in point: “Iceland Has a Word for It” (Los Angeles Times, March 14), by William Ecenbarger, a former reporter with the Philadelphia Inquirer, who recently spent time on the island:

I have come to this nation of 280,000 inhabitants, who speak to each other in a language that is incomprehensible to 19,999 of every 20,000 people on Earth, to see how they are holding up against the onslaught of English. Iceland’s linguistic patriots go to incredible lengths to preserve their language. Foreign words are ruthlessly screened out by a special agency, which also invents words for new things and ideas. There’s a word for everything in Icelandic -- or there will be shortly.

Icelanders have a strong belief in their own national greatness, and that conviction is rooted unshakably in language and words. Literacy isn’t a problem here; it’s a given. Icelanders believe that men and women should turn a verse as easily as they turn a profit, and both endeavors are considered important to one’s well-being.

Iceland has more bookstores per capita than any other nation in the world (“better shoeless than bookless” is an unofficial national motto). Sales of a new novel in Iceland will compare favorably with sales for a similar book in Britain -- while a volume of poetry would do even better in Iceland -- with a population about 1/200th that of Britain. […]

Icelandic schoolchildren read their national literature exactly as it was written hundreds of years ago. Modern Icelanders speak virtually the same language as their forefathers of the 10th century. Tomorrow morning’s Reykjavik newspapers will be written in the same language as the ancient sagas -- that would be like this newspaper using Chaucerian English.

In addition to commentary on the trickiness of Icelandic and a brief treatise on its history, Ecenbarger offers some interesting comments about disappearing languages (an average of two are vanishing from the Earth each month), and signs off on this sad note:

I left Iceland pessimistic. Everywhere I went, I heard English spoken. . . . In one sense, the Icelanders have no one to blame but themselves. Just as they have earnestly defended their language, they have with equal enthusiasm made sure that every schoolchild has a computer and learns English. Thus Microsoft sees no need to translate Windows into Icelandic. . . . I fear the handwriting is on the wall -- and it’s in English.

If anything, that should make it easier for me to get around in Iceland once I make it there.


Post a Comment