Icelandic in North America

Recently in my Icelandic studies I was wondering what the next step is. Move to Iceland? Hardly. I live and work here. A language is an unusual skill, unlike long division, it is a social activity and you can’t really get good at it if it is a skill used in isolation. So to learn Icelandic, one must move to Iceland or join or create the local community.

Icelandic has died twice in the US. The first time was the Vinland settlement. All the speakers died. Lessons learned? Try not to die. The second time was Gimli, Mantoba in Canada. The language died out, probably because the kids stopped speaking it (no Icelandic at public schools), the spouse didn’t speak it (but everyone already spoke English). And there probably wasn’t any experience with bilingualism– i.e. code switching or any cultural preference for using one language in one domain and another in a another domain. There is a book on the matter, someday I should read it.

Those who study Icelandic typically fit these profiles:

Linguists and Polyglots. Icelandic is an island language that has a remarkably small number of loan words and a remarkable level of intelligibility with it’s 1000 year old form. This makes it interesting for studying regarding the history of language change. The motivated linguists or polyglot has above average talent for acquiring the language, but are not especially likely to be near someone who speaks it. The language hobbyists tend to be evenly spread out across the entire country. Someone from this profile might have mastered “Colloquial Icelandic” from a year of study, but after that, outside of the internet, they don’t have a forum to use it.

Asatru. Wicca and Paganism are becoming popular enough in the US to be visible. It is a separate, but similar to Wicca and there is some overlap in the sorts of people who are interested. Asatru is the pre-Christian traditional religion that persisted in Iceland longer than anywhere else in Europe. Peripheral beliefs such as in Elfs and other hidden beings persists through today and co-existed with Christianity throughout. Asatru in Iceland is also going through a revival with a non-trivial number of people, even in the big city, getting married under the old customs. Because the religion is something of a recovered and reconstructed religion, the relevant historical texts and stories are in Icelandic. So the other important profile of the Icelandic learner in the US is the learner interested in Asatru.

This is tempered by the fact that Asatru and Germanic paganism is the ancient customs of an area that now speaks probably 6 or more distinct languages (Swedish, Danish, German, Icelandic, etc) And if one wants to get academic, Asatru is in part a continuation of the Indoeuropean Sky-Father cult that dates from the bronze age Pontic tribes– so the Sky Father cult covers all modern and past Indo-european languages! Icelandic still has an edge in that a lot of material was written down, where as elsewhere the customs died out before being written down.

Travel and Business. There is actually no reason to learn Icelandic for short travel or business trips. If you are visiting Iceland for a week, or selling restaurant franchises, or what have you, there is no reason to learn Icelandic.

Living and working in Iceland. You can get by in Iceland without knowing Icelandic, as long as you know English. It probably isn’t good idea, you’ll miss out on a lot of what’s going on, but you will be able to get the daily essentials of life done. Depending on within who and where you are working, this might be the complete reverse situation. If you are going to work in the Embassy, and you job is to talk to anyone who walks in the door, you will obviously need to learn Icelandic.

Academic and Scholarly Interests. A tiny sliver of people in the US study Icelandic, and more likely Old Norse, to study the history of Iceland and the Germanic peoples. Because the Germanic tribes didn’t write anything down, much of the written evidence for life in ancient Germanic tribes comes from Icelandic sagas! Academics only a passive understanding of Old Norse and may not even need to know modern Icelandic– that is to say, academics aren’t writing to each other in Old Norse or Icelandic (except in Iceland), for example the way academics used to use Latin in medieval Europe. And like interesting texts in any language, perfectly good translations already exist in English. So this profile is small and motivated, not because they want to hang out with people who speak Icelandic.

Immigrants. Universally in the US, immigrants stop speaking their mother tongue. They tend to marry without regard to language and in the US, don’t necessarily speak Icelandic to their kids and in general are now embedded in a society that has no tradition of bilingualism, nor a tradition of language acquisition. For this and other reasons, Icelandic is mostly dying out in the recent immigrant community.

Once the language has died out with the first wave of immigrants, the later waves of immigrants (who typically speak English just fine), don’t speak Icelandic at social events.

The irony here is that recent immigrants are the best speakers of Icelandic, but probably are one of the profiles that is less interested in continuing to use the language. Even if they are motivated, their spouse and children are probably no more motivated to learn Icelandic than Zulu or Mongolian. This puts the motivated immigrant in a rough position.

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