18 September 2007

one common language

This evening I was taking a cab, and when trying to deal with directions and then again with payment, I realized from the few phrases we exchanged that the driver was not Icelandic. Last week at the bakery, I was served by a woman who was also newly arrived to Iceland, and a few days ago at the Asian grocery store I completed my transaction to the singsong sounds of a Thai-flavored "takk fyrir".

Some people might think that Icelandic is dying, since so small a country speaks the language, but the past week is only a sample of what seems to be happening with increasing frequency here. Reykjavik is turning Manhattan, all Yugoslavian taxi drivers and Philippine shopkeepers. There are Polish people cleaning the office, Thai groceries and restaurants all over town, and tiny populations of other cultures everywhere between. Most seem to be making at least some efforts to speak Icelandic, even if it's the most rudimentary Krua Thai versions of calling out order numbers (no "sixty five" for one person working there, but just "six five").

It's a weird feeling to have two people with our only common language being this obscure tongue, but somehow in the midst of all our other native accents, we're able to find enough common ground to get things done, to pay for the cab, find our way home, ask for a shopping bag, or where the wasabi peas are. Doesn't sound like a dying language to me.


cK said...

I'd been curious about Iceland's immigration scene. Do you think Icelanders feel that immigration will help keep the language vibrant? Or is there a real feeling that immigration will precipitate a decline in the language towards something more like an international English?

God knows that the United States has a curiously sizable swatch of the population believing American English will be overrun by immigration; which is very curious indeed, considering nearly all immigrants speak some English and generally use it in day to day transactions. Foreign languages are kept up mostly in the home...and usually fall out of use after a couple generations here.

(Sadly, this was very true of most Scandinavian language speakers who emigrated to the US. In my family, not a single Swedish or Danish word made it to the children of the immigrants.)

cK said...

One more thing: speaking a second language preserves your brain!

The BBC article:

ECS said...

ck: Learning Icelandic has kind of been a problem here until recently actually, with not a lot of options available, and a substantial cost to most lessons. It seems to be getting better though!

The challenge of keeping Icelandic alive does not lie just with the immigrants though. It's also the Icelanders, who are using English more and more as the Icelandic-owned businesses reach further into the world. I think of my experience earlier this month where I was in a room with a Norwegian, and Italian, and an Icelander. What language other than English will we be able to speak?

As for the emigrant populations, every now and then I will meet someone here with suspiciously good pronunciation but no grasp of grammar, and the story usually is that they are a first generation Icelandic-American who grew up listening to the language. It's not hugely common but it does happen.

On your second comment.. Icelandic is actually my third language, although my French is "resting" these days!

Anonymous said...

I've been reading your blog for a few weeks now and, like you, I am an American expat (I live in Montreal). I was very surprised to learn of the vast number of Americans in Montreal alone, I believe it's over 20,000. I was wondering if you had any idea how many Americans reside in Iceland, excluding Icelandic-Americans who returned to the island.


ECS said...

Steph: I'm not actually sure, since the Americans seem to be kind of loners up here. I personally know only a handful, and every now and then there are gatherings organized by the embassy that will turn out maybe 30 or so.

I looked online and found some old stats putting the number around 2000, but I don't know if the (now gone) US military presence was counted in that. I'd guess that it is still somewhere around there though. Not really a significant community at all!