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Day of the Icelandic tongue

16.11.2018 - 11:05
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Dagur íslenskrar tungu er haldinn hátíðlegur á fæðingardegi Jónasar Hallgrímssonar Mynd: RÚV
Today is Dagur íslenskrar tungu, or day of the Icelandic tongue. It is an opportunity to appreciate the Icelandic language in all its unique glory. Icelandic means different things to different people, both native speakers and learners new and experienced, but most would also agree it is a language at risk.

Held since 1996, Icelandic language day takes place on the 16th November; Jónas Hallgrímsson’s birthday. Jónas (1807-1845) is one of Iceland’s most famous writers. He was an author, poet, translator, and naturalist, known for his warm wit and tireless thirst for knowledge. 

Today, his beloved Icelandic has more speakers than ever. Tens of thousands of foreigners learn the language—even without ever stepping foot in Iceland. The world is a smaller, more open place, but that brings its own challenges as well. 

Icelandic is one of the smallest official national languages in the world and English is undeniably encroaching on its turf. Icelanders would once pepper English (and often also Danish) words into sentences for fun. Today, many barely notice they are doing it, and some find it easier to find the English word for something than its direct Icelandic equivalent. Then there is technology, too, which is often only available in English.

It is easy for foreigners in Iceland to survive, even thrive, without learning Icelandic, but linguists point out that Icelandic is at the core of Icelandic culture and society and encourage newcomers to learn the language to better communicate and integrate. 

Icelandic is a beautiful language which lends itself especially well to creative writing, poetry, and rap. Anyone can create new words by melding parts of other words together in new forms in a way that is not possible in English. There are thousands of examples of this wordplay in daily life and just one of many was a newspaper headline from 2006 which managed to describe the danger of a possible future infestation of cockroaches in one spectacular new word: Kakkalakkafaraldurshætta.

Organisers hope the day of the Icelandic tongue will continue to inspire people to love Icelandic. With more foreign residents and tourists than ever in Iceland, the language is making way for written and spoken English everywhere from universities to cafés, as well as at financial institutions and high-tech workplaces.  

Icelandic language day is not about eradicating English and other foreign languages. Rather, it is about reminding people why Icelandic is important and why it is worth the effort of preserving it as a living, evolving, everyday language for many, many years to come.  

Til hamingju með daginn!

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Alexander Elliott
Fréttastofa RÚV