The two languages are not closely related. Icelandic is a Germanic language and Welsh a Celtic one. They do both share the characteristic of having a relatively small number of speakers, though.
Icelandic is spoken by 320,000. Welsh spoken by 550,000.
In particular, I wanted to see how strong the Icelandic language is in different walks of life in Iceland. I wanted to compare this with what I’ve experienced of the usage made of the Welsh language in Wales.
While there are far fewer Icelandic speakers than Welsh speakers, I already knew to expect that Icelandic’s position would be much stronger.
Here’s the thing: Icelandic is a majority language – spoken by about 97% of the whole population.
Welsh – as a result of state policy over many centuries – is only a minority language. It’s spoken by about 20% of the whole population of Wales (though the concentration of speakers in a small number of communities is as high as around 75% and there are many more in the 20 to 50% bracket).
Wales is, in effect, a colony of England. Iceland is independent.
After my native English, Welsh was the first language I got fluent in (as a 22-year-old adult).
As I invested more and more of my own time, efforts and emotions in Welsh, I also started to take an interest in attempts to nurture, develop and normalise the use of language. I also started to feel anguish at its potential loss and frustration at the unrealised potential of Wales and its unique culture.
Were there things that those planning and working for Welsh to flourish could learn from Iceland?
I’ve made a short vlog on the subject.
It’s a mix of first impressions of the country as an interesting travel destination, attempts to decipher the language out and about (on signs and packaging, for example). It’s also a look at how the linguistic situation differs between Iceland and Wales (and, by implication, from the situation in similar countries with a “minoritised” language, such as Ireland, the Basque Country or Brittany).
The link to the vid is at the bottom of this post and I hope you’ll have a look.
Thing is, though, it’s in Welsh.
So here are some more key points in English.
An Icelandic influence in Wales already?
Although the Icelandic and Welsh are not closely related, there is a Norse linguistic heritage in Wales, dating back to the time that the Vikings were big around the Irish sea and settled along parts of the Welsh coast.
That heritage, though is to be seen in some of the English geographical names in Wales, rather than the Welsh ones .
I found leaflets Reykjávik’s striking modern city hall for places called Grímsey and Hrísey. The “-sey” ending – island – is found in Swansea, the English name for Welsh Abertawe and Anglesey (for Ynys Môn).
The use of Icelandic in literature, publishing and the traditional media
Welsh and Icelandic have a strong literary heritage dating back over 1000 years in common and historically high levels of popular literacy.
Virtually monolingual Welsh-speaking Wales was the most literate country in the world in the late eighteenth century.
Iceland today jostles with the other “Nordic” countries for that top literacy spot.
The two countries also share a veneration of poets and the composers of hymns.
Wales has, among many others, Williams Pantycelyn (1717-1791).
Iceland has, among many others, Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614-1674) after whom the striking modern Church in the Reykjavík is named (this is NOT the city’s cathedral church, I discovered).
Going into the several large bookshops was still sobering, though. The reason: the sheer number of translations of classical and famous contemporary foreign authors into Icelandic.
In the video I was at the crime shelves and you’ll see volumes by Jo Nesbø translated from the Norwegian, Ian McEwan and Lee Child from English. There’s very little such translation into Welsh (rather more in Basque).
There are also far more magazines in Icelandic than in Welsh and serious daily and weekly newspapers (none in Welsh).
Needless to say, the broadcast media was also streets ahead in Iceland with a couple of terrestrial TV channels and several radio stations. The Welsh told to be grateful for the one TV channel and one national radio station in their langauge.
From this I conclude that the absolute numbers of Welsh speakers should be no obstacle to having much better levels of provision in Wales.
The issues are not that provision in Welsh would be “too expensive” or that there is “not the demand”.
It’s about policy – the power (political and economic) – is outside the Welsh-speaking community.
It’s also about the easy bilingualism in Wales.
The Welsh are also often not in the habit of engaging with content from the wider world in their own language.
That’s partly a reflection of how attractive globalised Anglo-American culture has become.
It may make less sense in Wales to translate English-language novels and factual books into Welsh.
The same is not true about works from other languages but the Welsh seem to lack the power to change this or even – often – the vision to imagine how things could be different.
The use of Icelandic on packaging
As I was self catering in AirBnB for a week, I paid several visits to food shops.
The prices were eye- watering (from a visitor’s perspective). That was the case in cafés and restaurants too (and I found myself having bowls of soup more often than usual and feeling like a penniless student again).
The other thing that caught my eye in the food shops was the provenance of the products and the langauge of the packaging.
Iceland has a food processing and import industry. There were locally produced foodstuffs from dairy to ready meals.
There was coffee roasted and packaged locally.
The Icelandic language has pride of place on the (often monolingual) packaging. In Wales, it’s an exception that the language is given even equal status, even on totally indigenously produced food and drinks.
However, there were also a lot of imported products on sale in Reykjavík. The mainly seemed to be from the US/Canada or the UK, Germany or Scandinavia…..and often, there was no Icelandic on their packaging.
Official and commercial signage in Icelandic
Official signage is – of course – thoroughly Icelandic.
Sometimes the signs were bilingual, giving the languages equal status.
This is now common in Wales, but only after a HUGE fight with the British state, which has involved protesters being prosecuted and jailed.
Often in Wales’ commercial sector, if you do find some Welsh it will be in small letters, begrudgingly added underneath.
It’s as if the language is somehow something dangerous or subversive.
In the commercial sector, Icelandic is generally far and away the main language.
It was galling to see a shop like Subway make full (and sole) use of Icelandic while it ignores the Welsh language in Aberystwyth.
Tourism as a threat to Icelandic
One exception to the rosy picture from Reykjavík is the tourism sector.
Iceland has turned to tourism in a big way since the financial crash of 2008.
This has clearly brought economic dividends.
To tempt the tourists shop shelves downtown and at the airport were well-stocked with a great deal of high-quality local woollen wear plus other premium local brands (alcohol, for example).
To be honest, though, the sheer number of other tourists rather spoils the whole experience of my own time there as a tourist (yes, I do get the irony).
When I was their, the airport was splitting at the seams.
If you have 1,300,000 tourists a year visiting a country with a population less than a quarter of that, there’s a linguistic price to be paid.
In the evenings the centre of town was busy with tourists mostly I heard languages other than Icelandic.
In several cafés I was served by people from elsewhere in Europe, taking advantage of the free movement of labour within “European Economic Area” (Iceland is not in the EU).
There was the occasional café in the centre where signage appeared to be in English only.
The tourism and leisure industries also use a lot of English, as you’d expect, though sometimes Icelandic still takes confident priority on signage.
All the music I heard playing in shops and cafés was English.
Things felt a lot more Icelandic in the centre of town on weekday mornings, I’m glad to say.
Icelandic in the internet age
Another area of concern for the future health of Icelandic is the wider influence of English media and the internet.
This wasn’t something I could observe directly in the same way.
In conversation and at the Polyglot Conference I heard complaints from Icelanders about the needless use of English words instead of their Icelandic equivalents. English idioms – albeit said in Icelandic – are also creeping into the language.
You hear similar concerns in other, much larger majoritarian language communities (Germany, France… even British English is getting packed with Americanisms, d*mn it 😉 ).
For all the panic among speakers of majority languages, their predicament is nothing like that for those who cherish minority languages, which face a dominant language community from a position of marginalisation at home.
Icelandic in the education system
Only a quarter of Welsh pre-11 schools have Welsh as the medium of instruction. The percentage in the secondary sector is lower still.
When you get to the tertiary sector in Wales you’re moving into the territory of a bad joke.
The Basques in the Basque Autonomous region have done incomparably better than the Welsh at using the education system as part of a wider, joined-up strategy to stabilise and then revive their language.
They’ve done it from a lower base with a bilingual population too.
Plus, Basque is more difficult for Spanish or French speakers to learn than Welsh is for English.
As for the Icelandic education system, it shows you what can be done with 300,000 people and the poverty of aspiration and vision in Wales despite the – we must now say – huge absolute numbers of Welsh speakers.
I spent three days studying in Reykjávik University, where all subjects are taught through the medium of Icelandic. That is only one of several higher and further education institutions in the country offering a full spectrum of subjects through the medium of Icelandic.
A triumph of survival and imagination and a challenge to the Welsh
Iceland has its problems. It’s not a paradise. Yet from a linguistic perspective, it’s a great success story.
Icelanders have created and sustain a whole society through their language. Despite obvious threats (out-of-control mass tourism; global Anglo-American culture and the internet) the rich Icelandic language continues strongly as a community language in Iceland.
It’s a triumph of survival, stubbornness and also of imagination.
There are limits to the comparisons that can be drawn between a majority language with an isolated geography on its side and minoritised language communities struggling to survive population shifts and cultural colonisation.
Still, if 320,000 Icelanders can do what they do, maybe 550,000 Welsh speakers could start to aim just a little bit higher. If you’re in Wales and you’re reading this, do us a favour:
UP YOUR GAME, will you?
Look out for more soon on the site about learning minority and lesser used languages. Let me know in the comments below if you’re learning one…or about any experiences you’ve had with Icelandic.
For now: here’s the video. I hope you enjoy the visuals, even if you don’t understand too much of the Welsh!
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