“Coffee and kleina,” reads a large sign at a roadside coffee shop by one of the main roads in Reykjavik. Not so many years ago, such a billboard would simply have read: “Kaffi og kleina” – in the language of the Vikings, the official language of Iceland.
It is a privilege of the few to be able to read and write Icelandic, a language understood by only around 400,000 people worldwide. Icelandic, in which the historic Sagas were written in the 13th and 14th centuries, has changed so little since then on our small and isolated island, that we can still more or less read them as they were first written.
But Iceland is not so isolated anymore, and there are signs its language is facing challenges never seen before. Following the economic crash of 2008, and the subsequent collapse of the Icelandic currency (making Iceland a much cheaper destination than before), tourism has emerged as the largest industry in Iceland, with 2.5 million tourists expected to visit a country of 350,000 people this year alone.
And everyone is catering to the tourists in English, of course. At restaurants and coffee shops, people are frequently greeted in English rather than Icelandic, and often Icelandic will get you nowhere if you want to order food or drink. Companies use English names or are rebranding themselves in English. The importance of tourists to the economy is rapidly making English not only a second language in the service industry, but almost the first language. (The irony of this article being written in English is certainly not lost on me.)
There are other warning signs. Icelanders have always been very proud of their literary heritage, boasting that we write and read a lot of books. However, Icelanders bought 47% fewer books in 2017 than they did in 2010, a very sharp decrease in a matter of only six years. In a recent poll in Iceland, 13.5% of those who responded had not read a single book in 2017, compared to 7% in 2010.
Read more: The Guardian