Two Languages

Það eru bara tvö tungumál: íslenska og útlenska. Og útlenska er enska.

There are only two languages: Icelandic and ‘Foreign Language.’ And ‘Foreign Language’ is English.

This from a professor of mine during a class discussion about our experiences as foreigners in Iceland, and whether we had ever gotten a particularly excited reaction from an Icelander when they found out we were from another country. I said that as an American, I don’t really qualify as an ‘exciting foreigner.’ Rather, because of Iceland’s long history with the US—beginning with the US base at Keflavík during WWII and extending into the ubiquitous presence of American popular culture pretty much everywhere—being an American in Iceland seems about as exciting as being a New Jersian (is that the right term?) in New York. Which is to say, not.

(I’ll digress here to add to this another anecdote: I went to the Red Cross last year to try and sign up for a program in which Icelandic women were paired up with foreign women who had similar interests in a sort of cultural exchange. When I explained that I was from the US, the woman filling out the paperwork looked up, concerned. “Well,” she said, “that might be a problem. The idea is that the Icelandic woman gets to learn about a culture, you see. And so it would be difficult in your case. Especially because Icelanders already know everything about America.” And so, lacking as I did in a real ‘culture,’ I couldn’t get myself an Icelandic friend.)

Anyway, during this class discussion my professor went on to explain that since English is ubiquitous in Iceland, it starts to feel to many Icelanders as though it is the foreign language, spoken by everyone everywhere outside of Iceland. Like ‘a Band-Aid’ becoming a stand-in for ‘a bandage,’ I suppose.

This discussion, I should add, arose after went to see a play as part of my contemporary literature class, a production called „Útlenski Drengurinn,” or ‘The Foreign Boy,’ which was based on Þórarin Leifsson’s Dóri Litli verður útlenskur (‘Little Dóri becomes a foreigner’). The basic premise of the story is that one day (under to a variety of strange circumstances that differ from book to play) a popular Icelandic boy, nicknamed Little Dóri (Dóri short for Halldór, and he’s actually quite big), suddenly becomes foreign. That is to say, everyone around him suddenly believes that he’s foreign, that he can’t speak Icelandic and that he now needs to apply for permission to live in Iceland.

A page excerpt from the book:

Útlenskur

Image from Dóri Litli verður útlenskur by Þórarin Leifsson

Foreign!

The principal cleared his throat and said:

“It has become clear that Little Dóri is foreign.”

“That’s impossible,” said Dóri’s mother. “We’re Halldór’s parents.”

“Of course! But foreigners have parents like everyone else.”

Little Dóri’s mother thought to herself. The principal was right, of course.

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4 thoughts on “Two Languages

  1. Interesting how being American isn’t “foreign” enough. That sounds like an interesting book & play – how does the book define foreignness?

    • The book and play are making a comment on Icelandic society’s difficulty in accepting Otherness, really, so being ‘foreign’ is basically a code for being ‘different.’ So even though the main character is actually Icelandic, he’s dubbed a ‘foreigner.’ In the play, there’s also another character who everyone thinks is Icelandic because she speaks perfect Icelandic and blends in so well, but it turns out that she’s actually foreign.

  2. How sad that you are not foreign enough to get an Icelandic “friend.” Very interesting post. I hadn’t realized that Iceland was so Americanized until I read Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland, a book I’m sure you know well.

    • In the end it turned out fine, Betty. I started to make some Icelandic friends the old fashioned way. 🙂 I haven’t read the book you mention, although I’ve had it on my to-read list for awhile. The author is British, isn’t she? Did you enjoy the book?

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