On Losing Icelandic


There were good reasons for our immigrant great grandparents and grandparents not wanting their children to learn Icelandic.

All you have to do is read some books about how immigrants were treated. The stories are disheartening. The racism, tribalism, and prejudice was overwhelming. Comments about immigrants in the newspapers are shocking.

Icelanders, when they first came to Canada, were not considered equal to people from the UK. Icelanders were not “white”. It took a long time for people of Icelandic background to gain social status, to be accepted by Anglo society. A Northern Irish accent got my Irish grandfather a job at Eaton’s but until Signy Hildur Stefansson married David Eaton, an Icelandic accent wouldn’t. When Signy married into what was considered Canada’s royal family it suddenly raised the social status of the Icelandic community.

Icelanders came to Canada, in the most part, to flee from poor treatment, from poverty, from natural disasters. They were so poor that they required government assistance to move internally. No one is impressed by poverty. No one wants to associate with poverty or marry poverty. No one wants to hire poverty unless it is to exploit it.

The Icelanders, like all immigrants, had to fight to be accepted and make a place for themselves and their children. By the time David Eaton married Signy, Icelanders had adapted to Canadian society, had established themselves in education, law and business.

The Icelanders adapted in a number of ways. They gathered together in groups. They formed organizations. They supported each other through the worst of the transition period. They changed their names, made them more English sounding. My great great uncle changed his last name from Gottskalksson to Olson. Good move. They learned English.

They emulated how the English dressed. They learned English manners. They learned English law. Most of them, like the immigrant groups who followed them, did not teach their children their native language. They understood that having an accent meant that you were not one of “us”, that is, the ruling class, you were “other”. And “other” is always treated with suspicion, denied a place with the majority. If you have an accent, you are one of those others.

They were, like all immigrants, caught in two worlds. They needed their immigrant world to provide help and protection. A group is always stronger than an individual. However, to prosper, they needed to become part of the bigger world, the world of the dominant social and economic class.

The transition took time. My great great grandfather and my great grandfather came from Iceland in 1878. Their native language was Icelandic. My great great grandfather died two years after coming to Canada. His son. Ketill, made a place for himself in the Icelandic community. He was active in social, religious and political activities. He was fluent in Icelandic and English but Icelandic was essential to his business as a dairyman and storekeeper.

His son, my grandfather, born in Canada, spoke Icelandic, needed it for a social life, and for business. As a carpenter and sometime fisherman, he worked for people in the local Icelandic community but he also worked for non-Icelanders. English was becoming more important to survival and prosperity.

My father, in his turn, knew just enough Icelandic to get by. It was useful socially and in business but it wasn’t essential. He had no accent. From him, I learned no Icelandic. The transition to being part of the larger society was complete. In spite of my last name, I was one of “us”. Educated, no accent, English speaking. Dress me up and call me Smith or Jones or Brown and I could pass as the descendent of the British working class.

There are, somewhat surprisingly, families who have retained the Icelandic language. In many cases, they have married within the Icelandic Canadian community or even have married someone from Iceland. We point them out and are proud of them. They carry the flag for all of us. However, they are an anomaly not a majority. Icelandic being spoken in stores and at social occasions even in New Iceland has been replaced by a weekly meeting at Amma’s restaurant in Gimli where people can practice speaking Icelandic and there’s an Icelandic reading class in Arborg. Where Icelandic was a natural language used in every day communication, it has become something that has to be preserved. When something has to be preserved, it has become a museum piece.

In multicultural societies, it is normal for immigrants to change, to fit in. In Canada the language that binds people together is English. It allows communication across cultural and linguistic barriers.

What society faces is no different than what my grandfather faced after his Icelandic wife died and he married a woman who was Polish and German. Her family spoke English, Polish, German and Ukrainian. His family spoke English and Icelandic. Faced with a tower of Babel, he declared that only English would be spoken in his house.

Learning English, learning to speak without an accent, were all part of necessary adaptation. However, as we lose our original language, there is much more than words that we lose.

UNESCO says, “Every language reflects a unique world-view with its own value system, philosophy and particular cultural features. The extinction of a language results in the irrevocable loss of unique cultural knowledge embodied in it for centuries.”

The cost of this loss is all around us. The Icelandic immigrants were not only literate but proud of their literature. There was a tradition of literacy and of the writing of both poetry and prose. At one time there were more books in Icelandic published in Manitoba than in Iceland. When I was gathering and preserving Icelandic books, I found books that had been published not just in Winnipeg but in Gimli and Riverton. Writing about their lives and feelings was so important that books were published even in small villages.

Those books reflect the concerns, the beliefs of our people. Unable to read them, we cannot know what moved the authors to express themselves in poetry and prose. We do not just lose the words, we lose the voices and, along with the voices, an understanding of the generations from which we have sprung.

By losing the language, we’ve also lost our connection to Icelandic literature. Good translations are a treasure but they are not the same as reading the sagas in the original or reading Haldor Laxness in the original or reading anything in the original. Words are not simple. They are freighted with meaning. They are culturally embedded. It is impossible to capture all the connotations of words in a translation.
I grieve that loss. I blame no one. What was done was necessary. Survival always comes first. It wasn’t just our grandparents or our parents. It is not like they failed us. We were part of the equation.

Remembering our teenage selves, I ask myself would we have wanted to learn Icelandic? Would these arguments about preserving our heritage mattered enough for us to have made the effort to learn a language that had no daily relevance to us? I doubt it. Elvis ruled. Hollywood ruled. We wanted to be individuals while being just like all of our peers. We wanted to have good jobs, a nice car, have a girlfriend or boyfriend, then a family. We wanted to get ahead. For those things, we needed English.

I wonder, though, when our grandparents and older family members listened to us chattering in English, a language some of them never did learn, if they sometimes wondered if this was what they or their parents had intended as the outcome from that difficult journey across the Atlantic? Because we were unable to talk to them, unable to read what it is they wrote—all those letters, diaries, books of poetry—we lost them as we rushed into the future.

The conflict between those who wanted to adapt as quickly as possible and those who wanted to preserve a New Iceland in Canada went on from the very beginning. It was not only an Icelandic dream. There were New Denmarks, New Finlands, New Swedens, New (name any area from which immigrants came).

Vestiges remain. There are places where fragments of the early society can be seen, mostly in local museums. Languages are promoted in ethnic clubs. There are classes. However, ethnic groups in a multicultural society constantly fragment.

What is learned in the long term is what is useful in daily life.

At the university level, language programs in Ukrainian, Russian, the Scandinavian languages, are being closed as programs are being opened in Asian languages. Money flows to where there are opportunities in trade and employment.

For those of us who wish to keep the opportunity open for young people to study Icelandic, to learn about Icelandic history and culture, we have to fund and re-fund, the Icelandic department at the University of Manitoba, the Icelandic library, scholarships, research grants. We have got to say, with our dollars, Icelandic matters. What was done was necessary but we are long established in Canadian society now. We don’t have to give up anything more to survive and prosper.

4 thoughts on “On Losing Icelandic

  1. Very well said Bill & so very true. I have taken to Translating Icelandic comments on Facebook & some of the translations are truly bizarre, therefore the true meaning is lost. We had a family reunion here a few years ago where I was presented with an Icelandic book of Copies of letters that Eric’s great grandfather wrote back to Iceland, they have gone to great lengths to preserve the true meaning & the spirit of the letters but of course I can’t read it & the cost of translating would be exhorbitant!!!!

  2. This blog post by my friend Bill Valgardson is a fine piece of writing, exceptional I think. It has the clarity and flow and polish of a set piece and I expect it is drawn from a formal address he gave to some group or other. In this post, he’s into his favourite topic, new world Icelanders, of whom he knows a lot, for he he grew up in Gimli and counts among his ancestors early Icelandic immigrants to Canada. I know a bit about this topic too, for I’ve lived the experience, in my case not in the hub-town of our fragment culture, Gimli, but in a fragment settlement of New Icelanders, across the Red River, at the southern extremity of the southern basin of lake Winnipeg, about twenty to thirty miles as the raven flies from Gimli town. Like Bill, I was denied my ancestral language by parents who insisting their children speak English early and well and free of any accent (except ‘Canadian’ of course, which is really early northern/midwwest American lingo, brought north by United Empire Loyalists to Ontario, then west when the prairies were colonized by settlers from central Canada. I do not remember either my mother or father uttering a complete sentence in Icelandic in the presence of their eight children, except for occasional lullabies my mother sang to us. Their strategy worked, for we innocently and quite happily failed to learn the mother tongue, so to speak; it was rarely spoken and rarely spoken of. Their tactic worked, for all us kids took to English like lambs to the slaughter, and we all did well materially, which was my parents’ goal in denying us the language in the first place. That doesn’t prove they were right, leaving moral choice aside, for who’s to say we eight kids would not have done as well or better in making a living if we had been taught Icelandic. To argue that our loss of ancestral language was our ticket to material success involves a kind of ‘post hoc’ they teach in Philosophy 101. Our adoption of English with our mother’s milk came at a cost, and the price we paid was a near obliteration of a culture that should have been ours by right of birth. Yet I do remember one thing we (males at least) retained of our old-country ways. It was our cold weather survival dance, consisting of a frenzy of violent jumping jacks, practiced only in sub-zero weather on windswept and ice-bound lake Winnipeg, where we were commercial fishing with our father. When we got dangerously cold pulling wet gill nets up through the basin hole, we would leap high into the air and strike our arms and hands against our thighs in a series of heavy blows, lightning-fast blows – on the upward vector hands up, legs apart; on the downward plunge, hands down, slap the thighs, bang the legs together, a madcap dance, a hip-hop performance on steroids. That scene must have perplexed more than one passing wolf or raven, yet it served to get the blood running fast into bodily extremities, not to mention into the brain, and likely saved us from hypothermia or worse. I didn’t realize this icecap caper came to us from our ancestors until I read in a novel by famous Icelandic novelist Halldor Laxness, in which his character, Bjartar of Summerhouses, saves himself with exactly this ancestral survival dance after a winter crossing of a stream in full flood on the back of a bull reindeer. Back to my childhood district near Libau, or Poplar Park to be exact, it was called the latter until the local post office disappeared, after which we were known formally as residents of Libau, even though that village with its CNR depot and its two or three elevators and its promise of a better road to Selkirk was some five miles distant and we seldom went there. I recall reading in an old copy of the New Iceland annual they called Almanak, written and published by Winnipeg O. Thorgeirsson, that in our settlement of Poplar Park, was a scattering of Icelandic families, with surnames of Anderson, Guttormson, Magnuson, Jonson, Sigurdson, Gudmundson and others. Among this fragmented and eroding Icelandic culture were other cultures competing with us in the assimilation race, including Ukrainians, Poles, Germans, Swedes, etc. In a curious way, we were insulated from these other cultures, for we lived in a clan/tribal enclave of Icelanders, in a small nucleus of houses surrounding one large house, the latter a 2 1/2 story house we called the Big House – constructed from cut-to-spec fir lumber from Eaton’s Catologue, brought in by rail to Libau and from there five miles north along a mud road, to the Anderson farm, where it was nailed upright by a gang of local men hired by Grandfather Andres (Andrew) Anderson. There my paternal grandparents raised a collective of sons (daughters too, but they married and moved away) who all – well, almost all – found wives and built houses within a stone’s throw of the original Big House. Our neighbours called it Andersons Corner, it was a prolific place, for at one point during my childhood, over half the children in our one-room country school (Sheffield) were from the Anderson tribe at the Corner. We were favoured at school, not only because no one dared to bully us smaller kids, given that we had larger sibling protectors, but our uncles kept marrying every female school teacher that came into the district, and these new aunties naturally assimilated into our tribal and parochial ways. If Almanak editor and printer O. Thorgeirson were to come back to life and visit my home district today, he would likely wonder where his kinsfolk went, just as as we wonder what happened to the extinct Norse settlement on Greenland, for this once light scattering, peppering, dusting at Poplar park of a fragment Icelandic culture is long less gone. Some of our families were flooded out by the swelling marshes that arrayed themselves 100 square kilometres in size, adjacent to the shore on the south basin of the lake and the mouth of the mighty Red River; others spun away, some chasing multiform dreams, some lured away by love. Do we miss our ancestral language, we exiles from icelandic-flavoured enclaves in North America, even though we’ve never got our tongues around a single complete sentence? I know I do, for when I hear the IcelandAir flight attendants speaking their beautiful, lyrical, lilting language as I board a plane in New York bound for Keflavik, I grow immensely sad. Sad because I can’t lay claim to that lovely ancient scarcely changed from Viking times language, and when my cousins in Iceland invite me to their table groaning with seventeen kinds of thin-crust pastries that i can’t indulge in due to my glucose imbalance problem, and thick black coffee that I cannot drink for fear my heart will explode from rapid beating, I feel an intense yearning for my ancestral language, a language I can apprehend by ear but can’t reproduce by tongue. Its erasure from the collective consciousness of my people in North America would fill me at times like that with despair if it were not for the warm hospitality of my Icelandic hosts. We talk as best we can, we kinfolk, lovingly, clanishly, in English. Still, I will never know what gems of dialogue I have missed because I am by my misguided unilingualism forcing these cousins mine into a language not entirely of their liking, for English is not their first and by a long shot not their beloved language, and Icelandic is not my language and never will be, short of sorcery. Yet we meet in a kind of mid-Atlantic linguistic mist of goodwill and mutual partial comprehension, and so we will as long as I continue to wander over to that enchanted island and my kinsfolk fail not in their predilictions to wander over to my side of the pond. And if you, dear and patient reader, feel I’ve wandered off on many tangents from my original topic, and smuggled in some family and clan folktales along the way, you’ll get no apology from me, for that’s the patented way we Icelanders tell our stories, even those of us like me with a diluted pedigree, we veer off on tangents for the sake of story, and in so doing myself, maybe I’ve discovered that something of our culture beyond our cold weather survival dance has indeed survived, so join me in continued exploration, maybe there’s more to us than meets the eye, culturally speaking, and maybe much more out there yet to be found.

  3. Bill, many thanks for this very interesting article! I will show it to my colleague at the University of Iceland. We are doing research on Icelandic as a heritage lang. in Canada.

  4. Excellent article! I’m working with Úlfar and others on a new research project on the development of Icelandic in North America. Everything that helps us understand the background and the social and cultural issues is obviously of crucial imporance. Thanks for a very clear presentation of some of the main issues.

    Höskuldur Þráinsson

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