It’s not right and there ought to be a law by Quentin Bates

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It’s something you hear all the time, often accompanied by a thump on the table or the smack of a fist into the palm of the other hand for much-needed emphasis.

‘There should be a law.’

‘Shouldn’t be allowed.’

‘Ought to be banned.’

There’s nothing restrained about Iceland’s attitude to rules and regulations. Iceland really is reminiscent of the nanny state that we in Britain are warned about, a country set about with reams of stifling bureaucracy.

In some countries, something that’s not clearly forbidden is therefore allowed. In Iceland and a few other places, the opposite seems to be true – if it’s not expressly permitted, then it has to be beyond the pale. Icelanders will occasionally smile wryly and call it the ‘Norwegian sickness.’

It’s something Icelanders seem to accept, not necessarily happily, but as a fact of life, like snow at Easter or your washing machine jamming the day after the warranty expired. Maybe it’s a throwback to their colonial past and the draconian rules that made sure people stayed on the land and in near-poverty during Danish rule, but Icelanders seem to expect there to be a rule or a law dictating pretty much everything. Sometimes people can be pleasantly taken aback to find that something isn’t covered by regulation 2895652/362/1876(b).

The plethora of rules extend to language and even people’s names, although this has, admittedly, been relaxed to an extent. At one time people applying for citizenship were required to take a new name of the traditional Icelandic variety that complied with the fiendishly awkward language’s grammatical declensions.

A few exceptions were made, such as when Vladimir Ashkenazy became a citizen in the 1970s he was able to keep his name, but anyone else would have been expected to take an extra name to go with it. These days things aren’t quite so strict. Immigrants get to keep their own names now, but when they have children, things become awkward once again.

There’s a naming committee that decides what is and what isn’t an acceptable name. In Britain or the US, if you want to name your son or daughter after a fictional soap character, a rock star or even a household appliance, feel free. They might not thank you for it in years to come, but nobody’s going to stop you.

Try and christen a baby girl Britney or Phoenix in Iceland and you’re in for a collision with the establishment. Names have to be grammatically declinable, and if you want to come up with something for your offspring that’s slightly different, then a precedent has to be proved. A cousin had endless trouble naming baby Zacharías, but eventually triumphed. The name wasn’t that much of a problem, but the Icelandic language was reformed a few years ago and Z became a non-letter that no longer featured in the alphabet, along with C and Q.

So this is where the endless exceptions to the rule come into the picture. Baby Zacharías (he’s not a baby any more) got to keep his Z as his mother could show a precedent, even though the naming committee would have preferred him to be Sakarías, as all of the Zs in Icelandic were supposed to be replaced with Ss.

Icelandic is a language under threat. Only 300,000 people speak it. That’s reputedly fewer than the number of people with a working grasp of Klingon. Like a good few other languages, Icelandic is protected as fiercely as possible. Neologisms are invented regularly to apply to new concepts. A telephone pretty much anywhere is a telefon or some such variation on the English word. Not in Iceland, where a telephone is a sími, a word derived from an ancient term meaning thread.

The words committee must be working full time in its semi-thankless task. Some things catch on, others don’t. A jet is a thota, one that did catch on. A video recorder is (I imagine) a myndsegulbandsupptökutæki, but everyone refers to a video as a vídeo.

It’s a losing battle. Icelandic has probably changed more in the last twenty years than in the preceding two hundred, regardless of the rules and regulations.

Not that many years ago, it was deeply frowned upon to use words derived from Danish – ‘that’s Danish slang,’ people would say with a frown as I’d try out an expression I’d picked up somewhere.

But these days English slang pervades everything to the point that you can occasionally wonder which language someone is actually speaking. It’s everywhere, on the radio, in schools, and everywhere daily life English words have been appropriated and slung in helter-skelter, frequently in the bizarrest usages that require some lateral thinking to work out. English words are even frequently used where there is an acceptable and often simpler Icelandic alternative.

Official documents are beginning to look as archaic as the language the ancient sagas were written in as it departs steadily further from the diluted spoken version.

So Europe could come to Icelandic’s rescue here, if Icelanders decide to join the EU. One of the fundamental principles of that creaking bureaucracy is that every EU document should be available in every language. That was presumably fine when there were six or even nine member states. Now Europe is bogged down with a vast tide of translation. There could be a whole new class of professional translators beavering away translating documents that hardly anyone will ever read into clear, proper, official Icelandic – just as the rules require.

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