Emily Jarvie and Miriam Deprez
Iceland’s position between the world’s two cultural heavy weights, the United States and Europe, is waged to be a knock out. Yet, this underdog cannot be underestimated in the ultimate wrestle for maintaining their identity, as the smallest contender is poised to give both champions a run for their money.
“Are you ready to rrrruuuuuumble?” an exaggerated deep voice booms over the distorted speaker system as the comedy host Gísli Johann bursts out between the red curtains onto the stage.
Gaukurinn, a punk bar near the Reykjavík waterfront, is hosting their 101st consecutive weekly open mic comedy show to a mixed bag of audience members.
Between acts Gísli asks the crowd, “who here is from Iceland?” Half the hands in the room go up. He turns his attention to a large group of friends sitting right in front of the stage demanding to know where they are from. Answers like the United States, Hungary, Kenya and Australia don’t surprise anyone.
Tonight’s assorted crowd is not an exception in downtown Reykjavík, but a reflection of the city’s diverse youth culture in one of the world’s most culturally globalised nations.
As an isolated island, Iceland has depended on various forms of connection to the wider world merely to survive. What started as trading goods transformed into an exchange of social ideas that has shaped Icelandic identity for centuries.
Youth play an important role in the continuation of national values, as they tend to be most open to new technology and prevailing global ideas. Where physically the North American and Eurasian plates clash, so do their cultures. Young people have taken on elements from both cultural superpowers, combining them with their strong Icelandic values to create a hybrid youth culture unlike anywhere else in the world.
However, the idea that Icelandic identity is under threat remains prominent with concerns that this culture will be wiped out in favour of American or European influences.
Don’t wanna be American influenced
The United States of America was the first country to acknowledge Iceland’s independence from Denmark in 1944. The relationship between the two nations remained strong, with a NATO naval air base built in Keflavík, a 45 minute drive south of Reykjavík, exposing Icelanders to mainstream American culture.
“Dangerous and dishonourable!” was the catch call of 60 intellectuals to the Althing (parliament) in 1964 as concerns about the introduction of American TV stations peaked. Politicians felt threatened their children would become “Americanised” and this would ultimately change Icelandic culture and language.
Since then, American influences have become even more accessible with popular culture and the internet. Member of the Icelandic Language Committee, an organisation tasked with identifying trends and threats surrounding the Icelandic language, Ármann Jakobsson emphasised, “there is a lot of entertainment that comes from the United States and people are not bound anymore by watching what’s on television.”
“English is getting more popular, and is aggressively taking over the world as you are seeing less French and Scandinavian material on TV.”
The safeguarding of national language is important to Icelanders as there are significant links between language and the cultural identity of a nation. Jakobsson elaborated, “people feel that if the native language is lost then we lose importance ourselves, because this is the language we are born with and know best.”
With only 330,000 people speaking Icelandic, many experts like Jakobsson have highlighted certain dangers of globalisation to its continuance.
He further explained, “the tourist industry is a threat. We are worried that Icelandic is becoming a secondary language because our language is not universally used.”
As the tourism industry has taken over Reykjavík, so has the use of English with the amount of US tourists visiting the island in 2016 outnumbering the entire Icelandic population, according to The Telegraph. Reykjavík local Þórhallur Þórhallsson describes the situation as an Icelander, “when people come to the downtown area you speak English because everyone is speaking English. It’s an English speaking area.”
Jakobsson agreed with this observation, “it’s certainly very annoying for some Icelanders that they can’t ask for coffee without someone saying ‘please use English’, which makes Icelanders feel alienated in parts of the city.”
In the face of globalisation, Jakobsson stressed Icelandic language is still an important aspect of youth identity that needs to be maintained, however he explained, “there have been rumours of young people speaking English amongst themselves. I think everyone has witnessed it, a group of people speaking English and then it turns out that no one is foreign.”
Yet, when asked about her connection to language, 20 year old Ólöf Þorsteinsdóttir, whilst working in a pop culture store on the main street in Reykjavík said she always speaks Icelandic outside of her job. “Speaking Icelandic is important to young people because the old Icelandic is being forgotten. It’s really important to all Icelanders that we keep speaking it.”
Young people are adding their own spin to the language by introducing new Icelandic and English slang into their vocabularies. Jakobsson described this type of language shift as inevitable. “Every language changes with each new generation, you have new things to talk about. Some of what used to be regular Icelandic is now seen as archaic. It’s just a normal phenomenon.”
28 year old General Manager of Skúli Craft Bar, Víkingur Kristjánsson, also affirmed he does not think the use of English in the tourism industry is an issue. “Of course with my friends I just speak Icelandic. I think Icelanders should keep going with the language because using Icelandic is really important as a cultural thing.”
However, he recognised that in a globalised world, as well as speaking the native language, being able to communicate is important. “We should keep to the European standard of being at least trilingual. For me, the average everyone should know is three languages. Wherever I go in the world I would like to have a way to communicate to the people.”
The standard of speaking multiple languages doesn’t stop at just Icelandic and English for Icelanders. Learning Danish is also a part of mandatory language teaching in schools reflecting the historical, geopolitical and cultural links to Denmark and Europe which still influence life in Iceland today.
Discovered accidentally by Norway in the late ninth century, Iceland was under Norwegian kingship up to 1380 when the nation was absorbed under Danish rule until the 20th century.
The rise in nationalism and separation from Denmark in 1944 did not stop the cultural trading of ideas, and Iceland has remained close to their historic roots in terms of social structure and class systems.
Although Icelanders have been heavily influenced in terms of English use and pop culture from the United States, their social systems have adapted to reflect progressive and egalitarian European values and can be compared to their Scandinavian neighbours.
Iceland projects the liberal standards Scandinavian countries are renowned for in regards to social welfare, upholding the Nordic welfare system of trying to maintain a high standard of living for all inhabitants.
Iceland’s strong family policies support this ideal in combination with traditional Icelandic values. It is historically important for men to be caring fathers and today this is made possible by equal parental leave split between both parents.
It is compulsory for fathers to take a minimum of three months off, while still receiving 80% of their full salary as the government recognises the need for creating strong family bonds between children to both parents. Other countries topping the charts were Belgium, Denmark and Finland. The United States is still one of four countries in the world to still not have federally mandated parental time off, for either parent.
The Icelandic Way
These strong family values are also reflected in broader community solidarity, and initiatives to curb youth drug and alcohol abuse that started in the early 1990’s are now showing results. Today, Icelandic youth at the bottom of the charts in Europe for substance abuse thanks to an Icelandic model, ‘Project Self Discovery’, that curbs addiction by instead encouraging ‘natural highs’.
Doctors and psychologists referred teens involved with drugs and petty crime to the project, and rehabilitation consisted of teaching them martial arts, music, hip hop, and dance. This model has been widely applauded but there are concerns over prescribing this generic model to other communities. It may not have the same effect because it relies on building on what already exists, as Project Leader Harvey Milkman explained to The Atlantic, “you have to rely on the resources of the community.”
The success of this program has been attributed to the relationship between people and the state and has reinforced the importance of family.
This idea of community solidarity is also reflected in Iceland’s low crime rate and lack of violence. Boasting one of the smallest crime rates in the world, averaging 1.8 deaths per year, the latest murder reported in Iceland occurred in January this year and was in fact at the hands of a Greenlander.
Vikingur related the strong sense of community to helping lower the crime rate, with alcohol fuelled violence dropping dramatically in the past ten years. “It’s no longer a competition of testosterone between people and this generation is getting a lot more relaxed. It’s not cool to fight in Iceland.”
“[In Iceland] we try to do good things to each other. It’s a good, small community. I think that’s the best part of Iceland. We try to make it right most of the time, maybe because it’s small and you can’t afford to be a dickhead to one another,” Vikingur laughed.
On the one hand, Iceland has embraced the American ideals of capitalism and culture. And on the other, the strong Scandinavian social systems and welfare that are needed to make small communities thrive. Iceland has found a way to have it all and has created a new and very unique way of life.
The land of fire and ice has struck a balance between the two most powerful global elements, a feat that is yet to be achieved by the rest of the world.