I read recently in the Reykjavik Grapevine that a decision by the Icelandic Road Authority to erect some road signs in English might be breaking Icelandic law. The authority replaced warnings with an English-language translation on a number of temporary signs advising of road closures in poor weather, after several incidents where foreign tourists became stranded, requiring costly rescue efforts. In the land of ice and snow, weather-related road closures happen regularly, so it seems like a good investment to save money, and perhaps even lives, in the long term.
However, the Icelandic Language Committee, which acts to maintain the structure of the language and develop new words when needed, objects, claiming the signs are illegal and should be removed and replaced with Icelandic-only signs. The law states that “Icelandic is the language of parliament and the government, whether national or municipal, of education at every level and of institutions which engage in public service.” Whilst showing sympathy with foreigners stuck as a result of Iceland’s weather or a natural disaster, the committee is pushing for signage that doesn’t violate the law.
It’s caused a bit of a debate, with Icelanders and foreigners on both sides of the fence. It reminds me of when I first learned Nordic skiing in Saariselkä, in Finnish Lapland. Once I’d mastered standing up, staying upright, and getting back on my feet after failing to stay upright, I took off into the nearby National Park on one of the many trails. I encountered several warning signs, all easily identified as warnings due to the exclamation mark, but with a description underneath that was completely impenetrable.
With Finnish being linguistically isolated from other European languages, I couldn’t even hazard a guess at what the hazard might be. Was I approaching the top of a steep hill, or a T-junction as two trails met? Was I about to cross a snowmobile trail, and running the risk of being run over? Or had I entered bear country? Could there be a rampaging moose ahead? Or was I only being reminded to visit the toilet before heading into the wilderness?
Well, I survived my skiing trip after only encountering three of the aforementioned dangers (after deciding to lie down and creep forward on my stomach to work out what the signs might have been informing me about, taking a gamble about it being a crazy moose ahead). I may not have known the language well enough to know exactly what to worry about, but I knew enough that it was up to me to exercise some caution and to read the situation around me before going ahead.
I can’t help but feel that should be the case in Iceland too. English speakers quite often get an easy ride abroad, which can sometimes make us quite lazy about learning the language of the countries we visit. Perhaps being aware of the risk of being stranded in a snowstorm is just the motivation we need.
Have you ever been caught out by signs you couldn’t understand while travelling?