Vigdís Finnbogadóttir: Our language is what we are


Writer: Edda Jóhannsdóttir
Photographer: Kristinn Ingvarsson
October 2017

Vigdis Finnbogadottir languages JONAA©Kristinn Ingvarsson-046.jpg

As the world's first democratically elected female president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, born 1930, has been a role model and inspiration to generations of women in Iceland and abroad. At an age when formal retirement might sound sweet to many, Vigdís (according to the tradition of the Icelandic language called by her first name) is as active and important in her role as ever.

Iceland’s former president has, since 1998, held the position of Goodwill Ambassador for Languages at The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), a role she truly embraces. Languages are close to her heart and for years she taught at various institutions in Iceland, including the University of Iceland, and has actively supported language education through various initiatives.


Her work now has a home in the beautiful House of Foreign Languages at the University of Iceland

Originally constructed for the University’s 90th birthday in the year of European Languages in 2001, the House of Foreign Languages formally opened earlier in 2017. It is a part of the Humanities department at the university, a research institute for foreign languages and it has the honour of carrying Vigdís’ name as well as celebrating her commitment and support in its creation. It is in Veröld - hús Vigdísar (World - house of Vigdis) that we meet.  

What led to you become a Goodwill Ambassador for languages at UNESCO?

“The prelude was that the Director General of UNESCO, Mr. Federico Mayor Zaragoza, had heard me speak at official conferences during my presidency and truly surprised me with his proposal, addressing me in the formal manner, of course, saying that my speeches were always firmly based on the pillars of language, referring to my many references and quotes to the Icelandic literary heritage. This is a very natural thing to do when dealing with deep cultural concepts and it works. If you need material for a speech you can always invoke Hávamál, Völuspá, and not least the Edda. The Edda has material for everything.”

Vigdís says the Director General’s comments led her to realize how very often she weaved the cultural heritage of Iceland into her speeches and presentations.

“I was very young when I realised that our heritage is layered with ancient wisdom and knowledge which may be applied to any situation.  Just yesterday I was leafing through the Laxdæla saga because I am about to give an interview about strong women and the women in the Laxdæla saga are strong and powerful. When Auður the Deep Minded came to this country with her slaves, according to the tradition of the day, she gave them land which surrounded her own, where she was settling. Thus she managed to keep peace. She was no longer their superior, but their friend. I only recently realised that the farmstead Erpsstaðir in the Dalir-area, well known nowadays for their production of delicious ice cream and milk products, was a gift from Auður to one of her slaves, named Erpur.

Mr. Federico Mayor Zaragoza said that I was the only person he had heard speaking in this manner. “You so often base your messages on the heritage of your language.”

JONAA © Kristinn Ingvarsson

JONAA © Kristinn Ingvarsson


What do you think is the core of this?

"When I first got involved with the subject, the languages of the the world had yet to be fully mapped. I was given the intriguing challenge of being part of the last phase of this exercise which at the time took place in Bilbao. When the mapping was completed there were about 6,800 known languages used in the world and the sad prediction is that more than half of them will disappear before the end of this century.

If you can translate Shakespeare into different languages, then the languages in question are not small

What do you think will happen to minority languages, or languages on the brink of extinction?

"I am glad that you did not say ‘small languages’. I become so sad when colleagues talk about small languages and ask them if they consider Icelandic as a “small” language. My observation is that if you can translate Shakespeare into Icelandic then Icelandic can’t be considered a small language, even though we are relatively very few to speak it. But let us remember that we are doing all we can to protect our precious Icelandic, almost unchanged from medieval times. To have your eyes opened to the value of languages is to understand the world more clearly."

How do we do that?

"By constantly to herald that languages are the key to human knowledge. The importance of transmission through time, for example the knowledge of nature, is of paramount importance.  In South-America, for instance, floods and landslides are not uncommon forces of nature. I have been told that due to languages being lost, important knowledge of the forefathers required to bind the land and prevent this from happening has also been lost."

What are the main reasons for languages disappearing?

“Minority languages are disappearing because new generations are sent to schools where they only learn the official language and this happens widely. And parents are often afraid that their children will not succeed in life unless they first and foremost speak the official language. This has happened with the Sami people of Finland, and it happened in Bretagne where the French suffocated the old language. Gaelic, that beautiful language of Bretagne, Scotland and Ireland  was once under threat of disappearance. However it is now actively promoted through the establishment of dedicated Gaelic language schools. The Welsh have aggressively protected their language and it remains strong as a result. In other words, when the old language is no longer spoken at home it is in danger of disappearing. The story of Luxembourgish is the same, it is one of few old home languages that is safeguarded by law from 1984. Luxembourg is of course surrounded by the so called “big languages”, French and German, and most people there are bi- or trilingual. But now with more knowledge about the vital importance of the home language, it’s fortunately becoming more common for parents to raise their children with a home language. They learn foreign languages in school and definitely get great assistance from the internet in an increasingly more open world."

One does not wish to be alone, shouting in the wilderness

What about Icelandic?

“I am not the only one shouting in the wilderness. Us Icelanders are all a bit worried about our language, the treasure of our identity. I am however convinced that we are sensible enough to keep Icelandic as our cultural foundation so that our children can appreciate this as they grow up. There is no doubt that there is too much English material on the internet, on the computer and in general circulation. I have a granddaughter who is almost eight and she speaks fluent English without ever having lived in an English speaking country. But she also speaks very good Icelandic.”

What about language in the Icelandic media which is undeniably getting worse. Is there anything we can do about that?

“It is very sad, and not least when people stop noticing mistakes and become impervious to them. I often hear people use borrowed words, as the English word “moment”, when we have beautiful Icelandic transparent words for a moment; “augnablik” and “andartak”.

The Need to Strengthen the Self Image of Minority Groups

What disappears if Icelandic disappears?

“Our main character as a nation will disappear. Our Self Image disappears if we have to translate our memories into another language. Icelandic is us and while we talk this precious language we have our very special identity. But, whatever will happen, our cultural heritage will not disappear. We have it in books. And we are more and more conscious about how important it is to safeguard our language – and talk about it a lot. It is first and foremost our own responsibility. We can’t ask the people of the world to help us. With our effort we can be a model for other nations as an inspiration how to safeguard a language, thus with our help other nations can also learn to strengthen the self image.”

Vigdís says that the Icelanders, with their language policy, could strengthen the self image of minorities along the entire north Nordic shoreline. “These nations need to feel that their neighbours are aware and have ambitions on their behalf. They should know that the Icelandic people is conscious of their ways of life, which is so similar to ours throughout the centuries and respects the mental strength and willpower to safeguard their languages and the treasures they behold. That we are ambitious on their behalf.”

JONAA © Kristinn Ingvarsson

JONAA © Kristinn Ingvarsson


We need to use old words and explain them to children

Vigdís says that we should absolutely correct children when they speak incorrectly, they will be grateful later.

“My daughter is always grateful to me that I cured her of some very common linguistic mistakes. But times have changed. People read less than they previously did, not least the children. They have access to so much on the internet, all sorts of games. Reading a book is indeed a very special experience because we create what happens in a book in our minds as we read. That is why we are so often disappointed when we see a film made from a book that we love."

Vigdís uses an example of how graphic storytelling captivates the audience from when she was a tour guide, one of the first in Iceland. “I will always remember when we sat on the hill at the farm of Hlíðarendi and read from Njáls Saga in English or some other language or told the audience stories about the place. We could see how completely captivated the people were, each of them experiencing their own version of the events which happened in the fields when Gunnar at Hlíðarendi, the great hero, outlawed, refusing to leave the country, but he returned to his farmstead, facing his death. And the foreign visitors asked: “Why did he turn back? Was it because the hill was so beautiful [a famous quote from Njála] or because he was so in love with Hallgerður?”

Vigdís laughs.

“The magic of reading such a story from medieval times is that everyone in the group becomes the author with a very personal image while listening to it. If we could convince all Icelanders of how rewarding graphic depictions in the mind are, that would be a victory.

Audiobooks are also good, as people are listening. And of course we need to read to our children and with them. But the computer is easier to deal with and in so many cases children prefer the computer rather than books. We can’t stop this progression, but as I said earlier, resistance is vital. While I was still in office and my daughter was little, I used to record myself reading so she could hear my voice when I was away. Many words in the Brothers Grimm tales and the stories of H.C. Andersen are so old they that they have almost disappeared completely. We should be using these words and explaining them to the children,” says Vigdís and is relieved that all children in high school must read at least one of the Icelandic Sagas."

Never think that the battle is lost

Does the multinational community of Iceland impact the language?

“The multinational community wants nothing more than to learn Icelandic. We have to help people that settled here to learn this complicated language of ours, but also to maintain their mother language.

When I was a child at school in catholic Landakot, a boy from nazi Germany joined the class. I was a responsible child and the nuns asked me to teach him Icelandic, the request being made with their own limited Icelandic and strong accent. I took this very seriously and walked him home every day whilst tutoring him in Icelandic. We became lifelong friends."

What about France, which is your other country.
Is the French language in any danger?

“No, they are much more pleased with themselves than we are. In the days when the car called Jeep arrived in France they took the word and immediately wrote it in French, “jipe”. I am very proud of how good we Icelanders have been in creating Icelandic words for new things."

So you refuse to be afraid for our language?

“Yes. I am grateful to be optimistic. If we are pessimistic, it turns us down. Optimism gives us energy and positive thinking.”

There is a knock on the door and an American journalist has arrived for her appointment with Vigdís. She wants to interview her about strong women. I ask Vigdís for her email address. She gives it to me and says she keeps it simple so that all her boyfriends can find her. And laughs heartily.

As I say my goodbyes I realise what the aura which emanates  from Vigdís is. It is the true uncontaminated radiance of eternal youth.




Edda Jóhannsdóttir is an Icelandic journalist and writer who has worked for the past decades both as a freelance writer and a staff reporter for Iceland’s main media. Educated at the University of Iceland and the Nordic Journalism School, Edda’s work has largely been covering social issues, culture and communities, with languages topping her list of interests. Edda is a member of JONAA’s founding group.



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