December 01, 2005

Icelandic Studies Shifting to English?

The Iceland Review reports that Icelandic scholar Tryggvi Gíslason has proposed that courses in Icelandic mediaeval studies should be conducted in English. The reason? Over the past thirty years non-Icelandic scholars have come to dominate the field, but they are generally not able to present their findings or take permanent university positions in Iceland because they do not speak modern Icelandic sufficiently well.

This isn't an entirely unfamiliar development: there are other fields in which foreigners play a major, if not the major, role. Indeed, it is really what we should expect. So long as a field attracts the interest of outsiders, given that the number of outsiders is larger, often much larger, than the number of natives, statistically speaking we should expect to see foreigners play the larger role. Of course, disparities in access to education and interest in scholarship will affect the relative prominence of different countries, as will differences in access to important resources and motivation. No one should be surprised that Arabs are not prominent in glaciology or that few experts on camels are Scandinavian.

What is interesting here is that the subject in question is the sort that is often taken to be at the heart of the national character, one that only a native can fully appreciate. One hesitates to imagine the reaction to a proposal that French university courses on mediaeval French language, literature, and history should be conducted in English on the grounds that foreign scholars now dominate the field. I don't know if Tryggvi Gíslason is foolhardy or brave or if Icelanders are just so much more self-confident than most others that this proposal will not trigger the outrage that it would elsewhere.

Posted by Bill Poser at December 1, 2005 12:01 AM