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Iceland Has a Request for Disney+: More Icelandic, Please

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REYKJAVÍK, Iceland – Iceland, like much of the world, has adopted Disney’s popular Disney + streaming service since arriving late last year. Characters from Mickey Mouse to Mulan can now be viewed on demand in homes across the country.

But there is a problem, the government says: none of the films or shows are dubbed or subtitled in Icelandic.

The country’s education minister this week sent a letter of complaint to Bob Chapek, executive director of the Walt Disney Company, urging the company to work together in the country’s efforts to preserve its language.

“We are working hard to keep this up, especially with children and young people who are exposed to other languages, mainly English, on a daily basis,” wrote Minister Lilja Alfredsdottir in the letter, which was also published on social media. She noted that it is especially important for children to have as much contact with the language as possible.

Since then, the campaign has gained momentum and many Icelanders have added their voices to calls for their mother tongue to be presented. The move is part of a wider drive to preserve the Icelandic language, which for many is a source of identity and pride that some fears are being undermined by the widespread use of English.

“I’ve never seen such strong reactions,” Ms. Alfredsdottir said in an interview after posting her letter on Facebook. “People are clearly excited about our language.”

The Disney + service offers subtitles and audio dubs in up to 16 languages, according to its website, although availability varies by title. The company also plans to add more languages ​​as the service becomes available in more countries.

Adoption of the service has increased significantly during the pandemic as people around the world spend more time at home. By December, the company had reported around 87 million subscribers worldwide after just one year of operation.

And Icelanders have long loved Disney characters, many of which are named in Icelandic: Donald Duck is Andrés Önd and Winnie the Pooh is Bangsímon.

Many of Disney’s classic films were also dubbed in Icelandic when they were first released. But those versions are missing from Disney +, and people in the country want to know why.

“I wonder why they don’t offer at least the old versions,” said Thorarinn Eldjarn, an author who has translated dozens of children’s books into Icelandic in his long career, in an interview. “They either think Iceland is too small and unimportant to deal with, or they assume that everyone understands English.”

Icelandic is a version of Nordic that has remained largely unchanged since it was first settled in the island nation about 1,100 years ago. However, many people worry about the future of the language, which in an increasingly globalized world is only spoken by a few hundred thousand people.

Some protective measures have been introduced: According to local broadcasting rules, foreign broadcasts must always be provided with subtitles. However, this has not been extended to streaming services, and exceptions also apply to international sporting events.

English is being adopted among the nation’s children at a rate few people could imagine a decade ago.

Schools have had to rethink their curriculum because many students are no longer fluent in reading volumes from the Sagas of Icelanders, the medieval literature that records Iceland’s early settlers and is believed to be the bedrock of the language.

And many Icelanders have pointed out that without the preservation of the ancient Icelandic scripts and the ability of people to read them, some of the most famous stories in Norse mythology would have been lost. (That wouldn’t lay a foundation for the lucrative Marvel Thor series, streamed on Disney + and based on the Norse god of thunder.)

Now, some of the country’s youngest children speak English without an Icelandic accent, and when they communicate in Icelandic their syntax is influenced by that of English.

There is also evidence that young Icelanders’ vocabulary is shrinking and mixing with English, particularly in terms of technical terms. For example, some people know the English word civilization, but not necessarily the Icelandic equivalent (it’s “siðmenning”).

Even so, researchers who have documented the effects of globalization in Icelandic insist that the language’s status is still strong.

Ms. Alfredsdottir said she planned to contact overseas media companies but declined to say whether fines could be imposed on streaming services if subtitles were not added.

“I think we can address mutual interests,” she said. “If Disney accepts Icelandic, people will surely reward them with a subscription to it.”

Disney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The lack of Icelandic wasn’t a deal breaker for other streaming services. According to a 2020 Gallup poll – one of the highest rates in the world – around 70 percent of Icelandic households in the country subscribe to Netflix. Most of the programs do not have Icelandic subtitles.

However, Eirikur Rognvaldsson, a professor of Icelandic, said the influence of English on children, especially at Disney +, could be problematic.

“Disney films have catchy songs and phrases that kids love to repeat,” said Rognvaldsson.

Much depends on the length of exposure, he said, citing a large three-year study of 5,000 people, ages 3 to 98, that he is involved in.

He also said that interactive use of English is more likely to have an impact, for example when video game users chat with gamers around the world.

“Too many children are not exposed to their mother tongue enough,” he said. “And that causes a number of learning difficulties.”

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Robert Dunfee