Trinity One Fireside Chat: Eliza Reid


Iceland’s First Lady Trinity alumna Eliza Reid dropped by the College for a fireside chat with Trinity One students and program director Raymond Pryke Chair Prof. Michael Kessler. Along with answering questions about her role and life as First Lady, she talked about the differences and similarities between Iceland and Canada, as well as her country's cultural environment, employment and immigration policies, and future opportunities. She reflected on how her International Relations degree helped prepare her for her journey: as a business owner and founder of the acclaimed annual Iceland Writers Retreat; and now in her diplomatic role as the First Lady of Iceland. Eliza was in Toronto for the weekend for the Taste of Iceland Festival.


Here is some of our discussion:


Michael Kessler: As immigration and tourism to Iceland increase, what are the challenges facing the country in terms of preserving distinctive Icelandic language? 


Eliza Reid: I think the fact that Iceland is an island nation in the North Atlantic kept its language relatively isolated for centuries.  There was no indigenous population in Iceland. It was settled in the 9th century by Vikings and slaves they’d brought over from the British islands. That was the initial population on the island. That population remained relatively the same for centuries.  Even today, there’s not a tremendous amount of immigration to the country (by comparison to Canada), although that’s increasing.  Because of that, the language (Icelandic) that’s spoken there is, as they say, the language of the Vikings – it’s very similar to Old Norse.  Icelanders have an easier time reading Old English than English speakers do.  With the fact the world is a small place now and the electronic revolution, there’s a lot more influence from the outside. 


I think Icelanders are very proud of their culture, heritage and language, but they are also an outward-looking people.  It’s very common for people to study and move abroad; Icelanders are very open, by-and-large, to new ideas and new things – it’s not an isolationist country by any means.  Perhaps more than other countries, its language is a defining characteristic of the country.  I don’t believe there are regulations like the CRTC in terms of Canadian content but there are state-run media where, for instance, if you’re interviewing someone who doesn’t speak Icelandic, you have to put in subtitles. 


I suppose people are cognizant of the intrusion of English or other languages into the Icelandic language.  Famously, there’s a naming committee that approves names, which is actually being disbanded a little bit as far as names are concerned.  They would also come up with Icelandic words for new technology, whereas other languages would maybe just use the word “computer”.  In that way, they’ve helped to maintain the language.  But one of the big issues going forward with technology will be voice-activated devices; when there’s fewer than half a million people in the world who speak the language, companies aren’t going to develop voice-recognition technologies for Icelandic.  That’s something that people have to adapt to.  Iceland is a very highly-educated population, it’s very tech-savvy. I think there will be some entrepreneurial person who will just come up with a way to create that technology.  I guess it depends on who you speak to – I think a lot of people are concerned about preserving the language but people are also very proud of their language. I don’t think it’s under as much of a threat.