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

REYKJAVIK, Iceland — Iceland, like much of the world, has embraced Disney’s popular streaming service, Disney+, since it arrived there late last year, with characters from Mickey Mouse to Mulan now available to watch on demand in homes across the country.

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

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

“We work hard to maintain it, especially among children and young people who are heavily exposed to other languages daily, mainly English,” the minister, Lilja Alfredsdottir, wrote in the letter, which was also posted on social media. She noted that, particularly for children, it is vital to have as much exposure to the language as possible.

Since then, the campaign has picked up steam, with many Icelanders adding their voices to calls for their native tongue to be featured. The move is part of a broader push to preserve the Icelandic language, a source of identity and pride for many, that some fear is being undermined by the widespread use of English.

“I have never experienced reactions this strong,” Ms. Alfredsdottir said in an interview after publishing her letter on Facebook. “People are clearly passionate about our language.”

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

The service’s uptake has risen steeply during the pandemic as people across the globe spend more time at home. By December, the company had reported about 87 million subscribers worldwide, after only a year in operation.

And Icelanders have long adored Disney characters, many of whom are given names in Icelandic: Donald Duck is Andrés Önd, and Winnie the Pooh is Bangsímon.

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

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

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

Some protections have been put in place: Local broadcasting rules require foreign shows to be subtitled at all times. But that has not been extended to streaming services, and exceptions are also made for international sports events.

Among the nation’s children, English is being embraced at a rate that few people could imagine even a decade ago.

Schools have had to rethink their curriculum because many students can no longer fluently read volumes from the Sagas of Icelanders, the medieval literature that chronicles Iceland’s early settlers and is considered the bedrock of the language.

And many Icelanders have made the point that without the preservation of ancient Icelandic scripts and people’s ability to read them, some of the best-known tales of Norse mythology would have been lost. (That would mean no foundation for the lucrative Marvel Thor series, which is 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 communicating in Icelandic their syntax is influenced by that of English.

Evidence also suggests that young Icelanders’ vocabulary is shrinking and blending with English, particularly regarding technical terms. Some people, for instance, will know the English word civilization but not necessarily the Icelandic equivalent (it’s “siðmenning”.)

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

Ms. Alfredsdottir said she planned to follow up with foreign media companies, but declined to say whether streaming services could face fines for not adding subtitles.

“I believe we can appeal to mutual interests,” she said. “If Disney embraces Icelandic, I am sure people will reward them for it with a subscription.”

Disney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The absence of Icelandic has not been a deal breaker for other streaming services. Roughly 70 percent of Icelandic households in the country subscribe to Netflix, according to a 2020 Gallup poll — among the highest rate in the world — and its shows mostly do not have Icelandic subtitles.

But Eirikur Rognvaldsson, a professor of Icelandic, said the influence of English on children, particularly with Disney+, could be problematic.

“Disney films have catchy songs and phrases that children tend to repeat,” Mr. Rognvaldsson said.

Much depends on the duration of exposure, he said, citing a large three-year study of 5,000 people from age 3 to 98, that he is involved with.

He also said that interactive use of English tended to have more of an influence, such as when video game users chat with players around the world. “Too many children are not exposed enough to their mother tongue,” he said. “And that is causing a range of learning difficulties.”

Yet some in the country are working to counter the digital trend.

“We are already experimenting with automatic subtitle captioning,” said Johanna Gudmundsdottir, who leads the research center Almannaromur, with a team of 60 experts working to save the language from “a digital death.”

The government has allocated $23 million for the project, which is being open-sourced so that tech companies can add Icelandic as a language option without much groundwork.

Ms. Gudmundsdottir said the technology still needed to advance to a level of translating English audio in real time. She added, “We will get there.”

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