Uniquely Icelandic

Saturday, April 26, 2014 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Around the World, Day 5:  Iceland

To ensure that we're paying attention to our surroundings, we've decided to try to identify and share something truly memorable about each of the countries we visit.  Since omniscience is a quality we've yet to develop, we won't argue that these fascinating features are genuinely unique, but they're different enough from our other random experiences for us to associate them with this country.

Headstone in local cemetery
1.  Patronymic Naming Tradition

Unlike other Nordic countries, which have abandoned the practice in favor of historic lineage, Iceland still follows the Viking tradition of using patronyms based on parental names, rather than surnames.  Under this convention, a child's "last name" is derived from a parent's first name, usually the father.  For example, a man called Haraldur Magnusson and his wife Helga Jonsdottir might have a son called Petur, who would be called Petur Haraldsson, and a daughter called Johanna Haraldsdottir.  The advent of feminism has introduced a slight rise in matronymic naming in recent years.

And parents can't hang just any first name on their newborns either.  Names must be selected from a list approved by the Icelandic Naming Committee.  To be included, the name must use only letters in the Icelandic alphabet and be easily incorporated into the grammar of the language.  The list currently includes some 3,600 names, all of which are gender specific, another rule that must be respected.  None of the inventive naming (and spelling) you find in the U.S.

Within this context, it is not surprising to learn that names in the local telephone directory are alphabetized by first name, rather than last.  And with a limited number of names to choose from, it is not unusual to find numerous individuals with the same name.  In such a case, a person's profession may be appended to their directory phone listing to help one identify which Einar Jonson one is seeking.

The democratic element of this system is that everyone—everyone—in Iceland is called by their first name.  No one would refer to the prime minister, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, as Mr. Gunnlaugsson, for example.  Rather he is referred to, in the press and in formal affairs, as Sigmundur Davíð.

Coast Guard - Iceland's only military force
2.  Lack of Crime

Unsecured bicycles on the street, a total prison population of 150 nationwide, one of the lowest crime rates of any developed country.  Violent crime is virtually non-existent in Iceland.  And it's the only NATO member without a standing army.

A Boston law school student who visited Reykjavik on vacation became intrigued with this facet of Iceland and made it the focus of his thesis in international law.  Based on his research, he identified several factors which, he believes, contribute to this stellar quality.  Most significant, he concluded, is the virtual lack of class differences among the Icelandic people.  More than 97 percent identify themselves as middle class or working class.  With this widespread sense of equality, there is no conflict among the haves and have nots.  

Other factors cited were the country's very strict gun control laws, extremely low incidence of hard drug usage, and proactive policing measures. Whatever the cause, the lack of crime certainly makes Iceland an appealing place to visit.

We have certainly enjoyed our time in Iceland.  Tomorrow we'll fly to London for a couple of nights, where we hope to visit the Reform Club and catch a little London theater.  And we'll try our best to squeeze in a couple of letterboxes while we're there.

Photos from Today

Birds at Tjornin, the small lake in the city center, enjoying visits from the bird-feeding children
The Sun Voyager, a sculpture of a Viking ship along the shoreline
Little Free Library—take a book, leave a book—in a local park.