The Icelandic Language

Like most linguists when I travel to a new country I’m inevitably curious about its language, especially if it’s written using the Latin alphabet and is therefore easy to read. Of course, being easy to read doesn’t mean being easy to understand; besides the Icelandic alphabet has retained two letters that no longer exist in English: Þ,þ (þorn, anglicised as “thorn”) and Ð,ð (eð, anglicised as “eth” or “edh”), representing the voiceless and voiced “th” sounds (as in English ‘thin’ and ‘this’ respectively). As I have very little knowledge of Germanic or Nordic languages I was most times completely stuck with meaning or pronunciation; fortunately most modern Icelanders speak and write English to an extremely good level, despite the fact that Danish, not English, is the first foreign language they learn in school.

Here’s a little about the language’s history:

12th century wooden spade with runes cut into the blade

Pre-Christianity in Iceland (i.e. before 1000 AD) the only written ‘language’ that was used was runes. Probably based on the Latin alphabet, runes are letters made up of straight lines that can easily be cut into wood, rock or bone. No rune stones from heathen times survive in Iceland, but later runic inscriptions show that the art was known. The oldest rune-sticks that have survived date from the 10th or 11th century. Gravestones with runic lettering also survive, dating from 14th-17th century. While runes were originally used simply as a form of writing, they later acquired magical overtones. Runes were also cut into everyday objects and survived as part of the Icelandic woodcarving craft until the late 19th century.

Runic alphabet

In Iceland literary culture flourished in the vernacular, Icelandic. Varied historical and fictional works were written in both prose and verse. Christianity brought about writing, using the Latin alphabet, on vellum. In Europe Latin was the main written language, but Icelanders were unusual amongst European countries in that they mostly wrote in their own language. The first Icelandic writings were for practical purposes, written for the Church and powerful chieftains: laws, genealogy, and translations of holy writings. Between 1122 and 1133 Ari Þorgilsson “The Wise” wrote the first Icelandic historical account: Íslendingabók (“The Book of the Icelanders”). In the mid 12th century an unknown author wrote the First Grammatical Treatise that laid the foundation for the writing and alphabet of the Icelandic language. By this time Icelanders were already writing quite extensively in their native language; however it is not known for certain when Icelandic first began to be written down. Sources mention Hafliðaskrá (Hafliði’s Scroll) , a collection of laws, written between 1117-1118. Hafliðaskrá has been lost, but the law code of the Old Commonwealth known as Grágás (“Grey Goose”) and written about 1250, has survived to the present day. By about 1200 Icelanders were renowned in the Nordic world for their knowledge of the old tales. The Sagas began to appear at this time, most of them taking place between 930 and 1030. The modern Icelandic alphabet has developed from a standard established in the 19th century primarily by the Danish linguist Rasmus Rask. It is ultimately based heavily on an orthography laid out by  The First Grammatical Treatise.

Vellum sheet of text from the Grágás (‘Grey Goose’) Law code.

Icelanders preserved their language from extensive foreign influence by introducing printing at an early stage – Bishop Jón Arason set up Iceland’s first printing press around 1530. Initially only religious works were printed, and from the beginning almost all were in Icelandic, which became the language of the Church in Iceland. The New Testament was published in Icelandic in Denmark in 1540. Later in the 16th century Bishop Guðbrandur Þorláksson had Arason’s press renovated and published many books, including 500 copies of a complete translation of the Bible in 1584. Several of these copies survive to this day.

One of the surviving copies of Guðbrandur’s Bible

In the 16th century scholarly Icelanders began to see their language as classical, like Greek or Latin. They wanted to keep it linguistically pure and free from foreign influences. During the 18th century, a movement was started by writers and other educated people to rid the language as much as possible of foreign words, to create a new vocabulary and to adapt the Icelandic language to the evolution of new concepts, thus not having to resort to borrowed neologisms as in many other languages. Many old words that had fallen into disuse were recycled and given new senses in the modern language, and neologisms were created from Old Norse roots. In modern Icelandic for example, tölva (“computer”) is a portmanteau of tala (“digit; number”) and völva (“seeress”). The language spoken by Icelanders has naturally evolved like any other language. But the grammatical structure underwent little change and the written language remained almost unchanged. Consequently present-day speakers of Icelandic can read the medieval Sagas without difficulty, and today Icelandic is the nearest language in existence to Old Norse, the language of the Vikings.

Traditionally Icelanders moved home frequently and moved from region to region more than the people of most countries. Frequent changes of home meant that local characteristics became mixed and the Icelandic language became quite uniform. This is one of the reasons why no dialects ever developed in Icelandic.

First words of a modern Icelandic Bible

Iceland publishes the greatest number of books, the most writers and literary translations per capita of any country in the world, and the literacy rate is 100%. In recent years Iceland has become quite famous for its crime novels – interesting for a country with one of the lowest homicide rates in the world (5-10 murders per year)!

Acknowledgement:

The excellent National Museum of Iceland provided a wealth of material about the Icelandic language, its history, and the history of printing. Any mistakes are of course my own.

Suggested links:

Suggested reading:

  • The Sagas are medieval family sagas. Written in the 12th and 13th centuries they describe events that took place in Iceland in the 10th and 11th centuries.
  • Halldór Laxness won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955 and is considered Iceland’s literary genius.
  • Arnaldur Indriðason writes crime fiction that is based in Reykjavik and is one of Iceland’s most popular writers. His work has been published in 26 countries and translated into 20 languages.

Related posts on my travel blog:

Scuba diving in Iceland – me with a hand on two tectonic plates: Eurasia to the right, and North America to the left.

14 responses

  1. Icelandic has to be one of the single most fascinating languages. When I read Daniel Tammett’s “Born on a Blue Day”, he recalled learning Icelandic and seeing how they formed words. Icelandic is probably the only Scandinavian language that I can easily distinguish from the others, thanks to thorn and eth (why couldn’t English have kept those letters?), although I might have trouble distinguishing between Icelandic and Faroese if I saw them written together.

    I see that you’re from Réunion. I’ve always known about island thanks to my geography passion, but I think that I last heard it mentioned in François Truffaut’s “Mississippi Mermaid” (La sirène du Mississipi). I always like seeing and hearing about places that don’t get much attention.

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