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There are an estimated 350,000 Icelandic speakers in the world, largely comprised by the 323,000-odd people that live in the country of Iceland. Around as many people live in Iceland as live in Belfast, the capital city of Northern Ireland.
Doing the maths, just 0.005% of the seven billion people on this globe speak Icelandic. As far as world languages go, it’s safe to say that Iceland’s native language is a small player.
However, the history of Icelandic is one that would definitely ignite the interest of linguists anywhere.
Many archaic languages have died out due to outside influence, the corruption of other languages, inability to keep up with modern topics, or lack of cultural interest within a nation.
Although the number of Icelandic speakers is declining, the fact that it has remained, more or less untouched since medieval times and continues to be spoken at all, means there is probably little cause for concern in this century at least… and much for celebration.
Icelandic is an endlessly intriguing language for several little known reasons. Read on to discover why!
Icelandic: A Very Short Introduction
Icelandic is considered to be an Indo-European language, which belongs to a subgroup of North Germanic languages. This group once numbered five languages, including Norwegian, Faroese (the native language of those living on the Faroe Islands, which is also spoken in parts of Denmark) and the extinct languages of Norn (once spoken in the Northern Islands of Orkney and Shetland, to the north of Scotland) and Greenlandic Norse. It is most closely related to Norwegian and Faroese, particularly the latter, the written version of which closely resembles Icelandic.
Icelandic is not dissimilar from Old Norse, a medieval language. In fact, Icelandic is thought to be a dialect of Old Norse. It is considered an insular language in that it has not been influenced greatly by other languages and so has not changed all that much since the 9th and 10th centuries.
The Icelandic language is considered a part of the country’s national identity, which the people of Iceland both take great pride in and make great efforts to preserve.
Curious Fact 1: Icelandic Was Only Named as the Official Language of Iceland in 2011
Despite Iceland’s geographical (as well as historical – it was one of the last European countries to be settled) isolation, many languages have been spoken there since this country was first discovered. Although the recorded history of Iceland began with the arrival of Viking explorers, largely from Norway in the late 9th century, there is archaeological evidence that indicates Gaelic monks had settled in Iceland well before then.
Icelandic prevailed over the centuries, despite initially absorbing many features of the Gaelic language. German, English, Dutch, French and Basque were introduced, due to the advent of northern trade routes, with some merchants and clergymen settling in Iceland. Icelandic was also threatened during the Danish reign. It was around the 18th century that a push for language purity began, which is ongoing today.
Although Icelandic has been the national language of Iceland throughout the country’s history, it only became the “official language” by virtue of Act No 61/2011, which was adopted by the country’s parliament in 2011.
Icelandic Sign Language was also recognised that same year and became the first and official language of the country’s deaf community.
Curious Fact 2: Listening to Icelandic is a Form of Time Travel
When you look to the stars on a clear night, you are seeing the light that left its original source, in some instances millions of years ago. In a way, you’re not only gazing at the night’s sky… you’re looking back through history.
Listening to someone speak Icelandic is not a dissimilar experience. The language has changed little over time, staying true to the form of Icelandic that existed during the Middle Ages.
As it is such a small and sparsely populated country, the same dialect has been spoken for hundreds of years. On top of that, great efforts have been made to keep the language pure over the centuries, to the point that 12th century texts (such as the Sagas) can be read and understood by modern speakers.
Icelandic remains the closest living relative of Faroese, which along with Old Norwegian, form what is known as the Western Scandinavian languages. Modern Norwegian, once not dissimilar to Icelandic and Old Norse, has been largely influenced over time by Swedish and Danish, due to its geographical location near Eastern Scandinavian.
The term Íslenska was first coined in the 16th century, to describe the country’s mother tongue. This was around the time a serious effort was made to preserve the language from being influenced by foreign words, especially Danish.
The push for language purity was largely instigated by Eggert Ólafsson (1726-1768) who was an Icelandic explorer and writer. Ólafsson was well read in Old Icelandic literature and passionate about his language, country and culture. Along with many poems and texts, he wrote the first orthographical (dictating the spelling system of a language) dictionary for Icelandic. Ólafsson’s writing had considerable influence over the country at the time.
The linguistic purity movement was ignited and continued to gain momentum over the course of the next few centuries. In particular, it was greatly aided by the rise of Romanticism, which help sparked an interest in Norse mythology. Key factors were the founding of the Íslenska lærdómslistafélag (Icelandic Art-Learning Society) eleven years after Ólafsson’s death, the compilation of Icelandic grammar, written by Danish linguist Rasmus Rask (who also formed the Hið íslenska bókmenntafélagið (Icelandic Literary Society)) and the publishing of the Fjölnir journal by four young Icelandic intellectuals living in Copenhagen in the 19th century.
Government regulation of the Icelandic language began in 1918, when Iceland ceased to be under Danish rule. Modern day language matters are now overseen by the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies.
Curious Fact 3: Iceland Linguists Had to Invent a Word for “Computer”
Linguistic purists hope to maintain the structure of Icelandic while developing the vocabulary. Their aim is to keep the language both true to its ancient roots, and useful for modern conversation. As you can imagine, topics of conversation have changed significantly since medieval times and many new words and phrases have since been coined.
Icelanders have been faced with two options – to adopt foreign words as languages such as English and French have done, or develop their own. They have chosen to get creative and coin new expressions, or alternatively revive old words that can be modernised. For example, the word “computer” absolutely did not exist in medieval times, so a new term had to be created – tölva. This new word is a hybrid of tala (number) and völva (a witch or female fortune teller). So the literal definition of a computer in Icelandic is a witch of numbers!
This can be a lengthy process and loan words (words borrowed from another language – think of “weekend”, which has the same meaning in both English and French) can be used, although the spelling is often manipulated to make the word appear Icelandic. One example of this is plís for “please” (which doesn’t really exist in Icelandic and frík, which translates to “freak”.
The fact that Icelandic has prevailed for as long as it has, standing the test of both time and foreign influence, proves testament to just how important the language is to the overall identity of this small nation.
Curious Fact 4: In Iceland’s Schools, Language Learning Takes Priority
Despite the movement to keep the Icelandic language pure, Icelanders recognise the merit in learning multiple foreign languages. This is a country that takes after my own heart!
Both English and Danish (or another Scandinavian language) are compulsory learning during an Icelandic student’s education. Danish is taught due to its ties with Iceland throughout history. English is the second choice, as it is seen as being the main international language.
During their education, students are given the option of learning a third language, traditionally German or French, with Spanish also becoming a choice in recent years.
Curious Fact 5: Icelanders Rarely Have Surnames
An individual’s name in Iceland does not reflect their historical family lineage. Rather, it indicates who is the immediate father or mother.
The father’s first name is used as the base for the child’s last name. If Kjartan Thorirsson and Sigurbjörn Thorvalddóttir were to have two children, Hrefna and Finnur, their names would respectively be Hrefna Kjartandóttir and Finnur Kjartansson. This would translate to “daughter of Kjartan” and “son of Kjartan”. The patronymic naming system is the most common form used in Iceland, as per tradition. However due to gender equality, these days there is nothing stopping Icelandic parents from naming their children after the mother.
Unlike the Western tradition of merging names when married, Icelanders keep their original names. They couldn’t take their spouse’s last name, as it would indicate that they had become someone else’s direct son or daughter, which of course wouldn’t make any sense!
After having given birth, Icelanders often don’t name their children straight away. Rather, they wait for a certain period of time, to see how their child’s personality develops. In the meantime, they call the child Stúlka if it’s a girl or Drengur for boy.
When the time comes to choose a name, the parents are required by law to stick to a list of approved first and middle names. There are over 1800 options for girls and 1700 for boys. If they want to name their child something that has not been previously used in Iceland, they send a request to the Icelandic Naming Committee.
Names are then accepted or rejected based on whether they can be easily incorporated into the Icelandic language. In 2014, a British/Icelandic family appealed against a decision made by the National Registry to not renew their daughter’s passport, as her name was Harriet. Previous to the ruling, Harriet and her brother Duncan were travelling under passports that named them as “Stúlka” and “Drengur”.
Many may find rulings like these to be silly and unreasonable. However, it is thanks to similarly strict guidelines that Icelandic has managed to continue on being widely spoken in its country of origin and resisted both corruption and extinction, unlike many of its North Germanic counterparts.