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Fascinating Facts About the Icelandic Language

Reykjavik, Iceland

In 2018, I visited Iceland after taking an 8-week course focused on the history, biology, and culture of Iceland and its people. According to our tour guide, Hrefna, even though most Icelanders speak English, adults don’t generally speak English with each other, only Icelandic. They are very proud of their native tongue, and many are involved in efforts focused on maintaining the language, which is what Icelandic Language Day is all about! In contrast, the younger generation typically views Icelandic as “stolid, difficult, and local” and English as “cool, practical, and international.”1 In addition to the younger generation speaking Icelandic less frequently, many of the immigrants in Iceland don’t learn the language, especially short term workers. Even when immigrants, or occasionally tourists, attempt to speak Icelandic to a native speaker, the Icelander will typically recognize their struggles and automatically begin speaking English to them because it’s easier for both. While this may seem beneficial, and even convenient, at the time, there is a fear that the Icelandic language is on the path to becoming extinct. This is actually a contributing factor that could possibly lead to the decline of the language. The Icelandic language is extremely distinctive and is described as being pure, modern, and ancient, which is something very much unique to Icelandic. In celebration of Icelandic Language Day and to promote this incredible language, here are some of the most fascinating facts and characteristics of the Icelandic language and culture.  

 

It’s Pure…

A pure language is one that generally doesn’t include loanwords (foreign words or phrases borrowed from other languages). An example of a loanword is “helicopter” (English), which translates to helicóptero (Spanish) and hélicoptère (French). “Helicopter” in Icelandic, however, is translated to þyrlaIce, which has no relation or similarity to the word in English, Spanish, or French. 

 

Icelandic is a pure language because the country was unpopulated when it was originally settled by the Norse people in 874 AD during the Viking Age, so there was no chance for an existing language to have had any influence. Icelandic was developed as a result of the Norse settlers originating from a variety of Scandinavian countries, all with their own language and dialect. They had to find ways to communicate with one another, and through this process, new words that they could all understand were formed by combining aspects of each of their own languages, creating the language that is now known as Icelandic. Because of this process, another distinguishing characteristic of Icelandic is that there are essentially no varying dialects of the language. No matter where someone is from within Iceland, almost everyone will pronounce a word the same way. Check out the language tree illustration below by Minna Sundberg to learn more about different languages’ origins and influences!

 

It’s Modern…

Icelandic is modern through the presence of language committees, which create words that relate to contemporary subjects, such as computers and technology, based on old Norse roots or existing terms that are redefined.1 Since computers, phones, and other modern items weren’t invented when Icelandic was developed, rather than just borrowing the words from other languages, Icelanders have a process of reusing other Icelandic words and combining them or slightly altering them in order to form new words. This is one of the reasons why so many words in Icelandic are extremely long. Also, many of those long “words” actually translate to an entire phrase… the more specific it is, the longer it is – like this: Vaðlaheiðarvegavinnuverkfærageymsluskúraútidyralyklakippuhringur. Yes that’s one word! Try pronouncing that! I’ll wait… 

 

The meaning of this “word” is actually the phrase, “key ring of the key chain of the outer door to the storage tool shed of the road workers on the Vaðlaheiði plateau.”2 Practical… I know!

 

Lastly, It’s Ancient….

Icelandic is modern, but it’s also an ancient language. Most people who speak Icelandic today have the ability to read the historic works and sagas that were written close to the settlement period, such as the Íslendingabók (The Book of the Icelanders), Njáls saga, and Gísla saga. Phrases and terms that were originally written in those works are still used today. This is because the language has preserved the original grammar constructs for centuries. 

 

One thing that helped this preservation is how dispersed the population of Iceland is, so everyone continued speaking in the one dialect and grammatical structure, which continued to be passed down generation to generation. 

 

Another interesting fact about the Icelandic language and culture that originated during the settlement period that has been carried throughout time relates to Icelandic names. The original settlers of Iceland actually created new names by “putting together or taking apart other pre-existing names or simply starting to use words that already existed.”One example of this is the very common Iceladic name, Jökull, which means “glacier.” Last names are even more unique to Icelanders. If you’ve ever seen an Icelandic person’s name, you may have noticed that it ended in either –dóttir or -son. Children technically do receive their last name from their father in Iceland, but in a different way. When two people marry, their last names remain what they were previously, but when a child is born, their last name becomes their father’s first name + son (if they are a boy) or dóttir (if they are a girl). For example, Jón (father) and Guðrún (mother) have two children, a boy and a girl. The boy’s last name would be Jónsson (the son of Jón) and the girl’s last name would be Jónsdóttir (the daughter of Jón). 

 

There’s no doubt that Icelandic is a difficult language to learn, especially if you don’t hear it being spoken often. There is a fear that it’s on the path to becoming extinct. However, Iceland has experienced the threat of language extinction in the past when the smallpox epidemic and famine hit the country extremely hard in the eighteenth century, but they were able to “hold on to their language, culture, and literacy” (Byock, 152). If Icelanders overcame those extremely difficult times while remaining true to their heritage, they will surely be able to do the same today, especially with so many native speakers working towards maintaining and promoting the language. Icelandic is such a unique and fascinating language with an extremely interesting history and corresponding culture. To learn more about the Icelandic language and culture, check out the links below! 

 

Language Tree

Sources:

1. The Strange Reinvention of Icelandic 

2. 11 Delightful Icelandic Words and Phrases 

3. All About Icelandic Names – Do Icelanders Have Last Names? 

4. Byock, Jesse L. Viking Age Iceland. Penguin Books, 2001

Rebecca Smith

Rebecca Smith

Marketing Manager
Apto Global

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