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, most Icelanders speak English, but adults generally only speak Icelandic with each other. Icelanders are very proud of their native tongue, and many are actively involved in efforts focused on maintaining the language. This 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 share about this incredible language, here are some of the most fascinating facts and characteristics of the Icelandic language and culture.
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 is translated to þyrlaIce, which has no relation 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. This means there was no chance for an existing language to have had any influence. The Norse settlers originated from a variety of Scandinavian countries, all with their own languages/dialects, and they had to find ways to communicate with one another. This was achieved by forming new words that they all understood by combining aspects of each of their own languages. Through this process, the language that is now known as Icelandic was developed. Another distinguishing characteristic of Icelandic that is a result of its origin is there are essentially no varying dialects. No matter where someone is from within Iceland, almost everyone will pronounce a word the same way.
Check out the language tree illustration by Minna Sundberg below to learn more about different languages’ origins and influences!
Icelandic is modern through the presence of language committees, which create words that relate to contemporary subjects, such as computers, based on old Norse roots or existing terms that are redefined.1 When Icelandic was developed, Computers, phones, and other modern items weren’t invented. Rather than borrowing these words from other languages, Icelanders have a process of reusing other Icelandic words and combining them or slightly altering them 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: Vaðlaheiðarvegavinnuverkfærageymsl-uskúraútidyralyklakippuhringur. 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 Icelandic speakers today have the ability to read historic works and sagas that were written during the settlement period. Some of the most famous works include 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.
Something that helped this preservation is how dispersed the population of Iceland is. Because of their geographic separation, Icelanders continued speaking in the one dialect and grammatical structure, which continued from generation to generation.
Another interesting fact about the Icelandic language and culture that originated during the settlement period 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 us[ing] words that already existed.”3 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. When a child is born, their last name becomes their father’s first name + son (for boys) or dóttir (for girls). 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. The most notable example is when the smallpox epidemic and famine hit the country extremely hard in the eighteenth century. But even then, they were able to “hold on to their language, culture, and literacy” (Byock, 152). Icelanders overcame those 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!
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