Icelandic is not one of the world’s most spoken languages, nor is it in high demand at language schools. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the language’s history and evolution are any less fascinating than more well-known languages such as English, Spanish, or French. If you are a lover of Viking culture, a lover of languages or are simply curious, then read on to learn more about the Icelandic language.
We want to give a little bit of context, and not jump right into the technical aspects of the language. Let’s start with the origins and background of Icelandic. As you know, Iceland is a remote Island located in the North Atlantic close to the Arctic Circle. The island does not have any indigenous people and in fact was uninhabited for a very long time. This is not surprising given its latitude and harsh climate. Today the island still has some inhospitable areas, even by Icelandic standards.
This brings us to the question of how the island began to be populated. Who were the first explorers to embark upon this adventure? To the surprise of many, these first people were Irish monks. But their peaceful ways ended as soon as the enormous men from the north set foot on Iceland. These Northern men came from Norway or from their neighboring colonies in the Faroe Islands or the Scottish Hebrides.
Let’s dive a little further into the world of linguistics. We now know why Icelandic is related to Germanic and Scandinavian languages despite not being directly next to these countries. The northern Germanic part of the family was a branch of the language derived directly from the Germanic tongue spoken around 500 BC. That language began to expand little by little and with it, changes in the way in people used the spoken language. This gave rise to different dialects like Proto-Nordic which would gradually become old Norse. This is the language that the Vikings spoke.
Most of what we think of regarding the Vikings has come to us through overblown stereotypes, hearsay, movies, and television. The typical image that we all have of the Vikings is that of strong and rude men. Their lives were tied to constantly searching for something more beyond that of their home coasts. Historically this is true. This society of navigators planted their colonies in different parts of Europe. In these places, they prospered and multiplied while leaving their language as a legacy. Each area shaping its landscape and culture is what gave rise to today’s Scandinavian languages. Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Faroese and of course, Icelandic share these linguistic and historical roots.
Icelandic is the native language of approximately 320,000 people. Although it is only the official language in Iceland, speakers of this language live in other places as well. For example, there is a large settlement of Icelanders in areas of Canada’s Manitoba province. Modern Icelandic has had certain changes over time. They went from using the Futhark Rúnico alphabet that the Vikings used to using Latin. Even so, to this day they still maintain certain spellings like the letter Edh (Ð), the letter Thor (Þ) and the letter Ash (Æ).
Despite this change, Icelandic is the language that has changed least with respect to the language originally spoken by the Vikings. That is why today, even children can understand the sagas and Eddas, written about 800 years ago. Awesome, right? This is because unlike the rest of the European languages, the Icelandic language still maintains that inflectional character in its grammar.
If you more of a math and science person, it may all sound like Greek to you. But if you know about languages (and especially Latin), you will probably remember those long afternoons learning the declensions and conjugations. Icelandic still constructs sentences this way, declining nouns and adjectives. Another big reason Icelandic has kept its own vocabulary intact is that it has avoided borrowing words from other languages. This makes the language purer than other languages like English, which borrows heavily from Greek, Latin and French.
Many think Iceland’s location protects it from the outside world, which is partly true. But it is also due to a large extent to the very desire of the Icelanders to preserve their linguistic heritage. Although at present almost 90% of Icelanders also speak English quite well, they are conscious of not using it constantly. They try to avoid using English words as much as possible to name objects that do not have an Icelandic name. For this, they tend to resort to inventiveness or to use compound words to name things.
The Icelandic Language: Proud Linguistic Heir of the Vikings
At first, it may seem that Icelandic is complicated, but you’ll surely get it with a little time and effort. Instead of seeing the differences, look at the similarities! If you know other Germanic languages, many of the roots are similar. If you’ve studied Latin and Greek, you will already know the concept of declining. So, time to study!
And if any of you were just here out of curiosity, we hope you leave with some more useful information. So as they say in Iceland: Takk fyrir, Bless bless! (thank you very much and see you later).