Icelandic Culture


Iceland was the last country in Europe to be settled. When the Viking settlers first arrived in Iceland in the late 9th century, the found an uninhabited island. An island located in the middle of the North Atlantic, the country was settled by emigrants from Scandinavia and the British Isles in the tenth century, and due to its location, remained an isolated nation of mostly farmers and fishermen until the early 20th century.

Isolation and the extreme nature have shaped Icelandic culture through the years. These conditions have created a resilient nation where family ties are tight, the sense of tradition is strong, and the bond with nature is powerful. 

Through the centuries, Iceland has developed a unique tradition for storytelling and literature, beginning with the esteemed Icelandic Sagas from the tenth and eleventh centuries. After being passed down orally for a couple of centuries, they were likely committed to paper in the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries.

It is perhaps an overstatement to say that Icelanders can still read the old Sagas as they were written then, but it is true that the Icelandic language has been carefully preserved over the years and is the least changed of the Nordic countries. This has to do with the island’s isolation from mainland Europe as well as the government’s long-time agenda to preserve the language and protect it from outside influences. To that end, a government committee works to create unique Icelandic terminology for new things, such as ‘sjónvarp’ (“vision projection”) for TV, rather than incorporating loanwords into the language.

Recognising the importance of preserving language—not only Icelandic but also the many other languages of the world—Iceland’s former president Vigdís Finnbogadóttir has devoted her time to creating an international Institute of Foreign Languages, which came under auspices of UNESCO in 2013.

While strongly rooted in customs and traditions, today’s society is both modern and progressive. In 1980, Iceland became the first country in the world to elect a female head of State, the aforementioned Vigdís, who served the country for 16 years before retiring. Iceland is also the first country in Europe to elect an openly lesbian prime minister, bringing in Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir in 2009 after weeks of protest that lead to the resignation of the government which prevailed over the country during the financial crisis.

 

The Icelandic language has always been a vital part of this island nation’s identity. Compared to the modern day languages spoken by its Nordic brethren, Icelandic most closely resembles the Old Norse once spoken across the Nordic countries. This is due to years of isolation in addition to the nation’s conscious struggle to preserve its language. The movement for language protection began in the 18th century when Icelandic came under threat from Danish influence and it has since been the dominant linguistic policy in the country.

Every year, on November 16, which has been deemed “the day of the Icelandic tongue”; the Minister of Education and Culture bestows the Jónas Hallgrímsson Award upon an Icelander who has contributed in some way to the growth of the Icelandic language. The date marks the birthday of Iceland’s beloved national poet Jónas Hallgrímsson who fought to protect the Icelandic language from Danish influence in the 19th century.

Rather than adopting foreign words for new concepts, an effort has been made to create new and unique Icelandic words, or repurpose old words that have lost their relevance over time. The word for computer, for instance, is tölva, which is the combination of "tala" (digit) and "völva" (seeress). And the word for iPad is spjaldtövla, which is the combination of "spjald" (tablet) and "tölva" (computer). .

Resisting the European convention of using family names, Iceland also maintains a patronymic and matronymic naming system. Everyone—the President and Prime Minister included—is addressed by their first given name, as their last name simply says that they are the son or daughter of their father or mother, with the latter growing in popularity. To protect the language, every Icelandic baby must be given a name from a database of approved names or else send their proposal to a special naming committee, which either accepts or denies the name based primarily on whether or not it complies with Icelandic rules of orthography and grammar

Meanwhile, two Icelandic words have actually found their way into the English language. They are the words geyser, which is derived from a geyser in Iceland called Geysir, and jökulhlaup, a scientific term used to describe a glacial flood following the sudden and rapid melting of ice caused by, for instance, a sub-glacial eruption.

 

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