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A law book penned on calf-skin in 1363 on display at the National Museum of Iceland. Photo Egill Bjarnason

Introduction to the Icelandic Language

Ever struggled to find a word describing “heavy snowfall with large flakes occurring in calm wind”? It’s hundslappadrífa.

The Icelandic language is a dialect of Old Norse: the pan-Scandinavian language at the time of Iceland’s settlement 1150 years ago. But this common Norse tongue evolved into Norwegian, Swedish and Danish over the centuries as local Kings tightened their grip – or lost an invasion. The Icelanders, meanwhile, kept the language alive by penning stories known as the Sagas of Icelanders.

History of Icelandic

Like many languages, the Icelandic was passed down orally before being preserved at the impressively early date of around 1100. At least, this is the oldest preserved text in Icelandic that has been found. From the 12th century, the world-renowned Icelandic Sagas and Eddas were written in Old Icelandic.

Because of Iceland’s isolated location in the North Atlantic, the language was easily preserved with only slight evolutions over the centuries.

There are not many nations who have the privilege of reading and understanding such ancient text without specialized knowledge of the language. Modern English speakers, for instance, would struggle to read the first lines from the 12th-century poem “Layamon’s Brut” written in middle English: “An preost wes on leoden; Layamon wes ihoten. / he wes Leouenaðes sone; liðe him beo Drihten.” By contrast, most Icelanders can with modest guesswork read the Sagas, penned roughly around the same time.

Icelandic Language Preservation

Understandably, with such a unique history, there are many efforts in place for preserving the Icelandic language. While to some it may seem old-fashioned to keep a language from evolving, there are many real threats from digital technology and social media that encourage the use of loanwords from English which bypass its complex inflectional grammar. Visitors will definitely notice that there is a generational difference in the way things are said.

In order to keep this in check, there are official committees at the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies tasking with coming up with new words in Icelandic for new technologies for which there was not an existing name in Icelandic. Most of these committees focus on a certain area of discipline, like medicine or tourism, but the tradition in some parts explains why words that have been lent are less common in Icelandic than in other languages. Telephone, for example, is teléfono in Spanish, téléphone in French, and Telefon in German, but it is sími in Icelandic, a very old word meaning something like “long thread.“

There is also an Icelandic Naming Committee that decides what names new Icelanders are allowed and which are not. This is decided on the grounds of the name being possible to integrate into the grammar inflection. There are also no names with a C allowed as C is not in the Icelandic alphabet. While this may sound Orwellian, there are good intentions.

Icelandic Grammar

The city of Reykjavík nurtures the city's literary heritage which has culminated in the city being designated a UNESCO City of Literature. Famous as being a nation of bookworms,  Iceland has one of the highest rates of books per capita with 3.5 books for every 1,000 inhabitants and the most authors in the world per capita. There are over 30 publishers in Reykjavik alone, active at both the annual Reykjavik International Literary Festival and the Reykjavik Book Fair. The Iceland Writers Retreat claims that part of the reason for Iceland being home to so many writers is due to the influence of the Sagas, masterpieces of medieval European prose which are hundreds of years old and are part of the canon of lore that every Icelander grows up with. There is also the phenomenon of the Christmas book flood - jólabókaflóð - when publishers release hundreds of new titles on the market, and Icelandic authors are in the spotlight. Books are also a very popular Christmas gift, ensuring long winters in which to dive in to the latest voices  Icelandic literature has to offer.

Resources for Learning Icelandic

While the best advice for language learning is always immersion, even that is becoming more and more difficult in the recent past as English is spoken so well and so widely throughout the country. There are many great podcasts that are a good place to start your language learning journey. If you want to start from the very beginning, check out Saga Thing, hosted by two professors of medieval literature who read and review the sagas with a critical eye, one at a time. There is also this podcast on Icelandic literature hosted by the Icelandic Literature Center. If you find yourself in Reykjavik and want somewhere to practice, one option is the Reykjavik City Library, Borgarbokasafn, which offers free Icelandic practice meet-ups for anyone who wants to practice their Icelandic skills through word games, hosted by the librarians.

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