Icelandic Language

May 31, 2011 |

Icelandic is an Indo-European language belonging to the sub-group of the Germanic languages. It is classified as a Nordic language and is linguistically similar to Faroese and Norwegian. The majority of Icelandic speakers live in Iceland, and due to emigration, there Icelandic communities in Denmark, the United States and Canada. This article will center on the nature of Icelandic language in Iceland.

Iceland was settled during 870-930 AD. Most of the settlers came from Norway, Sweden and the British Isles and Ireland. The predominant language in Iceland during this period was that of the people of Western Norway. From the 14th century on, however, Icelandic language began to develop independently and became increasingly distinct from Norwegian. Today, Icelandic is the only official language of Iceland. Its impressive preservation is owed to several factors, namely the language’s insularity and its resistance to change. In fact, a 12th century Old Norse text is still easily ready by a modern Icelander. Although Iceland was ruled by Denmark from 1380 to 1918, Danish control of the country had minimal impact on the Icelandic language, which remained in daily use among the general population. The Icelandic language is also unified because of its absence of dialects.

Iceland is a member of the Nordic Council (which promotes cooperation between Nordic countries via inter-parliamentary forums), yet the Council uses only Danish, Norwegian and Swedish as its working languages. The Council does publish material in Icelandic along with the aforementioned working languages. Since the late 1980s– thanks to the Nordic Language Convention– Iceland’s citizens have the right to use Icelandic when communicating with official bodies in other Nordic countries without having to assume interpretation or translation costs. The Convention, however, tends to be under-utilized because most Icelanders have an excellent command of English and Danish.

Currently, Iceland’s language policy is focused on both preservation AND expansion so that the language can continually be used in all new and emerging settings such as science and technology. The Icelandic Language Council formally introduces new words (or “neologisms”). One example of a new Icelandic word is tölva, which means computer. It is formed from the word “tölur” (pl.) (numbers) and “va” which is the ending of the word “völva” (prophetess). Thus, the word for “computer” (prophetess of numbers) formed because the earliest computers were primarily used to calculate numbers and these computers seemed to have a supernatural ability for calculation as compared to humans. (

Icelandic neologisms may be on the rise so that the language can keep tempo with ever-changing times; nevertheless, Icelandic’s most common words look exactly the same today as they did 1100 years ago.

Much like Iceland’s beautiful glaciers, its language seems to be at once flowing with and frozen in time.

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Category: Foreign Language

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