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The Icelandic Language

The Icelandic language is considered a treat for both linguists and historians, because it has evolved so little from Old Norse that it is able to provide us with a glimpse into the past, so much so that some consider Icelandic to be a dialect of Old Norse, which of course was a medieval language. It is extraordinary to think that time has preserved such an archaic language, and the fact that there are few Icelandic dialects further adds to the richness of the tongue. Most languages have sought to simplify themselves over time, maybe due to one language being influenced by another and so on, because no native speakers of any language would like to think that their mother tongue is in danger of being extinguished due to the promotion of more simple languages which are easier to learn. However, this issue has not been seen as a problem in Iceland, which of course is extremely useful for those of us who seek to learn about the history of languages.

The original recorded version of the language is Old Icelandic, which is a western dialect of Old Norse, the common Scandinavian language of the Viking era. Old Icelandic was, in the strict sense of the term, Old Norse with some Celtic influence. It is interesting to learn that although the Danes ruled Iceland from 1380 to 1918, their control of the country had little effect on the evolution of Icelandic, which remained in daily use among the general population. Danish was not used for official communications. The same applied to the U.S. occupation of Iceland during World War II which was gradually withdrawn in the 1950s.

Though Icelandic is considered more archaic than other living Germanic languages, important changes have occurred. The pronunciation, for instance, changed considerably from the 12th to the 16th century, especially of vowels.

Icelandic is an Indo-European language belonging to the North Germanic branch of the Germanic languages. This is interesting in itself when we consider the geographical placing of other Indo-European languages – for example Greece and Albania, which are separated from Iceland by many countries in between. Icelandic is the closest living relative of Faroese and along with this and Norwegian it forms the West Scandinavian languages, which are the descendants of the western dialects of Old Norse. Danish and Swedish make up the other branch, called the East Scandinavian languages. Recent developments have led to a further subdivision between the languages, as analysis has divided the North Germanic languages into insular Scandinavian and continental Scandinavian languages, grouping Norwegian with Danish and Swedish based on mutual intelligibility and the fact that Norwegian has been heavily influenced by East Scandinavian (particularly Danish) during the last millennium and has diverged considerably from both Faroese and Icelandic. It is therefore possible to see how distinctions have been maintained between Icelandic and other Scandinavian languages.

Most Icelandic speakers live in Iceland, as we would expect. Other countries which are home to Icelandic speakers include Denmark and Canada. A lot of native Icelandic speakers who no longer live in Iceland are students however, who have moved abroad in the interests of their education, and so therefore may just as easily move back home once their studies are finished. 97% of those currently living in Iceland are native speakers of Icelandic, but outside Iceland the amount of people who still speak the language on a day to day level is declining. At this point in time it is not clear whether this should give us cause for concern, but given the way in which the Icelandic language has been maintained more or less untouched since medieval times it seems unlikely that the language suddenly finds itself under threat in the 21st century.

Iceland is the only country where Icelandic has been given official status, but a fact which again protects its purity comes to light when we realise that Icelandic is also the only official language of Iceland. A somewhat surprising fact however is that although Iceland is a member of the Nordic Council, the Council does not use Icelandic as one of its working languages (only Danish, Norwegian and Swedish). It does however publish materials in Icelandic. The circumstances under which Icelandic is employed or not are slightly confused, as, adding to the complicated use of Icelandic by the Nordic Council there is also a Nordic Language Convention dating from 1987. According to the Convention Icelandic citizens can communicate with officials in other Nordic countries without having to incur any translation costs. This would seem to be a powerful instrument, so it is disappointing to then learn that the Convention is not well known and forms more of a picture of recommendations rather than prescriptive rule. Citizens still have no absolute rights in this regard apart from in court matters, so in real terms the ease with which native Icelandic speakers can communicate in their mother tongue is still challenged.

In terms of protecting the heritage of the Icelandic language, the oldest preserved texts in Icelandic were written around 1100. Many of them are actually based on material like poetry and laws, preserved orally for generations before being written down. This oral preservation of course raises some questions about how far the language changed before it was officially recorded, but nonetheless the value of such old texts cannot be denied. The most famous of these texts, which were written in Iceland from the 12th century onward, are without doubt the Icelandic Sagas, the historical writings of Snorri Sturluson and eddaic poems. Using these texts as references, conclusive proof is reached of the fact that Icelandic has changed relatively little since the 13th century.

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