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A page from the Landnámabók

The history of the Icelandic language began in the 9th century with the settlement of Iceland when settlers, who mostly came from Norway, brought a dialect of Old Norse to the island.

The oldest preserved texts in Icelandic were written around 1100. The majority of these texts are poems or laws, preserved orally for generations before being written down. The most famous of these, written in Iceland from the 12th century onward, are without doubt the Icelandic Sagas, the historical writings of Snorri Sturluson; and eddaic poems.

The language of the era of the sagas is called Old Icelandic, 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. The Danish rule of Iceland from 1380 to 1918 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 The same applied to the British occupation of Iceland during World War II and was gradually withdrawn in the 1950s.

Though Icelandic is considered more archaic than other living Germanic languages, the language has nevertheless been subject to some important changes. The pronunciation, for instance, changed considerably between the 12th and 16th centuries, especially that of vowels.

Nevertheless, written Icelandic has changed relatively little since the 13th century. As a result of this, and of the similarity between the modern and ancient grammar, modern speakers can still understand, more or less, the original sagas and Eddas that were written some 800 years ago. This ability is sometimes mildly overstated by Icelanders themselves, most of whom actually read the Sagas with updated modern spelling and footnotes—though otherwise intact.


The language of the Norwegian settlers

Most of the original settlers of Iceland came from Western Norway. Icelandic is therefore an imported language, or more precisely a dialect of Norwegian. Old Norwegian (norw., dan. gammelnorsk or oldnorsk) thus became rooted in a land which was previously almost entirely uninhabited, and due to its geographic isolation and consequent lack of influence from other substrate or adstrate languages, the development of the language was entirely independent. However, it would be wrong to suggest that the language that was brought to Iceland was completely homogeneous; even though most of the settlers were from western Norway, there were a number from other parts of the country and also from other Scandinavian countries. Therefore the language which grew up in Iceland was influenced by all of the Norwegian dialects of the time. The close intermingling of the people of the island, especially at the Alþingi (the general meeting which took place at the beginning of each summer at Þingvellir) contributed to even out the differences between the various dialects: traits common to all dialects were reinforced, while the most marked differences gradually disappeared. Although it is not known exactly how the language developed, modern Icelandic has evolved less than other Scandinavian languages. The unique development of Icelandic, which eventually resulted in its complete separation from Norwegian and the other Scandinavian languages, began with the landnám or first settlement. Icelandic has lost all trace of the tonal nature of early Scandinavian languages, traces of whch are noticeable in modern Norwegian and especially Swedish. Research has been carried out to identify certain traits of the language, for example the so called preaspiration, but the results were inconclusive. It is a significant observation that Icelandic shares such characteristics with two other languages: Faroese and the Swedish spoken in Finland.

The Scandinavian period (550–1050)

The period from 550 to 1050 is called the Scandinavian or 'Common Nordic' period. During this time a notably unified common language was spoken throughout Scandinavia. The key position of Denmark as the focal point of the whole area meant that the language was often simply called 'Danish' (dönsk tunga). Even though the first hints of individual future developments were already identifiable in different parts of the vast region, there were no problems with mutual intelligibility. It is important to note here the similarity of the Anglo Saxon dialects spoken in Great Britain, which at the time of the Dansh conquest of large portions of the island in the 8th century showed very real penetration, particularly in the territory known as the Danelaw. Many Anglo Saxons were of Danish origin, for example the famous Canut (from the Danish Knud, still a common boy’s name in Denmark). The great Anglo Saxon epic Beowulf is in reality about matters of Danish import and Danes are named from the very beginning (Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum / þeoðcyninga þrym gefrunon “Hark! We have heard the glorious deeds of the ancient Kings of the Danish people from long spears”).

With regard to the dönsk tunga spoken in Iceland, there are no written documents from this period. Ancient Scandinavian runes were certainly widely known but were never used to write on papyrus. They were designed as a sacred alphabet to be engraved into stone, metal or wood. In Iceland few runic inscriptions have been found and nearly all are dated after 1200.

Ancient Scandinavian or Norse (1050–1350)

The period from 1050 to 1350 is known as Old Scandinavian, Old Nordic or Norse. There are numerous manuscripts and documents dating from this period which allow researchers to characterize Icelandic from this period accurately.

All of the documents use the Latin alphabet, which was introduced to Iceland in the 12th century. Laws were transcribed onto papyrus for the first time in 1117-1118. The first manuscripts amongst those still in our possession date back to the second half of the 12th century. Around 1130–1140, the First Grammatical Treatise (Fyrsta Málfræðibók) was composed, a highly original description of the language unique in Europe at the time. The treaty is concerned with the sounds of the language; it described the internal workings of the phonological system in a way not dissimilar to modern linguistic methodology. The manuscript, today kept in Reykjavík at the Handritastofnun Íslands ('Manuscript Institute of Iceland') is a later copy of the original text. Three other grammatical treaties were composed in the following decades.

Although the oldest manuscripts date back to around 1150, they show structures which were in use from around 900. This is particularly true of the ancient epic poetry which, due to its metric structure and oral tradition, conserved forms which are notably archaic. Between 1050 and 1350 Icelandic began to develop independently from other Scandinavian and Germanic languages; it is particularly conservative in its inflectional morphology and notably homogeneous across the country. From the manuscripts it has not been possible to determine whether dialects ever existed in Iceland; all indications suggest that from the outset the language has maintained an extraordinary level of homogenity.

Around 1300, the Danish language saw a very rapid evolution in both its phonology and its morphology. Given that changes to a spoken language are often only recorded later in the written language, it is probable that in spoken Danish these changes really occurred around 1250 and perhaps even earlier. The rapid evolution of Danish (a process of simplification comparable to that seen between Old English and Middle English) gave rise to a marked difference between the north and south of Scandinavia. In 1350 Danish assumed characteristics that are still seen in the language today.

Norwegian and Swedish developed more slowly, but show equally notable differences from Icelandic, which is always more conservative and has maintained even to this day many common Scandinavian features. In Norwegian a kind of vocalic harmony developed, in which a morpheme attached to a word with a radical high vowel ([i], [u]) exhibited only a high vowel (systir 'sister', cf. Icelandic systir), whilst a morpheme attached to a radical open vowel ([e], [o]) showed only a low vowel (broþer 'brother', cf. Icelandic bróðir). Such innovation was only accepted in eastern Norwegian and in Swedish (Mod. Norwegian, Swedish bro[de]r), while in Icelandic there is no trace of it. With regard to consonants, Continental Scandinavian languages and most other Germanic languages lost the series of fricatives þ, ð, which were retained only in Icelandic and English (which shows here a phonological trait which is notably archaic). They were substituted by corresponding dentals [t], [d] ( Norweigan, Swedish tung "heavy" smed "smith", cf Icelandic þungr, smiðr (modern Icelandic þungur, smiður). However modern Danish has reintroduced the sonorant fricative [ð] which was formed by language contact. Icelandic is the only Germanic language to have conserved the word-initial consonant groups <hl, hr, hn>, at least from a graphic point of view (their pronunciation is in part modified by the desonoration of the second consonantal element): Icelandic hljót, hrafn, hneta, cf English loud, raven, nut, Swedish ljod, nöt, German Laut, Rabe, Nuß. Again along with English, Icelandic is unusual amongst Germanic languages to have conserved, if only at a local level, the pronunciation [xw] of the word-initial consonantal cluster <hv>: Icelandic hvað, hvalur [xwa:ð, 'xwa:l’ür], more commonly [khvað, 'khva:l’ür] cf. English what, whale, the <h> pronounced in certain dialects [hwɔt, hweil]; the other Germanic languages have consonantized the cluster: German was, Wal-fisch [v-], Dutch wat, wal-vis, Swedish vad, val[fisk]. It is interesting to note that until the early years of this century Swedish has maintained the grapheme in words such as hvad, hvalfisk which is purely historical. In Danish one writes but does not pronounce [hv-] : hvad, hval-fisk [væ:ð, 'vælfisg], while in Nynorsk, in some cases, one writes and pronounces [kv-] (kva), exactly as is usual in modern Icelandic (southern and literary). There are also indications that <h> was originally pronounced [x].

Middle Icelandic (1350–1550)

In the period from 1350 to 1550, coinciding with the total loss of independence and Danish rule, the difference between Norwegian and Icelandic grew even larger. Norway also fell to the Danish Crown, and Danish became its official language, which led to the formation of a hybrid Dano-Norwegian language, the basis of the modern Bokmål (successfully "re-Norwegianized" only in the 20th century). Only in western Norway (whence came the original settlers of Iceland) were the dialects kept relatively pure and free from Danish influence, so much so that in the second half of the 19th century the linguist Ivar Aasen created an authentic Norwegian idiom on the basis of them, first called landsmål ‘national language’ and later nynorsk or ‘neo-Norwegian’, which obtained immediate recognition as an official language of the state and is now generally used, particularly in the area of Bergen. All the continental Scandinavian languages evolved in this period from more synthetic to more analytic languages, and with the Reformation begin to assume a modern character. However Icelandic in this period shows a dichotomy. On the one hand it retained, practically unaltered, its rich inflectional morphology; on the other it underwent a phonological reorganization comparable in its scope to the development from Middle English to Modern English. To cite only the most important changes:

  • In the vowel system a process of diphthongization of the long vowels took place [á, é, ó], and a differentiation in the timbre of [í, ú]. The glides [y, ý] (resulting from [u, ú] by metaphony from "i") lost their labial component and became homophones of [i, í] (with the same difference of timbre), while open back vowel [æ] (a result of metaphony from "i") was diphthongized to [ai]. New diphthongs were formed, often under the influence of the preceding or following consonantal phoneme and, in general, the pronunciation of short vowels became less tense: they are now very lax. A extremely important vocalic development, also from a morphological standpoint, was the disappearance of sonorants in word-final positions with the formation of a phoneme svarabhakti [ü], written as [u]: Old Icelandic akr, gestr, merkr, þú gefr cf Modern Icelandic ak-u-r, gest-u-r, merk-u-r, þú gef-u-r. Icelandic also changed graphically: metaphonetic graphemes [ø] and [o] disappeared (substituted, according to some phonetic studies, by [æ], [ö]: Old Icelandic bøkr, londom cf Modern Icelandic bækur, löndum). The graphic vowel [o] in many morphemes (probably already pronounced [u] in the early period) changed to [u]: londom, vér gefom, þeir ero > löndum, við gefum, þeir eru. However the pronunciation of atonic vowels remained very clear, compared to what happened in the other Scandinavian and Germanic languages, a factor which played an important role in the conservation of some forms.
  • The consonant system underwent even more profound transformations. Phenomena such as palatalization appeared through contact, forming consonant phonemes which were probably previously absent. The most obvious change was the formation of desonorated consonants: unvoiced consonants became aspirated, while the sonorants lost their vibration whilst retaining their articulation (without doubt it is the consonant system of modern Icelandic which gives the greatest difficulty to foreign speakers). Another very notable phenomenon is preaspiration, in which certain consonant clusters are preceded by a complete closure of the vocal cords followed a light aspiration. Other consonant clusters developed a desonorated dental element. Neither phenomenon is written, which reflects the fact that they are still in a very early stage of linguistic evolution (but this is a common phenomenon in many languages of cultures like English, French and Danish. Morphophonetic phenomena have also developed, some of them denoted by the graphemes (gef þú > gefðu etc.)

Despite this phonetic 'earthquake', some very ancient and fundamental characteristics were retained, like the conservation of word-final atonic vowels [i, u, a], elsewhere reduced to an indistinct schwa [ə]; as stated, this is probably the principal cause of the morphological conservation.

Modern Icelandic

Around 1550, with the Lutheran Reformation, the introduction of printing and the consequent translation of the Bible, modern Icelandic was definitively formed. Compared to other Scandinavian and Germanic languages (with the partial exception of Faroese and German), Icelandic certainly remained at an earlier evolutionary stage in terms of its morphology, but this should not imply that the language did not change; the phonological developments of the language from the ancient to the modern language are enormous. A conservative writing system, rich inflectional morphology and a lexicon which is resistant to neologisms obscures the true nature of modern Icelandic, which is a modern language like any other; Russian, Polish and Hungarian, as examples, have a morphological system at least as complex at that of Icelandic, and Hungarian, moreover, behaves exactly like Icelandic in terms of its acceptance of most neologisms. As is often said of Icelandic people, they have no difficulty in reading works of Medieval literature, but to speak to their ancestors they would probably need an interpreter. The most consistent changes have been that to the vowel system which followed the segmental phonological quantity in the 16th century or perhaps as early as the 14th century, and the consequent development of diphthongs. In the consonant system there have also been notable changes, for example the desonorization of plosives, the rise of a correlative sonorant for nasals and liquids and preaspiration.

The modern Icelandic alphabet has developed from a standard established in the 19th century primarily by the Danish linguist Rasmus Rask. It is ultimately based heavily on an orthographic standard created in the early 12th century in a mysterious document known as The First Grammatical Treatise by an anonymous author who has later been referred to as the 'First Grammarian'. The later Rasmus Rask standard was basically a re-enactment of the old treatise, with some changes to fit concurrent Germanic conventions, such as the exclusive use of k rather than c. Various old features, like ð, had actually not seen much use in the later centuries, so Rask’s standard constituted a major change in practice. Later 20th century changes include most notably the adoption of é, which had previously been written as je (reflecting the modern pronunciation), and the abolition of z in 1974.


Linguistic purism

During the 18th century, the Icelandic authorities implemented a stringent policy of linguistic purism. Under this policy, some writers and terminologists were put in charge of the creation of new vocabulary to adapt the Icelandic language to the evolution of new concepts, without resorting to borrowed neologisms as in many other languages. Many old words that had fallen into disuse were updated to fit in with the modern language, and neologisms were created from Old Norse roots. For example, the word rafmagn ('electricity') literally means 'amber power' - a calque of the Greek elektron ('amber'); similarly the word sími ('telephone') originally meant 'wire', and tölva ('computer') combines tala ('digit'; 'number') and völva ('female fortuneteller').

Foreign influences on Icelandic

Celtic influence

It is not yet clear whether the Irish Celts influenced the development of Icelandic. It is possible, as many of the first settlers were Irish slaves (perhaps as many as 30% of the original population). Moreover, from the earliest settlement these people continued to speak in Gaelic, and some researchers hold, that certain peculiarities of the phonological development of Icelandic (such as preaspiration and the desonorization of liquids and nasals) are due to Celtic influx. However it can be argued that these features are native phenomena, it was a period in which no one spoken or heard Irish and the descendants of these ancient slaves were already assimilated generations previously. In every case, demonstrable Celtic influence can be reduced to a few toponyms (Dímon, Kalmans-vík, Kolku-ós, Patreks-fjörður) and some family names such as Kvaran, Kiljan, and Kamban; and given names such as Kjartan and Melkorka; some of which are still common today.


Even though the vast majority of Icelandic toponyms are native and clearly interpretable (for example Ísa-fjörður ‘ice fjord’, Flat-ey ‘flat island’, Gull-foss ‘golden waterfall’, Vatna-jökull ‘water glacier’, Reykja-vík ‘bay of smoke’, Blanda ‘the mixed (river)’ (which is formed by the confluence of different rivers), Varm-á ‘hot river’) there are some which up to now have resisted any plausible interpretation, even in the light of the Celtic languages. For example, Esja (a mountain on Kjalarnes), Ferstikla (a farm near Hvalfjörður), Vigur (an island in Ísafjarðardjúp), Ölfus (an area of Árnessýsla, traversed by the river Hvíta-Ölfusá), Tintron (a volcanic crater in Lyngdalsheiði), Kjós (the area which gives its name to Kjósarsýsla), Bóla (a farm in Skagarfjörður) and Hekla (the most famous Icelandic volcano). Such toponyms pose numerous problems, but the main one can be stated in a very simple question: if they are neither Icelandic nor Celtic, which language do they come from? Perhaps they have been taken from the language (or languages) of unknown ethnicity, or perhaps (and this is a fascinating though highly improbably hypothesis) these names are a sign that Iceland was already inhabited not only before the landnám, but even preceding the arrival of the first Irish hermits. But who were these people? Some scholars, such as Árni Óla, have concerned themselves with the question, attempting to demonstrate this hypothesis which would force a complete rewrite of Icelandic history. Others have asserted that since Icelandic is an imported language, such names could in reality be traced back to some unknown substrate of Norwegian (comparisons have consequently been made with Northern Sami and other Ugro-Finnic languages), and have therefore been transplanted to the island by colonists who originated from parts of Norway where such substrate languages would have still been present. Naturally, there have been numerous attempts to explain the names in terms of Icelandic: Kjós, for example, could come from the root of the verb kjósa, and therefore mean 'the chosen land'; moreover, there is also the common Norwegian surname Kjus. Bóla could be simply ból 'dwelling, habitation', from the root of the verb búa 'inhabit', present in many names of farms such as Aðal-ból 'main farm'.

Danish influence

The efforts of the government in Copenhagen to make Danish the official language of Iceland have left in their wake many Danish terms in official documents, but they have little lasting success. The rural population remained faithful to their own ancestral language, while Danish borrowings were used only by a restricted class of ageing educated people who were heavily influenced by Danish culture and lived only in Reykjavík. So when the battle for the purification of Icelandic from all Danishisms began in the 19th century, the groundwork had already been laid. The purification campaign was such a success that Danish borrowings were almost completely eliminated. Only a few terms by now stable in the spoken and administrative language survive, like ske “happen” (cf. Danish ske, corresponding to German ge-schehen), fordæma “pass sentence”, (cf. Danish fordømme), the adverbs kannske (or kannski) and máske “perhaps, maybe” (cf. Danish kanske, måske, lit. “can happen”) and some nouns like blýantur “pencil, crayon”, fangelsi “prison” and frímerki “postage stamp” (cf. Danish blyant, fangelse, frimærke).

Influences of other languages

Influences of other languages are relatively insignificant. Certainly, many terms of Latin origin are present in Icelandic, but these date back to the common Germanic period and are present in all the other Germanic languages, for example kaupa 'to buy' (Danish købe, German kaufen, Gothic kaupjan < Latin cauponari), pappír 'paper' (German Papier, English paper < Latin papyrus) and keisari 'emperor' (German Kaiser, Swedish kejsare < Latin Cæsar).

Latin borrowings dating back to the introduction of Christianity include kredda 'creed, dogma' (< Latin credo) and predika 'prophesy, preach' (< Latin prædicare; cf. German predigen); more recently the very common náttúra 'nature', persóna 'person' and partur 'part'. With regard to modern languages, Icelandic has been influenced (in recent times quite heavily) only by English, particularly in the technical lexis and by the younger generation. In languages such as Italian, English words are simply borrowed just as they are; in contrast, in Icelandic they are adapted to the local phonetic and morphological system. For example, pönkarar and rokkarar ('punk rocker' and just plain 'rocker') who play á parketi diskótekanna 'on the parquet floor of the nightclub'.

See also


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