Thursday, 5 July 2018

History of the Icelandic Language

We’ll be the first ones to admit it. The Icelandic language is not one of the bigger, more popular languages like English, Spanish or French. Many language learning apps like Babbel and Duolingo don’t even offer it (but Mango Languages does!). With many people not knowing where Iceland is, and even fewer knowing what language they speak in Iceland, this comes as no surprise.

Language books for learning English, Spanish, French, German, Portuguese

With a population of just under 340,000, Iceland is a small country, so we completely get the lack of demand for Icelandic language classes. That being said, Icelandic is just like the Nordic island itself: small but mighty! The common tongue has a fascinating history. Did you know that Icelandic children can read the old Viking Sagas in their original Old Norse? How cool is that? Let’s learn more about the history of the Icelandic language and its origins.

Anyone who has heard or read Icelandic can attest that it looks like some sort of Germanic language. They are absolutely right. Modern Icelandic descends from the North Germanic/Scandinavian branch of proto-Germanic, a language spoken as early as 500 BC. Eventually, this branch evolved into dialects like proto-Norse. Proto-Norse slowly became Old Norse, which was the language spoken by the Vikings around 800 AD.

Viking ships sailing to settle Iceland

So what does all of this have to do with Iceland? Well as everyone knows, Vikings were active in modern-day Norway, Sweden and Denmark. In the late 9th century, Vikings began to settle in Iceland. They brought with them their customs, their culture, and yes, their language. The Icelandic spoken by people in Iceland today derives directly from Old Norse, as do fellow Scandinavian languages Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, and Faroese. But there’s something about Icelandic that gives in an extra special place among its Scandinavian linguistic brethren.

What makes the Icelandic language special


Iceland is an island in the North Atlantic Ocean situated just below the Arctic Circle. When you look at Iceland on a map, it seems pretty lonely. But this isolation did have a linguistic benefit. Iceland’s location prevented its language from being too diluted or influenced by languages of nearby countries. As a result, Icelandic is the North Germanic language that most closely resembles the Old Norse spoken over a thousand years ago. The Viking Sagas and Eddas written around 800 years ago can still be read today because the language really has not changed that much. Not even English can say that!

Viking Sagas and Eddas written in Old Norse

The Icelandic Alphabet


Additionally, due to the language having its roots in Old Norse, the Icelandic alphabet has some characters that do not exist in the traditional Roman alphabet. Some letters that are not derived from Latin script are edh (Ð), thor (Þ) and ash (Æ). Don’t let these unfamiliar letters and spellings scare you though. Edh and thor are similar to the two ways of pronouncing TH in English (words like “this” or “thin”). Now that you are a linguistics expert, you can go out and spread the word. In Iceland they speak Icelandic, the cool language inherited from the Vikings.

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