Icelandic LanguageA question of identity
Linguistic conservatism is the very thing that most clearly differentiates Icelanders from their mainland Scandinavian cousins. By holding on to their language unchanged, Icelanders are reinforcing their own unique identity.
Icelandic is spoken by 322,000 souls on the wind-whipped westernmost edge of Europe. When it comes to minimalism, the Scandinavians are the ones to watch and this also holds true for their languages; Danish, Swedish and Norwegian are paragons of streamlined grammatical functionality. Closely related Icelandic, however, is anything but simple. This devilishly complex tongue sports three genders (masculine, feminine, neuter) and four grammatical cases (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive). Throw in singular and plural forms and hestur ‘horse’ appears as hest, hesti, hests, hestar, hesta and hestum. Adjectives also come in multiple forms, agreeing with nouns in gender, case and number, while verbs appear in active, passive and middle voices, as well as indicative, imperative and subjunctive moods. Even the numbers from 1 to 4 vary according to gender and case. There are no fewer than seven versions of ‘three’; þrír / þrjár / þrjú / þrjá / þrem / þremur / þriggja, while ‘one’ has a grand total of 12 different forms; einn / ein / eitt / einna / einum / einni / einu / eins / einnar / einir / eina / einar.
When languages change, historical records suggest it is in the direction of simplification. Modern Icelandic is largely unchanged from the time of the island’s first colonisers in 874, and indeed, its level of grammatical intricacy is closer to Classical Latin than modern Norwegian. Over a similar time period, the language of Beowulf has become incomprehensible to speakers of modern English – ‘Beowulf wæs brēme, blǣd wīde sprang, Scyldes eafera, Scede-landum in’ anyone? Spanish and Portuguese, meanwhile, have diverged into completely different languages.
This unique legacy means that Icelanders have unparalleled access to their historical literature. The Eddas are a collection of epic poems written down in 13th century Iceland, and are pivotal to Icelandic culture. Icelandic speakers are able to read them in much the same way as English speakers read Shakespeare; in modernised spelling and with plenty of footnotes. Shakespeare, however, was writing around four centuries after the Eddas were transcribed. In contrast to the written language, spoken Icelandic has changed rather more dramatically, especially in the pronunciation of the vowels. It might be debatable how far a 21st century Reykjavíker and a 9th century Norse settler would understand one another, but even so, there are few languages helpful in both ordering a coffee and reading early medieval literature.
Official resistance to linguistic change certainly plays a part in freezing Icelandic in time. The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies is one of the world’s strictest language regulating bodies. With full government approval, it eschews international borrowings in favour of pure Icelandic derivations. Sími means ‘thread’ in Old Icelandic, and is used for ‘telephone (and, yes, an i-Phone is an i-Sími). An email is tölvupóstur, from native Icelandic roots for ‘number’, and ‘prophetess’ (making ‘computer’) and ‘mail’. Academic insistence alone, however, is not enough to explain the unchanging nature of the language, as evidenced by increasingly desperate attempts by L’Académie Française to ‘protect’ French from le weekend and le hashtag. Change in a language (or the lack of it) lies within the control of the community that speaks it.
Political independence from the Danish Crown came late to Iceland, with the republic finally declared in 1944 after a centuries-long struggle. During this fight, language played a key role in defining what it meant to be Icelandic. In his 1922 book Íslenzkt þjóðerni – ‘Icelandic Nationality’, historian Jón Aðils wrote; ‘Icelanders cling to their tongue and their nationality and they will be able to safeguard both of them until the promised hour of liberty’. Linguistic conservatism is the very thing that most clearly differentiates Icelanders from their mainland Scandinavian cousins. By holding on to their language unchanged, Icelanders are reinforcing their own unique identity.
The Icelandic Alphabet
There are 32 letters in the Icelandic alphabet: a, á, b, d, ð, e, é, f, g, h, i, í, j, k, l, m, n, o, ó, p, r, s, t, u, ú, v, x, y, ý, þ, æ and ö. Z, which used to occupy 31st position, was officially abolished in 1973 though one newspaper and some older speakers still use it. The ‘th’ sound in English ‘this’ is represented with ð, while þ denotes the ‘th’ in English ‘thick’. Both these letters also appeared in Old English. Á is pronounced like the ‘ow’ of ‘cow’, é is pronounced like ‘yeah’, æ is the sound of ‘eye’, and ö is similar to its German counterpart.