Monday, August 4, 2014

Language Profile: Icelandic

This week we're taking a look at Icelandic, the official language of Iceland. It is a member of the North Germanic branch of the Germanic language family alongside Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish. While the vast majority of its approximately 330,000 speakers live in Iceland, there are also several thousand speakers of the language living in Denmark, Canada, and the United States.

Icelandic is a fairly conservative language, meaning that it has not changed much throughout its history. Most people who can speak Icelandic today can still read and understand many of the old Icelandic sagas written several hundred years ago. Such a task would be much more difficult for English speakers attempting to read texts from the same era in Old English due to the many changes in English over the centuries. 

The Great Geysir, a geyser in Iceland's Haukadalur valley
The Icelandic lexicon primarily comes from Old Norse, though it does contain some loanwords from Scandinavian languages. In modern times, the language's linguistic purity has been maintained by creating new words through the use of Icelandic derivatives instead of borrowing words from other languages. For example, the word for "electricity" in Icelandic is rafmagn, which literally translates as "amber power".

The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, founded by the Icelandic government, is tasked with studying the language and preserving its medieval manuscripts. It is named after Árni Magnússon, a 17th and 18th century Icelandic scholar who collected manuscripts. Some of the oldest texts written in Icelandic date back to the 1100s and include poetic works.

The language is written using the Icelandic alphabet, which is very similar to the English alphabet. However, it does include two letters that are no longer used in English: "eth", represented by ð and "thorn", represented by þ.