Icelandic language

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Icelandic language

Icelandic language, member of the North Germanic, or Scandinavian, group of the Germanic subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages. Spoken chiefly in Iceland, where it is the official language, it stems from Old Norse, the language of the Vikings who settled the island in the 9th cent. (see Germanic languages; Norse). The beginning of the modern period of the Icelandic language may be said to date from the translation of the New Testament in 1540 by Oddur Gottskálksson. Before that date the language is considered Old Icelandic, which is classified as belonging to the western branch of Old Norse. Unlike the other Scandinavian languages, Icelandic is noted for its conservatism in grammar, vocabulary, and spelling. For instance, it still has three genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter) and four cases for nouns (nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative), which survive from Viking times. Verbs have a highly developed inflectional system. In matters of vocabulary, there has been a strong purist movement for several centuries. For example, instead of directly adopting modern scientific terms, Icelandic renders them by translations or by newly created compounds and expressions formed from native words. Actually, Modern Icelandic has changed so little from its parent language, Old Norse, in the course of the centuries that Icelanders today read the Eddas and sagas of Old Norse literature more easily than the English and the Americans read Shakespeare. One reason for the relative stability and purity of Icelandic is that its speakers lived for centuries in comparative isolation on an island and thus were not much influenced by other languages. The Roman alphabet came to Iceland c.1000, along with Christianity. To it have been added several symbols, including the edh (pronounced as the th in then) and the thorn (pronounced as the th in think). In addition, six letters may take the acute accent: á,é,í,ó,ú, and ý.

See S. Einarsson, Icelandic: Grammar, Texts, Glossary (1949); S. R. Anderson et al., ed., Modern Icelandic Syntax (1990).

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