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The Linguistic Identity of Iceland: Understanding the Icelandic Language


The Icelandic language is an integral part of the country’s cultural heritage. Due to its relative isolation, it more closely resembles Old Norse than the other Nordic languages. It’s also notable for its morphological and lexical conservatism and its success in the face of phonological changes resisted by purists.

The Icelandic Alphabet

Despite Iceland’s isolated nature, the language is rich in foreign influences. When Iceland was settled around the eighth century, most of the settlers brought their dialects with them.  Many tourists who want to visit Iceland still need clarification about what language is spoken in Iceland. The official language spoken in Iceland is Icelandic, a North Germanic language that has remained remarkably unchanged since medieval times. While English is widely understood and spoken, especially in urban areas and among the younger population, Icelandic remains the primary language, reflecting the country’s rich cultural heritage.

Still, the language has also been shaped by the influence of Nordic languages like Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish. The alphabet is a mix of the Latin and Vikings’ runic letters. Icelanders also added a few of their own. The letter thorn (capital D>) and the letter eth (capital Th>) are not both used in any other modern languages. They’re called serislenskur (specifically Icelandic) or, as Icelanders like to call them, “uniquely Icelandic” letters.

These unique letters add to the beauty of the language. They make distinguishing between similar words, such as pulse (pil-sah) and langar (to want), more accessible. The Icelandic “R” sound is also distinct from other European languages. It doesn’t sound as melodic or dramatic as the “R” in Italian, Russian, or French. It sounds more like a trilling sound that creates a poetic vibration between adjacent vowels.

Vowels

Vowels are a crucial part of any language. Icelandic has nine vowel phonemes or sounds that make a difference in word meaning. Stressed vowels are long, and short vowels are unstressed. The Icelandic language also has several sound changes called umlauts. The most common is the u-umlaut, which causes an a /a/ to change to an o /oe/ when there is a u /y/ in the following syllable. The u-umlaut is seen in words like tala, tolum, and salot.

Icelanders are very proud of their native language and have a strong tradition of linguistic purism, which means they create their own words rather than borrowing from other languages. This has resulted in a lot of neologisms, such as tolva “computer” (a combination of tala and volva), simi “telephone,” and flugvollur “airport” (from spjaldtil “tablet computer” and völva “flight”) – which are examples of the u-umlaut.

Other Icelandic neologisms include thorn and eth, created by adding a thorn or e to a word. These two letters are unique to the Icelandic language and are a sign of how flexible the Icelandic language is.

Consonants

Unlike other languages that may have dialects based on region, Icelandic is a uniformly spoken language. The capital city of Reykjavik is a UNESCO City of Literature, and the country has one of the world’s highest book publishing rates. It also has a rich literary heritage, including the Sagas, masterpieces of medieval European prose that have become the foundation of Icelandic culture.

The Icelandic consonant system is quite complex, with nine vowel phonemes (sounds that make a difference in word meaning), five diphthongs, and a glottal stop. It has a regular contrast in aspiration, similar to Faroese and Danish, and a traditional distinction between fricative and sonorant consonants. It also has an unusual aspiration feature where a puff of air can occur before the consonant is released, known as pre-aspiration.

It is a highly inflectional language, with four cases for nouns, pronouns, and the numbers one to four; for case (nominative, accusative, genitive, and dative); gender (masculine, feminine, and neuter); and number (singular and plural). Icelanders have a long tradition of market, or “language cultivation,” creating their own words for foreign concepts rather than adopting loanwords. This has given the language a unique sound that can be heard in music from Bjork to the TV show Vikings.

Phonology

An essential feature of Icelandic is its complex phonology. Icelanders go to great lengths to preserve their language, even refusing to adopt English words for new items like computers and helicopters. They also make a point of not learning other languages, and many linguists believe that this is a result of the linguistic purism movement, which was established when Iceland was climbing out from under Danish rule in the 19th century.

In Icelandic, verbs are conjugated for person, number, tense, and mood (for those who have studied French, bad memories of the subjunctive will be revived). Nouns and adjectives decline in four cases: nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive.

The phonology of Icelandic is complicated by the fact that almost every syllable ends in a vowel. Chapter 3 is devoted to open syllable lengthening in Icelandic and Norwegian. The traditional view holds that every coda-onset contact should be treated as closed and that a long vowel in such a position must have a licensor. 

Pronunciation

Pronunciation is the most critical aspect of Icelandic, especially for non-native speakers. The pronunciation can be tricky because the language is more complex than its counterparts in other Scandinavian languages. It has a wide range of vowels and a complete set of consonants that can be pronounced differently depending on context. In addition, some consonants can be pronounced as either long or short.

Icelanders have a tradition of market or “language cultivation,” meaning they often create their own words for foreign concepts rather than importing them as loanwords. However, the country only partially avoids borrowing from other languages and English.

Written Icelandic has not changed much since the 11th century, and most native speakers can easily understand the original Eddas and sagas. It shares a common heritage with Faroese and Western Norwegian but is more conservative in its grammar and vocabulary than those languages. Regarding pronunciation, Icelanders roll their rs beautifully and have that unique Nordic throaty sound that makes them sound like they are talking through a straw.


Samantha hails from Virginia and is a proud wife to a retired Deputy Sheriff and mother to two amazing little boys named Jack & William. A veteran product reviewer; Samantha has been reviewing products for 12 years and offers high quality product reviews with original photography.

Samantha hails from Virginia and is a proud wife to a retired Deputy Sheriff and mother to two amazing little boys named Jack & William. A veteran product reviewer; Samantha has been reviewing products for 12 years and offers high quality product reviews with original photography.

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