History of the Icelandic language

History of the Icelandic language

The history of the Icelandic language began in the 9th century with the settlement of Iceland when settlers, who mostly came from Norway, brought a dialect of Old Norse to the island.

The oldest preserved texts in Icelandic were written around 1100. The majority of these texts are poems or laws, preserved orally for generations before being written down. The most famous of these, written in Iceland from the 12th century onward, are without doubt the Icelandic Sagas, the historical writings of Snorri Sturluson; and eddaic poems.

The language of the era of the sagas is called Old Icelandic, a western dialect of Old Norse, the common Scandinavian language of the Viking era. Old Icelandic was, in the strict sense of the term, Old Norse with some Celtic influence. The Danish rule of Iceland from 1380 to 1918 has had little effect on the evolution of Icelandic, which remained in daily use among the general population and Danish was not used for official communications. The same applied for the English occupation of Iceland during World War II and was gradually withdrawn in the 1950s.

Though Icelandic is considered more archaic than other living Germanic languages, important changes have occurred. The pronunciation, for instance, changed considerably from the 12th to the 16th century, especially of vowels.

Written Icelandic has, thus, changed relatively little since the 13th century. As a result of this, and of the similarity between the modern and ancient grammar, modern speakers can still understand, more or less, the original sagas and Eddas that were written some eight hundred years ago. This ability is sometimes mildly overstated by Icelanders themselves, most of whom actually read the Sagas with updated modern spelling and footnotes—though otherwise intact.

The language of the Norwegian settlers

Most of the original settlers of Iceland came from Western Norway. Icelandic is therefore an ‘imported’ language, or to put it more precisely, a dialect of Norwegian. Old Norwegian (norw., dan. "gammelnorsk" or "oldnorsk") thus became rooted in a land which was previously almost entirely uninhabited, and due to its geographic isolation and consequent lack of influence from other substrate or adstrate languages, the development of the language was entirely independent. However, it would be wrong to suggest that the language that was brought to Iceland was completely homogeneous; even though most of the settlers were from western Norway, there were a number from other parts of the country and also from other Scandinavian countries. Therefore, the language which grew up in Iceland was influenced by all of the Norwegian dialects of the time. The close intermingling of the people of the island, especially at the "Alþingi" (the general meeting which took place at the beginning of each summer at Þingvellir) contributed to level differences between the various dialects: traits common to all dialects were reinforced, while the most marked differences gradually disappeared. Even though the exact details of how the language developed in this way may not be known, modern Icelandic in comparison with other Scandinavian languages least shows the results of this type of levelling process. The unique development of Icelandic, which would eventually result in its complete separation from Norwegian and the other Scandinavian languages, began with the "landnám" or first settlement. Icelandic has lost all trace of the early Scandinavian accent which was musical Fact|date=May 2008 in nature like modern Norwegian and, more noticeably, Swedish. Research has been carried out to identify certain traits of the language, for example the so called "preaspiration", but the results were inconclusive. It is a significant observation that Icelandic shares such characteristics with two other languages: Faroese and the Swedish spoken in Finland.

The Scandinavian period (550–1050)

The period from 550 to 1050 was called the Scandinavian or ‘Common Nordic’ period. During this time a notably unified common language was spoken throughout Scandinavia. The key position of Denmark as the focal point of the whole area made it common for the language simply to be called ‘Danish’ ("dönsk tunga"). Even though the first hints of individual future developments were already identifiable in different parts of the vast region, there were no problems with mutual intelligibility. It is important to note here the similarity of the Anglo Saxon dialects spoken in Great Britain, which at the time of the Dansh conquests of large portions of the island in the 8th century showed very real penetration, particularly in the territory known as the Danelaw. Many Anglo Saxons were of Danish origin, for example the famous Canut (from the Danish "Knud", still a common boy’s name in Denmark). The great Anglo Saxon epic Beowulf is in reality about matters of Danish import and Danes are named from the very beginning ("Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum / þeoðcyninga þrym gefrunon" “Hark! We have heard the glorious deeds of the ancient Kings of the Danish people from long spears”).

With regards to the "dönsk tunga" spoken in Iceland, there are no written documents from this period. Ancient Scandinavian runes were certainly widely known but were never used to write on papyrus. They were designed as a sacral alphabet adapted to being engraved into stone, metal or wood. In Iceland few runic inscriptions have been found and nearly all are dated after 1200.

Ancient Scandinavian or Norse (1050–1350)

The period from 1050 to 1350 was known as "Old Scandinavian", "Old Nordic" or "Norse". There are numerous manuscripts and documents dating from this period which allow researchers to characterize Icelandic from this period accurately.

All of the documents use the Latin alphabet, which was introduced to Iceland in the 12th century. Laws were transcribed onto papyrus for the first time from 1117 to 1118. The first manuscripts amongst those still in our possession date back to the second half of the 12th century. Around 11301140, the First Grammatical Treatise ("Fyrsta Málfræðibók") was composed, a highly original description of the language unique in Europe at the time. The treaty is concerned with the sounds of the language; it described the internal workings of the phonological system in a way not dissimilar to modern linguistic methodology. The manuscript, today kept in Reykjavík at the "Handritastofnun Íslands" (“Institute of Icelandic Manuscripts”) is a later copy of the original text. Three other grammatical treaties were composed in the following decades.

Although the oldest manuscripts date back to around 1150, they show structures which were in use from around 900. This is particularly true of the ancient epic poetry which, due to its metric structure and oral tradition, conserved forms which are notably archaic. Between 1050 and 1350 Icelandic began to develop independently from other Scandinavian and Germanic languages; it is particularly conservative in its inflectional morphology and notably homogeneous across the country. From the manuscripts it has not been possible to determine whether dialects ever existed in Iceland; all indications suggest that from the outset the language has maintained an extraordinary level of homogenity.

Around 1300, the Danish language saw a very rapid evolution in both its phonology and its morphology. Given that mutations are usually only recorded later in the written language, it is probable that in spoken Danish these changes really occurred around 1250 and perhaps even earlier. The rapid evolution of Danish (a process of simplification comparable to that seen between Old English and Middle English) gave rise to a marked difference between the north and south of Scandinavia. In 1350 Danish assumed characteristics that are still seen in the language today.

Norwegian and Swedish developed more slowly, but show equally notable differences with Icelandic, which is always more conservative and has maintained even to this day many common Scandinavian features. In Norwegian a kind of ‘vocalic harmony’ developed, for which a morpheme attached to a word with a radical high vowel ( [i] , [u] ) showed only a high vowel ("systir" "sister", cfr. Icelandic "systir"), whilst a morpheme attached with radical open vowel ( [e] , [o] ) showed only a low vowel ("broþer" "brother" cfr. Icelandic "bróðir"). Such innovation was only accepted in eastern Norwegian and in Swedish (Mod. Norwegian, Swedish "bro [de] r"), while in Icelandic there is no trace of it. With regards to consonants, Continental Scandinavian languages and most other Germanic languages lost the series of fricatives þ, ð, which were retained only in Icelandic and English (which shows here a phonological trait which is notably archaic). They were substituted by corresponding dentals [t] , [d] (cfr. Norweigan, Swedish "tung" "heavy" "smed" "smith", whilst Icelandic "þungr", "smiðr" (modern Icelandic "þungur", "smiður"); note however that modern Danish has reintroduced the sonorant fricative [ð] which was formed by language contact. Icelandic is the only Germanic language to have conserved the word-initial consonant groups , at least from a graphic point of view (their pronunciation is in part modified by the desonoration of the second consonantal element), cfr. Icelandic "hljót", "hrafn", "hneta", English "loud", "raven", "nut", Swedish "ljod", "nöt", German "Laut", "Rabe", "Nuß". Again along with English, Icelandic is unusual amongst Germanic languages to have conserved, if only at a local level, the pronunciation [xw] of the word-initial consonantal cluster : cfr. Icelandic "hvað", "hvalur" [xwa:ð, 'xwa:l’ür, more commonly [khvað, 'khva:l’ür] English "what", "whale" [hwɔt, hweil] ; the other Germanic languages have consonantized the cluster cfr. German "was", "Wal-fisch" [v-] , Dutch "wat", "wal-vis", Swedish "vad", "val [fisk] ". It is interesting to note that until the early years of this century Swedish has maintained the grapheme "hvad, hvalfisk" which is purely historical. In Danish one writes and pronounces [hv-] : "hvad", "hval-fisk" [hvæ:ð, 'hvælfisg] , while in Nynorsk, in some cases, one writes and pronounces [kv-] ("kva"), exactly as happens commonly in modern Icelandic (southern and literary). There are also indications that was originally pronounced [x] .

Middle Icelandic (1350–1550)

In the period from 1350 to 1550, corresponding to the total loss of independence and Danish rule, the difference between Norwegian and Icelandic grew even larger. Norway also fell to the Danish Crown, and Danish became the official language, which led to the formation of a hybrid Dano-Norwegian language, the basis of the modern Bokmål (successfully "re-Norwegianized" only in the twentieth century). Only in western Norway (whence came the original settlers of Iceland) were the dialects kept relatively pure and free from Danish influence, so much so that in the second half of the 19th century the linguist Ivar Aasen created an authentic Norwegian idiom on the basis of them, first called "landsmål" ‘national language’ and the second "nynorsk" or ‘neo-Norwegian’, which obtained immediate recognition as an official language of the state and it now used all over, particularly in the area of Bergen. All the continental Scandinavian languages evolved in this period from more synthetic to more analytic languages and with the Reformation begin to assume a modern character. However, Icelandic in this period shows a dichotomy. On the one hand it retained, practically unaltered, its rich inflectional morphology; on the other it underwent a phonological reorganization comparable in its scope to that which happened in the development from Middle English to Modern English. To cite only the most important phenomena:

* In the vowel system a process of diphthongization of the long vowels took place [á, é, ó] , and a differentiation in the timbre of [í, ú] . The glides [y, ý] (resulting from [u, ú] by metaphony from "i") lost their labial component and became confused with [i, í] (with the same difference of timbre), while open back vowel [æ] (a result of metaphony from "i") was diphthongized to [ai] . New diphthongs were formed, often under the influence of preceding or following consonantal phoneme and, in general, the pronunciation of short vowels became less tense to the extent that they now very lax. A extremely important vocalic phenomenon, also from a morphological standpoint, was the disappearance of sonorants in word-final positions with the formation of a phoneme "svarabhakti" [ü] , written as [u] : cfr. Old Icelandic "akr, gestr, merkr, þú gefr" > Modern Icelandic "ak-u-r, gest-u-r, merk-u-r, þú gef-u-r". Icelandic also differs from a graphic point of view: metaphonetic graphemes [ø] and [o] disappeared (substituted, according to some phonetic studies, by [æ] , [ö] , cfr. Old Icelandic "bøkr, londom" > Modern Icelandic "bækur, löndum"). The graphic vowel [o] in many morphemes (probably already pronounced [u] in the early period) changed to become written as [u] : "londom, vér gefom, þeir ero" > "löndum, við gefum, þeir eru". However, the pronunciation of atonic vowels remained very clear (at odds with what happened in the other Scandinavian and Germanic languages), a factor which played an important role in the conservation of some forms.

* The consonant system underwent even more profound transformations. Phenomena such as palatalization appeared through contact, with the resulting formation of consonant phonemes which were most likely absent in the early epoch. The most obvious upset is in the formation of desonorated consonants: unvoiced consonants became aspirated, while the sonorants lost their vibration whilst retaining their articulation (without doubt it is the consonant system of modern Icelandic which gives the greatest difficulty to foreign speakers). Another very notable phenomenon is that of the so-called "preaspiration", where certain consonant clusters are preceded by a complete closure of the vocal cords followed a light aspiration. Other consonant clusters developed a desonorated dental element. Neither phenomenon is written, which reflects the fact that they are still in a very early stage of linguistic evolution (but this is a common phenomenon in many languages of cultures like English, French and Danish. Morphophonetic phenomena have also developed, some of them denoted by the graphemes ("gef þú" > "gefðu" etc.)

The phonetic ‘earthquake’ which Icelandic underwent did not however change some very ancient and fundamental characteristics, like the conservation of word-final atonic vowels [i, u, a] , elsewhere reduced to an indistinct schwa [ə] ; as stated, this is probably the principal cause of the morphological conservation.

Modern Icelandic

Around 1550, with the Lutheran Reformation, the introduction of printing and the consequent translation of the Bible, modern Icelandic was definitively formed. With respect to other Scandinavian and Germanic languages (with the partial exception of Faroese and German), Icelandic certainly remained at an earlier evolutionary stage in terms of its morphology, but this should not imply that the language did not change; the phonological developments of the language from the ancient to the modern language are enormous. A conservative writing system, rich inflectional morphology and a lexicon which is resistant to neologisms obscures the true nature of modern Icelandic, which is a modern language like any other; Russian, Polish and Hungarian, just as examples, have a morphological system at least as complex at that of Icelandic, and Hungarian, moreover, behaves exactly like Icelandic in terms its acceptance of most neologisms. As is often said of Icelandic people, they have no difficulty in reading works of Medieval literature, whilst to speak to their ancestors they would probably need an interpreter. The most consistent changes have been to the vowel system which followed the segmental phonological quantity in the 16th century, or perhaps already in the 14th century and the consequent development of diphthongs. In the consonant system there have also been notable changes, for example the desonorization of plosives, the rise of a correlative sonorant for nasals and liquids and preaspiration.

The modern Icelandic alphabet has developed from a standard established in the 19th century, by the Danish linguist Rasmus Rask primarily. It is ultimately based heavily on an orthographic standard created in the early 12th century by a mysterious document referred to as "The First Grammatical Treatise" by an anonymous author who has later been referred to as the ‘First Grammarian’. The later Rasmus Rask standard was basically a re-enactment of the old treatise, with some changes to fit concurrent Germanic conventions, such as the exclusive use of "k" rather than "c". Various old features, like "ð", had actually not seen much use in the later centuries, so Rask’s standard constituted a major change in practice. Later 20th century changes are most notably the adoption of "é", which had previously been written as "je" (reflecting the modern pronunciation), and the abolition of "z" in 1974.

Linguistic purism

During the 18th century, the Icelandic authorities implemented a stringent policy of linguistic purism. As a result of this policy, some writers and terminologists were put in charge of the creation of new vocabulary to adapt the Icelandic language to the evolution of new concepts, and thus not having to resort to borrowed neologisms like in many other languages. Many old words that had fallen into misuse were updated to fit in with the modern language, and neologisms were created from Old Norse roots. For example, the word "rafmagn" (‘electricity’), literally means “amber power” from Greek "elektron" (‘amber’), similarly the word "sími" (‘telephone’) originally meant “wire” and "tölva" (‘computer’) combines "tala" (‘digit; number’) and "völva" (‘female fortuneteller’).

Foreign influences on Icelandic

Celtic influence

It is not yet clear whether the influence of the Irish Celts did effectively contribute to the development of Icelandic. However, it is still possible, given that amongst the first settlers were many Irish slaves (perhaps as much as 30% of the original population). Moreover, from the earliest settlement these people continued to speak in Gaelic, and some researchers hold that the ‘seed’ of certain peculiarities of the phonological development of Icelandic (like preaspiration and the desonorization of liquids and nasals) is due to the Celtic influx. However, it is not likely, given that these are proven native phenomena Fact|date=November 2007 and it was a period in which no one spoken or heard Irish Fact|date=November 2007 and the descendants of these ancient slaves were already assimilated generations previouslyFact|date=November 2007. In every case, the demonstrable Celtic influence can be reduced to a few toponyms ("Dímon", "Kalmans-vík", "Kolku-ós", "Patreks-fjörður") and some family names such as "Kvaran", "Kiljan", and "Kamban"; and given names such as "Kjartan" and "Melkorka"; some of which are still common today.


Even though the vast majority of Icelandic toponyms are native and clearly interpretable (for example: "Ísa-fjörður" ‘ice fjord’, "Flat-ey" ‘flat island’, "Gull-foss" ‘golden waterfall’, "Vatna-jökull" ‘water glacier’, "Reykja-vík" ‘bay of smoke’, "Blanda" ‘the mixed (river)’ (which is formed by the confluence of different rivers), "Varm-á" ‘hot river’, to name but a few examples), there are some which up until now have resisted any plausible interpretation, even in the light of the Celtic languages. For example, "Esja" (a mountain on Kjalarnes), "Ferstikla" (a farm near Hvalfjörður), "Vigur" (an island in Ísafjarðardjúp), "Ölfus" (an area of Árnessýsla, traversed by the river Hvíta-Ölfusá), "Tintron" (a volcanic crater in Lyngdalsheiði), "Kjós" (the area which gives its name to Kjósarsýsla), "Bóla" (a farm in Skagarfjörður) and "Hekla" (the most famous Icelandic volcano). Such toponyms pose numerous problems, but the main one can be stated in a very simple question: if they aren’t Icelandic or Celtic, which language do they come from? Perhaps they have been taken from the language (or languages) of unknown ethnicity, or perhaps (and this is a fascinating though highly improbably hypothesis) these name are a sign that Iceland was already inhabited not only before the "landnám", but even preceding the arrival of the first Irish hermits. But who were these people? Some scholars such as the polygrapher Árni Óla, have concerned themselves with the question, attempting (without success) to demonstrate this hypothesis which would force a complete page one rewrite of Icelandic history. Others have asserted that since Icelandic is an imported language, such names could in reality be traced back to some unknown substrate of Norwegian (comparisons have consequently been made with Northern Sami and other Ugro-Finnic languages), and have therefore been transplanted on the island by colonies which originated from parts of Norway where such substrate languages would have still been present. Naturally, there have been numerous attempts to explain the names with regard to Icelandic: "Kjós", for example could come from the root of the verb "kjósa", and therefore mean “the chosen land”. Moreover, there is also the common Norewegian surname "Kjus"; "Bóla" could be simply "ból" “dwelling, habitation”, from the root of the verb "búa" “abitare”, present in many names for farms like "Aðal-ból" “main farm” etc.).

Danish influence

The efforts of the government in Copenhagen to make Danish the official language of Iceland have left in their wake many Danish terms in official documents, but they have little lasting success. The rural population remained faithful to their own ancestral language, while Danish borrowings were used only by a restricted class of ageing educated people who were heavily influenced by Danish culture and lived only in Reykjavík. So when the battle for the purification of Icelandic from all Danishisms began in the 19th century, the groundwork had already been laid. The purification campaign was such a success that Danish borrowings were almost completely eliminated. Only a few terms by now stable in the spoken and administrative language survive, like "ske" “happen” (cf. Danish "ske", corresponding to German "ge-schehen"), "fordæma" “pass sentence”, (cf. Danish "fordømme"), the adverbs "kannske" (or "kannski") and "máske" “perhaps, maybe” (cf. Danish "kanske, måske", lit. “can happen”) and some nouns like "blýantur" “pencil, crayon”, "fangelsi" “prison” and "frímerki" “postage stamp” (cf. Danish "blyant, fangelse, frimærke").

Influences from other languages

Influences from other languages are relatively insignificant. Certainly, many terms of Latin origin are present in Icelandic, but these date back to the common Germanic period and are present in all the other Germanic languages, for example "kaupa" “to buy” (Danish "købe", German "kaufen", Gothic "kaupjan" < Latin "cauponari"), "pappír" “paper” (German "Papier", English "paper" < Latin "papyrus") and "keisari" “emperor” (German "Kaiser", Swedish "kejsare" < Latin "Cæsar").

Latin borrowings dating back to the introduction of Christianity are for example "kredda" “creed, dogma” (< Latin "credo") and "predika" “prophesy, preach” (< Latin "prædicare"; cfr. German "predigen"); more recently the very common "náttúra" “nature”, "persóna" “person” and "partur" “part”. With regards to modern languages, Icelandic is influenced (in recent times quite heavily) only by English, particularly through technical language and by the younger generation. But at odds with a language like Italian, where English words are simply borrowed just as they are; in Icelandic they are adapted to the local phonetic and morphological system. For example, they have "pönkarar" and "rokkarar" (“punk rocker” and just plain “rocker”) who play "á parketi diskótekanna" “on the parquet floor of a nightclub” to the sound of "harðrokk" “hard rock”.

ee also

* Icelandic phonology
* Old Norse
* Old Norwegian
* Vowel shift

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