Icelandic is a language you might have heard without even realising it.
This unusual language charms with its soft consonants and drawn-out vowels, having both familiar and alien-like qualities. Icelanders sometimes lovingly refer to their mother tongue as okkar ástkæra ylhýra, roughly “our beloved warm language”, a reference to a work by 19th-century Icelandic poet Jónas Hallgrímsson.
The Icelandic language was brought to the then-uninhabited island of Iceland by western Norwegians in the eighth century. In those days, it was still known as norrœnt mál “Norse language” or even dǫnsk tunga “Danish tongue”.
Due to centuries of isolation from the mainland Scandinavian languages, Icelandic developed in its own unique direction, dropping some features that the other Scandinavian languages have kept (namely certain vowels), preserving others (such as complex verb conjugations and noun cases) and coming up with its own innovations (mainly vocabulary). This has made Icelandic a different beast from both its modern Scandinavian cousins and Old Norse.
Today, there are around 340,000 speakers of Icelandic in Iceland. The language is unique in that it is one of the smallest “nation-state” languages in the world. Icelandic is used at all levels of society: in government, education, commerce and everyday life.
Because of its small number of speakers, Icelandic has long been considered under threat of extinction from other languages: originally Danish owing to Iceland’s former status as a Danish colony, but these days English. Alarmists often overplay the possibility of Icelandic dying out – most probably because their language is Icelanders’ most tangible evidence of their distinct cultural heritage and national identity.
Let’s find out more about what exactly it is that makes this language so special.
1. Icelanders coin their own words
One of the most distinctive features of Icelandic compared to its mainland cousins is its strong tradition of málrækt or “language cultivation”. This semi-official policy, which finds its roots in the Icelandic nationalist movement, means that Icelandic usually creates its own words for foreign concepts rather than importing a loanword.
Oft-cited examples include tölva “computer”, which is a blend of tala “number” and völva “seeress”, and sími “telephone”, a revival of a disused word that meant “thread”. These words have themselves spawned neologisms as new concepts emerged: spjaldtölva “tablet computer” is a compound with spjald- “tablet, card”, for example, while snjallsími “smartphone” adds the prefix snjall- “smart, clever” to sími.
If these words are considered by Icelanders to be functional enough, then they often enter into widespread use. There have been many well-meaning suggestions that have fallen by the wayside, though. One word where the jury’s still out is flygildi “drone”, made up of the prefix flyg- “flight” and -ildi, an ending analogical with fiðrildi “butterfly”. For now, it seems most Icelanders just say dróni.
2. The alphabet is unique
No other language in the world shares Icelandic’s unique collection of unusual letters. Unique to Icelandic is Þ þ, or thorn, often confused with P p by non-Icelandic speakers. This letter represents an unvoiced “th” sound, as in bath.
Its counterpart is eth, written Ð ð, which represents a voiced “th” sound, as in bathe. This letter is also used in Faroese, although it doesn’t represent one particular sound there, and in Elfdalian (a highly conservative Swedish dialect).
Other Icelandic letters include Æ æ and Ö ö and a full range of accented vowels which represent various different sounds: Á á, É é, Í í, Ó ó, Ú ú and Ý ý.