Unlike countries like India or Switzerland, where several national languages and dialects are spoken in different regions, Iceland is largely a monolingual country. This doesn’t mean, of course, that Icelanders are unfamiliar with foreign languages. In fact, most of them are very fluent in multiple languages such as English and Danish, but that’s only because they have to learn them at school. When it comes to official languages and dialectical varieties, however, it seems that Iceland is an unusually homogeneous country. The question, then, should be phrased in the singular form: “What language is spoken in Iceland?’’. And the answer, plain and straightforward as it can be, is that in Iceland people speak Icelandic, something that they are very proud of.
How proud? Well, let’s put it this way. Icelanders are so proud of their mother tongue that they celebrate Icelandic Language Day every year.
Let’s see, then, what makes this language so special.
How many people speak Icelandic?
Icelandic, the only official language of Iceland, is spoken as a mother tongue by 97% of the 340,000 people who live there. In addition, the roughly 200 deaf people who lived in Iceland as of 2006, used Icelandic Sign Language, which has been legally recognized as an official variant of the national language.
Iceland is well-known for its solid public school system, which is divided into four levels: playschool, compulsory, upper secondary and higher. In a 2017 study, Iceland was ranked the third most literate country in the world, just behind Finland and Norway. Between 2008 and 2014, Iceland literacy rates among the adult population remained stable at around 99%, which was really impressive. However, official sources state that in more recent years Iceland has reduced their illiteracy rate to 0%. What is Icelandic like?
As the question ‘What language is spoken in Iceland?’ proved quite easy to answer, let’s delve deeper into the main characteristics of its only but rather idiosyncratic national language.
Icelandic is a North Germanic language within the Indo-European family. Closely related to Norwegian and Faroese, it also preserves some slight traces of Celtic influence, especially in its ancient literature. Icelandic is an insular language, which means that it developed in geographical isolation from other languages. As a consequence, it has experienced very little change since the settlement of Iceland in the ninth and tenth centuries. This resistance to change, however, is not only the result of historical, extra-linguistic factors. Although Iceland is quite progressive in social and political affairs, it has always been rather conservative when it comes to its language.
Throughout the centuries, linguists and people in positions of power have made significant efforts to keep their language ‘pure’, i.e. free from foreign influence. And they have succeeded. Today, children at the compulsory level (the equivalent to primary school) are perfectly able to read literary texts from the 12th century. If you don’t think that’s impressive, imagine your 7-year-old reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in their original form!
It seems then, that the question “what language is spoken in Iceland?” is easy to answer precisely because the people who make those kinds of decisions have made sure Icelandic remained pure and unchallenged through the centuries.
How do Icelanders create new words?
If you think Icelanders borrow words from English every time they need to name new concepts or refer to technological advances, think again. Icelanders take the coinage of new terms so seriously that there is a branch of the Icelandic Language Institute whose task is to discuss and approve (or disapprove!) the use of new vocabulary. This is how much Icelanders care about their own language.
For instance, the Icelandic term for computer, tölva, derives from the words tala (number) and völva (prophetess). Though it might seem a bit excessive, the fact that Icelanders go out of their way to preserve their language explains why primary school children are able to understand Old Norse sagas, while English speaking adults would need historical dictionaries to read Beowulf in its original form.
Did you find any of the facts above surprising? Can you name any other North Germanic language? Let us know in the comment section.
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