Icelandic language

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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: ð (pronounced ᵺ, as in) (then), þ (pronounced) (th,) (as in) (think), æ, and ö. 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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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Icelandic Language


the language of the Icelanders, related to the West Scandinavian subgroup of the Scandinavian group of Germanic languages.

Icelandic is spoken in Iceland (by about 200,000 persons) and among the Icelandic settlers in North America (about 40,000 persons). The oldest linguistic records are the skaldic poems of the ninth century, written down in the 13th century, and the oldest manuscripts date from the late 12th century. The Icelandic language of the 12th and 13th centuries was almost indistinguishable from Old Norwegian. Since then important phonetic changes have occurred in Icelandic, for example, the disappearance of nasal vowels, diphthongization of long vowels, transformation of length from a quality of vowels to a quality of syllables, and the appearance of preaspiration; its morphology—rich in inflectional forms—has remained almost unchanged. The modern orthography, developed in the early 19th century, is very similar to that of Old Icelandic. Its rich literary tradition enabled Icelandic to remain a literary language even in the period of Danish rule lasting from the late 14th to the early 20th century. The first printed books appeared in the 16th century. There are almost no loanwords in modern Icelandic; new concepts are expressed by means of word-building, suffixal word-formation, and the use of old words in a special modern sense. The language has almost no dialect differences.


Wessen, E. Skandinavskie iazyki. Moscow, 1949. (Translated from Swedish.)
Steblin-Kamenskii, M. I. Istoriia skandinavskikh iazykov. Moscow-Leningrad, 1953.
Steblin-Kamenskii, M. I. Drevneislandskii iazyk. Moscow, 1955.
Steblin-Kamenskii, M. I. Kul’tura Islandii. Leningrad, 1967.
Berkov, V. P., and A. Bodvarsson. Islandsko-russkii slovar’. Moscow, 1962,
Einarsson, S. Icelandic: Grammar, Texts, Glossary, 2nd ed. Baltimore, 1956.
Heusler, A. Altislandisches Elementarbuch, 4th ed. Heidelberg, 1950.
Cleasby, R., and G. Vigfusson. An Icelandic-English Dictionary, 2nd ed.Oxford, 1957.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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