Icelandic is a language that has changed remarkably little in centuries, remaining incredibly similar in many ways to Old Norse.
Let’s take a moment to look at Iceland on the map. Done it? So you have a visualisation in your head now of just how insular and isolated Iceland is. Well, not in the modern day, perhaps, when a plane ride will get you there in a short time from mainland Europe and even in a less than a day from other location – and where you can invade Iceland’s airspace by booting up your computer and sending an email, or making a phone call, and when you can absorb Icelandic culture by renting their TV shows and movies – and, of course, vice versa.
But think back to a time before all of this technology, when there was no Internet or even phones. Iceland was well and truly isolated back then, and this explains one of the greatest things (for a translation professional, anyway) about the Icelandic language: its near-perfect purity.
A Clear Throughline
If you want to see something remarkable, go find an obscure Icelandic text from the 13th Century – you know, one of those musty old poems that teachers sometimes try to interest us in during our university days – and show it to a young Icelandic child, and watch in amazement as they read it without any difficulty.
The reason this trick works is because modern Icelandic is extremely similar to Old Norse. And when I say similar, I mean that it’s practically the same language as that spoken by the Vikings. The differences are minor and easily overcome, even by children. If the same situation applied in America, people would be able to understand Old English as it was spoken before the Battle of Hastings.
Iceland’s isolation explains this. Where other Scandinavian countries in Northern Europe stem from the same language roots, they’ve been buffered and battered by outside influences that have shaped and transformed their own language. This process hasn’t happened in Iceland, and as a result the language has remained remarkably unchanged.
Resistance is Never Futile
The other aspect of Icelandic’s purity is the fact that Icelanders traditionally resist new words and foreign words, preferring to come up with their own Icelandic terms. This isn’t quite the same way that France tries to preserve French’s purity through legislation and rules; Icelanders are happy to adopt foreign terms when they have no native terms to use. But if they can come up with something purely Icelandic, they prefer that approach. For example, there is an old Icelandic word for ‘wire,’ simi. When telephones were introduced to Iceland, the Icelanders simply used the term simi, which made perfect sense and works perfectly well – and keeps Icelandic pure!
Icelandic is, of course, evolving just like any language, and it’s not the same language as Old Norse, not really. But it is remarkably unchanged and as a result is like stepping backwards in time when you learn it and speak it. At the same time it’s a thoroughly modern language – and quite beautiful, too!
Image courtesy en.wikipedia.org