Iceland is a Nordic country located in the north of the Atlantic ocean. The island has a population of over 364 thousand people, as of January 2020.
With a very high GDP per capita, very low inequality, a focus on sustainable development, world-leading education, and the sort of natural beauty that attracts thousands of tourists every year, this 39,682 square miles country might be the best place for you to continue your education – or expand your business.
But integrating ourselves in Icelandic society might be an impossible challenge if we don’t speak the country’s language. So, it’s worth asking: What language is spoken in Iceland?
What Language is Spoken in Iceland?
According to a 2008 study from the Icelandic government, 93.2% of Iceland’s population speaks Icelandic. So, if your brand is working to expand to Iceland, Icelandic translation services are not optional. On the other hand, immigrants bring their own languages with them. So, 2.71% of the population speaks Polish, 0.43% speak Lithuanian, and 0.32% of the population speaks English.
Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, French, and Spanish are also present as the mother tongues of very small percentages of the population.
The History of Icelandic
Icelandic is a North Germanic language, sharing its roots with Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, and Faroese.
North Germanic languages are a subset of Indo-European languages and share roots with West Germanic languages.
It’s worth remembering that English is one of the West Germanic languages. As a result, English speakers might find cognates and minor similarities with their mother tongue.
In 874 AD, Norwegian explorer Ingólfr Arnason established the first settlement in Iceland. What followed was a slow process of development in which the colony built one of the world’s oldest functioning legislative assemblies: the Althing. Later on, the country remained under Norwegian protection until the Kalmar union opened the doors for a Danish rule. The Danish government, however, remained distant both geographically and culturally. As we can see, Iceland’s history is bound to its Scandinavian heritage, and the country’s language is no exception.
Aside from English cognates (which, luckily, abound), Icelandic has a very archaic vocabulary. Due to the island’s geographical isolation from mainland Europe, the Icelandic language is far more conservative than other Nordic tongues. This linguistic purity is reflected, for example, in the relative absence of neologisms, and the search for Old Nordic words to refer to modern objects. For example, the Icelandic word for electricity (“rafmagn”) literally means amber power, calquing the Greek etymology of “elektron”, the Greek word for electricity, which literally meant “amber power”.
Meanwhile, the Icelandic alphabet retains two characters that were common to earlier Germanic languages, Thorn (Þ, þ) and Eth (Ð, ð). The preservation of the local language is not only a State policy but also a cultural concern in Iceland’s society and academia. The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies conducts research on Islandic linguistics, literature and culture.
How Hard is it to Learn Icelandic?
The U.S. Department of State’s School of Language Studies categorizes languages according to how hard it tends to be for an English speaker to learn them.
Despite its Germanic roots, Icelandic is a Category III language, due to its “significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English”.
English and Icelandic are very different languages.
As Matt Eliason shared, writing for Iceland Mag:
“The two biggest difficulties I’ve had learning the Icelandic language is, first, pronouncing the words (…) Not only are the words extremely long, the specific syllables are pronounced completely different from your typical English syllables.
Second, the conjugations are extremely confusing. I have taken Spanish and had no problem learning the different endings to the root words, however, Icelandic is an entirely different animal that gave me headaches trying to figure out what ending to throw on each word.”
Icelandic is a very irregular language, with a noun morphology system that might be very unpredictable for a language learner. Verbs, on the other hand, can be modified for tense, mood, number, and person, just like they would in most Indo-European languages. While there are four cases, most verbs’ declinations have to be memorized. Adjectives, on the other hand, can be declined in up to 130 different ways.
Any language student knows that the easier languages for you to learn are those close to your mother tongue. For instance, a Spanish speaker will probably have a rougher time learning Swedish than learning Italian.
Icelandic’s closest extant relative is Faroese, the language spoken in the Faroe Islands. While they are not mutually intelligible when spoken, the similarities between the languages are visible in their written forms.
But, in spite of how daunting Icelandic might seem, according to the Icelandic Ministry of Education, more than 200 thousand people from all over the world have accepted the challenge, and are currently studying the language online.