The Day of the Icelandic Language (Dagur Íslenskar Tungu) is celebrated each year on 16 November, which is also the birthday of the famous and beloved Icelandic poet Jónas Hallgrímsson. In his poetry he often mentioned Iceland, its landscapes, people, and his deep love for the country. Every year, the Jónas Hallgrímsson Award is given to someone who has contributed to the language.
Although it still seems to be Mission Impossible to learn the language, we’re all in love with every consonant, vowel and sound of it. Also it’s a good opportunity to celebrate, so if anyone is in the mood today, raise your glasses to Icelandic. *clink*
A (very) short history of the Icelandic Language
Iceland was first settled in the 9th century by Norwegians, so at this time the same language was spoken in Iceland and Norway as well. No significant changes occurred in the vocabulary till the 11th century, the introduction of Christianity, when new religious concepts were introduced requiring new names in the language. These words were mostly taken from other Scandinavian languages. Icelandic also has some loanwords from English, French, Low German, Danish and German. The modern Icelandic alphabet has developed from a standard established by a Danish linguist in the 19th century.
The pronunciation of the language has changed a lot since the old days, but the written version has not changed much in the past thousand years. It means that modern speakers can understand sagas and Eddas written hundreds of years ago! (With the help of some footnotes and modern spelling, but still, an impressive thing.)
How many words are in Icelandic and how many of them are used?
As I was studying for my exams, an interesting question popped into my head and gave me a pretty good excuse to procrastinate for a while.
Of course it’s borderline impossible to count all the words in a language. There are new ones invented every day, some of them don’t even make it to the official dictionaries. The words that never appear in print are called “augnablikssamsetningar” which means that they were “assembled in a moment”. There are also some archaic words that haven’t been used for centuries, but nevertheless, they are part of the vocabulary.
For new concepts and ideas Icelanders rather introduce new compound words instead of using the foreign equivalent. Icelandic is a North-Germanic language and like other Germanic languages it has the tendency to be compounded. This is how words like “vaðlaheiðarvegavinnuverkfærageymsluskúraútidyralyklakippuhringur (a ring on a key chain for the main door of a tool storage shed used by road workers on (the hill) Vaðlaheiði”)” are created.
About ten years ago a research was conducted on determining the number of words in written Icelandic. This study includes all words that appeared in print between 1540 and the mid-eighties and helps to give an estimated number of words occurring in the language. If we consider that quite a lot of words have been created since – just think of the new compound words, slang, technological vocabulary etc. – the study might be a bit obsolete but still, this is the only official source we have. And it contains 610,000 words of which about 519,000 were compound words, half of them only occurring only once in the source documents. That’s quite a lot, isn’t it?
If you feel like, share with us why you like/don’t like Icelandic, we would be happy to hear other opinions besides ours. Have a nice Sunday everyone!