The Icelandic language is often used as an example of a very conservative language, compared to other Indo-European languages, in general, and to other North-Germanic languages, in particular, all of which have changed a lot over the past few centuries.

The retainment of its complex inflectional morphology since the Middle Ages is part of the evidence presented in support of its conservatism. It is often claimed that modern Icelandic speakers can even read the Icelandic Sagas (written about 800 years ago) with just a bit of extra effort.

So, first of all, is Icelandic that conservative, as claimed? If so, what explains such phenomenon?

up vote 16 down vote accepted

Yes, Icelandic is quite conservative compared to many other Indo-European languages - it could be compared to Latin in terms of the complex morphology it retains.

There are a number of explanations for this. The geographical isolation of Iceland (being an island) means that speakers of Icelandic had less direct contact with speakers of other languages, and therefore there were fewer competing influences from other languages. Prolonged contact with languages that have very different features is generally considered to have a role in the stripping-down of inflectional systems - English is a good example of this. (Though there was, apparently, a Basque-Icelandic pidgin spoken in the 17th century.)

Similarly, the population of Iceland is mostly made up of people who are Icelandic, and the number of Icelandic-speaking people living outside of Iceland is relatively small. Iceland is also a relatively small geographical area, with the majority of the population concentrated around the Reykjavik area (200,000 out of 320,000). The dialectal differences are minimal, because the population is not dispersed in the same way as in other countries, and homogeneity in a language can be self-reinforcing of its characteristics.

Other factors may also contribute to the conservative nature of the language - there is a recent dissertation on language change and stability in Icelandic which suggests that "strong linguistic nationalism and a stability-oriented language policy, are instrumental in creating the sociolinguistic conditions in Iceland which support language stability". This is interesting, because while 'language academies' such as the Académie française and similar policy-creating bodies generally hold little sway against the tide of language change, the attitudes of speakers themselves can be very influential, and this may be of particular relevance in Iceland.

Lastly, while Icelandic is still remarkably similar to Old Icelandic (which is essentially Old Norse), the ability of speakers to easily read the old sagas is usually exaggerated (so i've been told by Icelandic people). It's a bit like English speakers reading Shakespeare - you usually have to read a modern version with lots of footnotes and explanations and modernized spelling (because the pronunciation has changed quite a bit over the centuries). Even so, this is pretty impressive - Shakespeare is only four hundred years worth of change for English speakers, while the Icelandic sagas are about twice as old.

  • 4
    by the way, Lithuanian is also very conservative in IE family. – nb1 Jan 17 '12 at 12:34
  • 3
    The ways in which Icelandic and Lithuanian are conservative are somewhat different. Icelandic is remarkably close in many ways to a language we know about that was spoken a thousand years ago. We know very little about the language of a thousand years ago that Lithuanian derived from, because records of Baltic languages do not go back more than around 500 years. It is true that Lithuanian seems to preserve a good deal of the accidence of Indo-European (several thousand years ago), but not its phonology. – Colin Fine Mar 11 '12 at 23:47
  • The pidgin mentioned was only written down in Iceland, not derived from its language. – Aaron Brick Dec 19 '16 at 19:17

Icelandic is less conservative than it used to be-- it has started taking loan words from English. There is some immigration where there used to be virtually none (before a hundred years ago)-- but as far as this hobbyist can tell, a population of Icelandic-as-a-second-language speakers hasn't done anything to simplify the grammar. I predict the first distinction to go if immigration were to expand would be the difference between the definite article suffixes "-inn" "-in", which for an adult learner like me is about impossible to hear. (And this change already happened in modern Swedish)

I wouldn't attribute any of Iceland's conservationism to nationalism because nationalism has only been an important factor in the last hundred years. If you enjoy Icelandic movies, set a good number of years ago, in Seagull's Laughter, you will see that characters very clearly saw Danish and Denmark as the prestigious culture and language -- which certainly is not the case at the moment.

For the other 900 years of Iceland's history, the isolating geography has been the driving force in the evolution of the language. No immigrants, not much trade, an imperial government that mostly ignored the island, a small island where people routinely would move to far corners of the island to intermix and marry, all led to a homogeneous language with language change, but only of the internal variety.

  • +1 for Seagull's Laughter. I'll certainly watch it! – Otavio Macedo Jan 17 '12 at 15:28
  • Would you please give an example of the changes happened in modern Swedish (except the loss of att in most infinitive clauses)? – Manjusri Dec 12 '13 at 8:05
  • I was referring to the loss of distinction between feminine and masculine gender, which is entirely plausible since they relied on a subtle difference in pronunciation that a Swedish as a 2nd language learner could have easily missed. This of course happened a long time ago before modern immigration. ref: en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Swedish/Nouns#Gender – MatthewMartin Dec 12 '13 at 15:06

Icelandic is a very isolated language and by that I mean that it isn't really surrounded by any other languages close by. The only language it was influenced by in the last couple of hundred years is probably Danish, which has to do with the fact that the Danish conquered Iceland.

So Icelandic was able to change, but there were no other influence besides that.

Also nowadays it has picked up some English words, but they made a committee (like to French) to preserve the language and to invent new Icelandic words for new stuff.

One aspect I seem to be missing in other reactions is the literary tradition; I've read that the fact Icelanders love(d) to read the stories from their past has helped to adhere to a type of early standardised language. Also the regular national meetings at the parliament at Þingvellr are said to have had their influence.

  • 1
    Interesting! Can you provide references to back up this assertion? – Otavio Macedo Dec 12 '13 at 9:48
  • The sagas were memorized, so that meant there was always a few people in the community with a memorized text that was recited to the rest of the community, sort of the way that the Modern English speaking world maintains a link with Elizabethan English through seeing Shakespeare. The language wasn't standardized so much as that's just the dynamics of bulk memorized texts, with similar results with Buddhist Pali texts and Hindu Upanishads, both managed to preserve dead languages and influence modern ones (esp via Sanskritization) – MatthewMartin Dec 12 '13 at 15:14

Your Answer

 

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.