I've heard that Icelandic has changed so little in the past 1,000 years that even millennium-old texts (such as the prose Edda) are still intelligible to modern people who speak Icelandic.

Is this actually true? I admit, I believe I've also heard that this is partially thanks to a spelling reform that re-made modern Icelandic spelling in such a way that someone who was literate in modern Icelandic could make sense of really ancient texts written in an earlier version of the language.

This actually fascinates me. If true, that means that I could actually learn to read an ancient text, in its original language, by simply learning a modern language that I would actually get some use out of.

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    Wikipedia: "written Icelandic has changed relatively little since the 13th century. As a result of this, and of the similarity between the modern and ancient grammar, modern speakers can still understand, more or less, the original sagas and Eddas that were written some 800 years ago. This ability is sometimes mildly overstated by Icelanders themselves, most of whom actually read the Sagas with updated modern spelling and footnotes—though otherwise intact."
    – tripleee
    Jun 27, 2018 at 4:17
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    Note that the pronunciation has changed a lot. Many people just learn modern Icelandic and then jump to Old Norse texts with the modern pronunciation anyway (I expect this is how most native Icelanders probably do it). Others learn the reconstructed Old Norse pronunciation to try and get closer to the original texts (this is especially relevant for poetry). I've seen people who deliberately avoid one or the other pronunciation to prevent confusion, while others just go and learn both. In my opinion the orthography isn't that difficult, so learn both is doable. Jun 27, 2018 at 8:16

3 Answers 3


I’m not an Icelander but I do speak Icelandic proficiently and I’ve read the Grœnlendingasaga in Old Icelandic. It’s true to an extent, but it’s an exaggerated claim. As you mentioned, modern editions of the Sagas and Eddas are printed using a standardized orthography which is designed to look like Modern Icelandic, but the actual manuscripts are not comprehensible at all. The orthography is completely different in manuscript: there’s lots of ligatures, vowel length isn’t marked, and there’s no standardized spelling. Scribes wrote things mainly as if they were writing in Latin with a few special tweaks (like þ and ð). Also, modern editions purposefully ignore phonetic details which were present in Old Icelandic but absent in Modern Icelandic: nasal vowels aren’t marked, no distinction is made between /ɛ/ and /e/ or /œ/ and /ø/, and so on. Basically, the answer is “Yes, sort of, only because modern editors have changed the texts’ spelling system to look like the modern language.”

This claim is only taking things like spelling and morphology into account, which are mostly the same between Modern (Standard) Icelandic and modern editions of the Sagas and Eddas. Vocabulary is harder, because a lot of words no longer exist or don’t mean the same thing as they used to, or they reference things which had specific cultural meaning at the time of writing which get “lost in translation” to the modern culture. I don’t think a lot of people know enough about medieval Norse seafaring to know what an “öndvegissúlur” is, for example (a type of wooden pillar in Norse boats). Syntax is even more divergent between Old Icelandic and Modern Icelandic, and it really takes a lot of doing to get used to the older syntactic system which permitted a much greater range of stylistic variation. This is pure speculation, but I think this idea probably came about during the 19th century independence movement, when Icelanders started looking backwards and identifying themselves with the medieval past to establish an independent national character from Denmark, and when interest in Old Icelandic language and literature really started coming to the fore as a matter of national pride and identity.


Can modern speakers of English read Beowulf? Can modern speakers of Arabic read the Qur’an? Yes, but only if they have learned it in school. Why can educated speakers of Modern Greek read (just about) Herodotus’s history of the Persian Empire, while educated speakers of Modern Persian cannot read the Old Persian inscriptions from the same period? It is because Ancient Greek is taught in schools in Greece, but Ancient Persian is not taught in schools in Iran. The situation is presumably similar in Iceland.

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    This is a start, but implicitly assumes that the rate and direction of language change can be ignored. You need to take into account the presence or absence of major changes which occur in some languages but not others, and the efforts to control, constrain, or direct language change by the speaker community. Modern education practices is but a small factor in that.
    – tripleee
    Jun 27, 2018 at 10:57
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    Unsatisfactory answer. Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Beowulf are all published with marginal Modern English glosses, just like it sounds the Eddas are. Can I make sense of Beowulf with one gloss per verse or two, and minimal formal training in Old English? Arguably no. Can I make sense of Chaucer with one gloss per verse or two, and minimal formal training in Middle English? Arguably yes. (I've done it as an undergrad, before I did linguistics, and after reading a couple of paras of explanation.) Jun 27, 2018 at 13:49
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    (cont) The question is how far would you get with a knowledge of the modern language and (as @tripleee indicates) minimal annotation. There is a difference in accessibility between Shakespeare and Beowulf. And as a native speaker, I'm not convinced at all that educated speakers of Modern Greek would breeze through Herodotus; but they can cope with the New Testament. Jun 27, 2018 at 13:54
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    No, modern English speakers can't make sense of the original text of Beowulf. Its overwhelmingly obvious that it wouldn't even be remotely intelligible to a modern English speaker. Ironically, the English of Beowulf bears far more resemblance to modern German than English. Also, Beowulf isn't part of the American curriculum. And the only versions I've seen are translated into modern English. Shakespeare is intelligible, but everyone uses versions with updated spelling and lots of side notes. The first time I saw how English was spelled in his time, I didn't even recognize it as English.
    – user19661
    Jun 27, 2018 at 14:17
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    Aren't there any Icelandic speakers in this group? We all have opinions, of course, but there's no substitute for native speaker intuition, especially as this is a complex question that covers a lot of individual variation, in interests and skills as well as native language. It really does call for intuition. I spose that makes it off topic unless an Icelander can rescue it.
    – jlawler
    Jun 27, 2018 at 15:14

This is true, apparently Icelandic is the most archaic language in Europe or so I have heard. It has changed almost nothing in the last 1000 years, so anyone who has a decent grasp of the language can read the old texts.

I have read the edda and understand most with the exception of dead words, that are no longer used in modern Icelandic, and changes to meaning from old Icelandic to what is spoken today.

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    While I'm willing to believe that Icelandic has conserved an astonishing amount of features, the prose Edda is not that old. Most Italian speakers can read the Cantico delle Creature, which is roughly contemporaneous to the prose Edda. Granted, it's a much shorter text. Oct 19, 2018 at 16:08
  • It is accurate that the Edda is not that old. The point of the OP is not the age of the text in comparison with other cultures, it is the amount which has remained unchanged in the language itself as remaining comprehensible over 800-900 years where other scandinavian languages such as norweigan evolve differently and do not so easily read the same text.
    – Selmystic
    Nov 1, 2018 at 19:20
  • @Jenrune, but doesn't Denis Nardin's comment show that Italian has remained similarly unchanged? It should be stated though, that even though Old Norse was a major change from Proto-(North)-Germanic, it still retains a lot of the Proto-Germanic inflection in one form of another. Italian doesn't retain the case distinctions of Latin. Dec 19, 2018 at 12:25

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