As you saw in our article earlier this month, Icelandic is in danger of facing a “digital extinction.” However, just because the language is in danger by no means implies that there is not a beauty and richness to discover.
Spoken by around 350,000 worldwide, including 300,000 in Iceland itself and others in North America and Denmark, the language dates back to as early as 1100, in which the poems known as the Icelandic Sagas were written. Closely related to Norweigan, besides the adoption of a new alphabet in the 19th century to accommodate a mix of runic and Latin alphabets, the language remains largely based off of the “First Grammarian” of the 12th century. With 30 consonant sounds and 8 vowels, the spoken language is known for its emphasis on voiced sounds, which leds highly to the lyrical tone of the language.
Due to the isolated nature of the island and its relative lack of speakers, the language has remained largely unchanged since the 11th century, when the last major influx of vocabulary arrived with the Christians of Denmark. Those wishing to read the Icelandic Sagas do not require a modernization or translation, the text is still easily read by modern Icelanders.
Although Icelandic has remained relatively pure, it is not completely sheltered from other languages. While obviously the Nordic countries brought many loanwords with the invasion, there are have been other major impacts on the language in more recent years. In addition to the obvious influence of English, in particular brought on by the advent of YouTube, Netflix, and other worldwide services, Icelandic has also created its own pidgin that is a mix between Icelandic and Basque. While this may seem a strange pairing, it was developed as a way for whalers to communicate when whaling was one of the major industries of the country. The Basques would arrive to the cold waters of the Atlantic in search of fishing opportunities, and as there was no common language nor many similarities at all between the two languages, a fisherman’s pidgin eventually emerged. While not in any common use anywhere today, the pidgin is fairly well documented and represents an early example of globalization.