Icelandic, a North Germanic language, is predominantly spoken in Iceland by its entire population of approximately 330,000 people in the early 21st century. Developed from the Norse speech brought by settlers from western Norway in the 9th and 10th centuries, it is closely related to Western Norwegian and Faroese languages, and it also shares similarities with the now extinct Norn language.
While the majority of Icelandic speakers reside in Iceland, the language has also spread to other countries. Notably, it is spoken by about 8,000 individuals in Denmark, 5,000 people in the United States, and over 1,400 people in Canada, particularly in a region called “New Iceland” in Manitoba, which was settled by Icelanders starting in the 1880s.
Historically, Iceland has been an isolated and linguistically homogeneous island. However, due to northern trade routes, languages like German, English, Dutch, French, and Basque have also made their way to the country at different points in time. Despite this, Icelandic remains the prevalent language spoken by its inhabitants.
Where Icelandic is Spoken
The official language of Iceland is Icelandic, which is spoken by at least 300,000 of the 336,000 people who live there. Iceland has a 100 percent literacy rate, and according to a semi-official source, about 97 percent of Icelanders speak Icelandic as their mother tongue.
Historically, Icelandic was spoken throughout the Nordic countries, as well as within certain regions of England, Ireland, and Scotland (including the Shetland Islands, the Orkney Islands, and the Hebrides), some parts of France and Russia, and even as far south as Constantinople. However, in modern times, Icelandic is primarily spoken in Iceland itself.
Aside from the above, Icelandic is spoken by around 5,000 people in the United States, and more than 1,400 people in Canada, notably in the region known as New Iceland in Manitoba, which was settled by Icelanders beginning in the 1880s.
Although Icelandic speakers can be found worldwide, the majority of them reside in Iceland and have strong ties to Icelandic heritage and culture. The Icelandic community in other countries often make efforts to preserve and promote the language and tradition.
Old Norse Influence
The Icelandic language finds its roots in Old Norse, which was spoken by settlers who came to the island from western Norway in the 9th and 10th centuries. According to Britannica, Icelandic belongs to the West Scandinavian group of North Germanic languages, sharing close connections with Norwegian and Faroese.
In the early history of Iceland, the language was influenced by Gaelic, as many of the first settlers had Celtic origins. However, Old Norse exerted a stronger and more long-lasting impact on the development of Icelandic.
Over the centuries, the Icelandic language has remained relatively unchanged due in large part to the island’s isolation. The country’s geographical remoteness protected the language from the influences of neighboring nations. The Languages of Iceland article on Wikipedia points out that, although trade routes in the past brought German, English, Dutch, French, and Basque to Iceland, the Icelandic or Norse language has prevailed as the main language spoken by its inhabitants.
From its Old Norse beginnings, Icelandic has evolved only slightly. According to Iceland.org, the language was formally established as the official language of Iceland in 2011, and it is now spoken by around 314,000 native speakers.
Linguistic isolation and historical circumstances have made Icelandic a uniquely preserved language, offering a fascinating insight into the early days of North Germanic language development.
Modern Icelandic Usage
Icelandic is the national language of Iceland and spoken by the majority of its residents. While the language has a relatively small population of native speakers, Icelandic still thrives in various aspects of modern society, such as education, literature, and media.
The Icelandic language is taught as the primary language in schools throughout Iceland. The country boasts a high literacy rate, with nearly 100% of the population being literate. In addition to Icelandic, English and Danish are also taught as mandatory foreign languages in schools, broadening the communication abilities of Icelandic citizens.
Iceland has a rich literary tradition, dating back to the Middle Ages when Norse sagas were recorded in Old Icelandic. Today, Icelandic literature continues to thrive with numerous contemporary authors producing works in the native language. The country also has a robust translation industry, with many foreign literary works being translated into Icelandic for local readers.
Icelandic is the dominant language in local media outlets across the country. Television and radio programs, newspapers, and online news sources all primarily deliver content in the Icelandic language. Though some media outlets do provide English translations, the focus remains on serving the Icelandic-speaking audience.
Moreover, the Icelandic government actively promotes the use of Icelandic in media through the Icelandic Language Centre, which provides support and resources for those working in the field.