The Icelandic language may not be one of the most widely spoken languages nowadays, nor is it among the most popular or in high demand, but that does not mean that its past, history, and how it has evolved to this day less fascinating. Perhaps if you are a lover of the Viking culture, languages in general, or just curious, here you can learn more about Iceland's language.
What language do they speak in Iceland?
Icelandic is the language spoken in Iceland. It is the native language of approximately 320,000 people. Although it is official only in Iceland, speakers of this language can also be found in areas such as Canada due to the settlement of Icelanders in regions of the Manitoba province.
Modern Icelandic is the result of specific changes over time, such as going from using the Runic Futhark alphabet used by the Vikings to using Latin. To this day, they still maintain certain letters such as The letter Edh Ð, the letter Thor Þ and the letter Ash Æ.
To give the language a bit of background without getting too formal on linguistics, we will dig into Icelandic's origins and previous circumstances. As you may already know, Iceland is a remote island located in the North Atlantic Ocean, close to the Arctic Circle. The island had no native peoples and was uninhabited, and that comes as no surprise given its latitude and weather conditions.
That was no obstacle for the Irish monks, the first explorers to set foot in Iceland and stay for a while. Their solitude came to an end as soon as the giant Northman head to the island. They came directly from Norway or its neighboring colonies in the Faroe Islands or The Hebrides. These Northman were the fiery Vikings, who brought their language with them, which would evolve into Icelandic.
What language did the Vikings speak?
Vikings spoke Old Norse, a language of the North Germanic group. It was a branch that derived directly from a Germanic language that was spoken around 500 BC. That language began to spread little by little across the north of Europe. Therefore, how people used the speech started to change and led to the creation of various dialects such as Proto-Nordic that would gradually become Old Norse, the language spoken by the Vikings when they arrived in Iceland. Modern Icelandic has had specific changes overtime, and it is not precisely the same language it was centuries ago.
Despite this change, Icelandic is the language that has changed the least from the language originally spoken by the Vikings. Did you know that children can understand the Sagas and Eddas written about 800 years ago in Old Norse even today? Awesome, right? The island's location played a prominent role in preserving the language of Iceland closer to its origin. Nowadays, you can get to Iceland in a couple of hours from mainland Europe and quickly get across the island with a rental car in Iceland. But back in the days, it wasn't so.
Navigating the North Sea would take a lot of time and could only be done in certain seasons. Therefore, those who remain on the island barely had any influence or influx of foreign languages or other cultures. Even in this modern era where other languages, such as English, are well taught everywhere, Icelandic has kept its vocabulary remarkably intact and avoided borrowing from other languages. That keeps the language way purer.
Do they speak English in Iceland?
Yes, 90% of Icelanders speak English fluently. The fact that we want to preserve our language as pure as possible does not mean we need to find common ground when it comes to communicating with visitors. Icelandic is pretty much ruled out of the equation as we understand it is a complex language, grammatically and phonetically. So, no tourist will learn Icelandic properly for just over a week of vacation.
Therefore, we don't expect travelers and visitors to speak to us in Icelandic or learn it for just a couple of days or weeks. Hence, English in Iceland has become the most used tool to communicate with travelers. In Iceland, almost 90% of the population is fluent in English. Of course, this percentage may vary depending on the area and the age group. Remote locations and older people may not speak it fluently, but they still understand and speak basic English. So, if you speak Shakespeare's language, you will have no problem communicating and traveling around the island.
Common Icelandic phrases
Even though we don't expect travelers to speak any Icelandic, you can still surprise a local using some Icelandic words or phrases from time to time. Here you have some valuable words, their meaning, and their pronunciation.
Translating Icelandic to English
Even though most stores and restaurants have their signs and menus translated into English, you may still find several signs available only in Icelandic. You can then use several tools to communicate efficiently and deal with the language barrier.
- Webtran: it is a great site to translate Icelandic to English and vice versa. Not only words but also short texts. Do not be fool by their not-so-modern look; it works pretty well.
- Google Translate: Of course, this is the tool we all know. It may not be as accurate as Webtran, but it has some great tools, such as voicing out words, so you can either pronounce them yourself or let others hear the translation.
- Google Translate app: available for both Android and Ios; this app has some exciting features. The one that I love the most is the image translation option. You open the app, select the camera, point to the image where the Icelandic text is written, and it gives you the immediate translation to English or your chosen language. Just like the website option, it is sometimes not so accurate, but it will, for sure, give you a rough and approximate idea of what is written in billboards and signs, should you need to know.
- Icelandic - English Translator 2021: it is a free app to translate words and text from Icelandic. It is easy and fast, can also be used like a dictionary. Its free version does contain ads.
We hope you find this information quite helpful, and it stays with you after closing this tab. So, as we say in Iceland: Takk fyrir, Bless bless! - thank you very much and see you later!