In our new series this year, Language of the Month, we are looking at twelve of the world’s nearly 6000 fascinating languages, one each month. Join us on this trip around the globe and discover facts, trivia and insider information about some awesome languages!
Language family: North Germanic (part of the Indo-European family)
Number of speakers: 358,000
Writing system: Latin
Official language in: Iceland
HISTORY OF THE LANGUAGE
One of the most often repeated mantra in linguistics is that “languages change”. Just look at English and how much it has changed throughout the centuries, the small, gradual shifts transforming the language completely over the years. (Try to read 9th-century Beowulf, for example!)
This linguistic dogma is not quite true for Icelandic, however. This ancient language, which developed on a small island relatively far from anything and so rather protected from outside influences, has hardly changed at all in the last few centuries. This means that Icelandic schoolkids can easily read texts from the Middle Ages – it would be a much more complicated task for English pupils.
This ancient language has another peculiarity besides its unchangeability: in Icelandic there are no family names! While in most languages you will find family names that are passed on from generation to generation, marking the line of succession, in Icelandic the last name is formed from one of parents’ first name – most often the father’s – in a similar manner to Slavic patronymics. So, if we take the famous singer’s full name, Björk Guðmundsdóttir, any Icelander will know that she is Björk, the daughter of Guðmundur.
My name is… Ég heiti…
Thank you Takk
WHAT OUR LINGUISTS SAY…
If you think of bold Icelandic sagas and fearless Vikings living in cruel weather conditions, you might imagine a harsh language to go with it, however, as Karlotta, one of our Icelandic translators explains, “Icelandic sounds softer than many people think. We use the letters ‘þ’ and ‘ð’ that sound like the ‘th’ in ‘thing’ and ‘thus’, respectively. Maybe that’s why people find it soft.” She said that “someone who had never heard it before once told [her] that it sounded like kittens speaking.”
(I find this a rather good comparison, if you listen to Icelandic and close your eyes, you can easily picture some soft-pawed kitties sneaking around…!)
Icelandic might be easy on the ears but when it comes to grammar, it’s a real beast. Françoise, one of our translators who works from Icelandic into French, jokingly notes that one has to be perhaps a bit of a “masochist to undertake to learn it”. She adds that “studying Icelandic is a lifetime commitment.”
So, let’s see this grammar! There are three grammatical genders, like in German – not a too bad start –, and then there are “strong” and “weak” nouns. Nouns, adjectives and pronouns can all be declined in four different cases (nominative, accusative, dative and genitive), and in two numbers (singular and plural). Not confused enough? There is more! There is no indefinite article (a/an) in Icelandic, and what would be considered the definite article (the) is usually stuck to the end of the noun! Of course, there are several exceptions, too. So, I think we can take Karlotta’s word for it when she says that “Icelandic has a more complex grammar than English.”
As a true grammar addict, Françoise is fascinated by the nuances of the Icelandic language. Her “favourite grammatical form is the so-called ‘middle voice’, a reflective form of the verb, e.g. ‘andast’ (to smother), ‘sjáumst’ (‘bye’, literally ‘let’s see each other very soon’) and also ‘fæðast’ (to be born).” She also likes “unusual constructions such as ‘húsið hans Björns’ for ‘Björn’s house’ (or literally ‘the house – his – Björn’s’).”
The grammatical fun doesn’t end here, though. (Sorry, we linguists can sometimes just go on and on about grammar!) As mentioned above, each noun has its own gender assigned to it and these grammatical genders might not coincide with general notions: “Some nouns are resolutely feminine like ‘hetja’ (= hero)” explains Françoise. This means that you can have sentences like “Colin er hetja”, or literally, “Colin is a heroine”. Isn’t this fascinating?
According to the well-known stereotypes, the English love to talk about the weather and the English language has countless expressions and idioms related to it. But what about Icelanders? Well, they also have their own special way of discussing the forecast. Being an island, Iceland is a rather windy place, so there are some clever words for expressing various types of wind! You can start with “gola” (breeze), continue with “stinningsgola” (wind force 4 or moderate breeze), go on with “kaldi” (wind force 5 or fresh breeze), then “stinningskaldi” (wind force 6, strong breeze), then end up with “stormur” and “rok” (storm and gale). Mind blown!
But the beautifully specific weather vocabulary is not the only charm the language has. Let’s close the blog post with Karlotta’s favourite word which is truly lovely and poetic: “I like the word ‘ljósmóðir’, which is Icelandic for ‘midwife’. It literally means ‘light mother’. I suppose it’s because it’s the person that helps bring the baby into daylight for the first time…”
If you have any questions about Icelandic or translations in general, or have a translation request, don’t hesitate to get in touch by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone on 01223 356 733.