The Purification of the Icelandic Language

Dec 8, 2011 by

BY JONATHAN POTTER (“Languages of the World”)

Languages borrow words from each other all the time. If you are not convinced, try ordering food from an Italian restaurant without saying any words borrowed from Italian. (Hint: it’s impossible.) Some language communities, however, do not look favorably upon this process, and they do their utmost to reverse and prevent it. Nationalism, especially in politically dominant nations or nations yearning for independence, often motivates linguistic purism – the eradication of foreign words from a language. Iceland is one such nation. From the 18th to 20th centuries, Iceland worked diligently to keep its language pure of internal drift and external influence. Using different methods, the Icelandic people have substituted words based on native roots for words borrowed from foreign languages.

Before delving into the process by which Iceland worked towards linguistic purism, let us first foray into some of Iceland’s history in order to obtain a clearer idea of why Iceland might assert the need to purify its language and what the barriers to this process might be. Iceland was first settled by people from the Scandinavian region in the late 9th century. For most of its existence to date, Iceland has been more or less under Danish control. As one can imagine, the Icelandic and Danish languages are very closely related as a result. However, the geographic separation did cause the two languages to differentiate from each other. In addition to Danish, English has had a significant influence on Icelandic. This influence dates back to 11th century missions conducted by British missionaries. It became particularly acute during World War II, when Britain occupied Iceland. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the pervasiveness of English has made it the most commonly learned second language in Iceland over Danish.

During the 12th and 13th centuries, Iceland had a sort of Renaissance in its writing. At the forefront of this Renaissance were The Sagas, a compilation of historically based tales written from the late 12th century to the end of the 13th century. Publications during this time were a significant factor in Iceland’s later resistance to linguistic change. Since this period, the written word has continued to hold high importance in Icelandic culture. According to the Bureau of European and Eurasian affairs, Iceland currently has a 99.9% literacy rate as well as the highest number of publications per person in the world. A country so devoted to literature would understandably want to take whatever measures necessary to preserve the accessibility of the texts written during its golden age.

The notion of actively purifying the Icelandic language did not actually arise until 1780, when a collection of Icelandic students proposed a language policy geared towards keeping the Icelandic language pure. The policy effectively said that an active effort should be made to remove foreign words from Icelandic and replace them with newly coined words built from native Norse roots. It allowed the exception of foreign words found in 13th or 14th century Icelandic writings. This proposal was followed shortly by a claim by Danish linguist Rasmus Rask that Icelandic would not have long to live in the absence of institutionalized enforcement on its behalf. Since the proposal was made, the Icelandic government has strived to enforce it. This was demonstrated most notably by the establishment of two institutions: the Icelandic Language Council in 1964 and the Icelandic Language Institute in 1985. The former primarily works on language planning, the process by which policies surrounding Icelandic language purification are constructed. The latter concentrates more on educating people about these policies via consultation.

We can see from the 1780 proposal why linguistic purism in Iceland is generally considered more “pure” than purism in other languages. Some languages tend to abide by an “evolutionary purism,” where the rigor of the purism is concentrated in the period of initial standardization, and evolution thereafter is permitted. Icelandic, by contrast, has undergone “stable purism,” where the effort to maintain linguistic purism continues well beyond the time at which a language is standardized.

How exactly do language institutions go about finding replacements for foreign words? Iceland has made use of a few different methods. The first of these is calquing, or combining native roots into a compound word in order to imitate the same compound word in another language. An example is the Icelandic word rafmagn, meaning “electricity” and coming from the Icelandic translations for the Greek roots for “amber” and “power.” The second method is formal hybridity, in which words combine both native and foreign roots. The third method is phonosemantic matching, in which both a word’s structure and its roots can come from either the native language or a foreign language and the resulting word sounds and looks similar to its foreign counterpart. An example of this is the Icelandic word for AIDS, eyδni. While the word looks like it may have come directly from its English translation, it is actually derived from the Icelandic word for “to destroy,” eyδa. The last method is the rejuvenation of old words with new meanings. For example, Icelandic uses the old word tolva to mean “computer.”

Linguistic purism in Iceland is still confronted by many challenges today. One of the most significant is the prevalence of English in a wide variety of media. This is not to say that Iceland resists the use of English; to the contrary, most Icelanders become fluent in English as a second language. In spite of the global phenomenon of linguistic osmosis, however, Iceland has been reasonably successful at maintaining its own language. It is recognized as a uniform language, one that does not have any dialects. In addition, texts from the heyday of Icelandic literature can still be comprehended by readers in the present day.


Works Cited
“Background Note: Iceland.” Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. 8 Nov. 2011. 7 Dec. 2011.

“The Icelandic Language.” Nordic Adventure Travel. 2011. 7 Dec. 2011.

“List of Calques.” Wikipedia. 27 Oct. 2011. 7 Dec. 2011.

Sapir, Yair and Ghil’ad Zuckermann. “Icelandic: Phonosemantic Matching.” Globally Speaking: Motives for Adopting English Vocabulary in Other Languages. Ed. Judith Rosenhouse and Rotem Kowner. Clevdon – Buffalo – Toronto: Multilingual Matters, 2008. 296-325. Online.

Thomas, George. Linguistic Purism. Longman, 1991.

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