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Project Hamlet

Medievalists.net: From Old Norse to Modern Icelandic

What is modern Icelandic? It is the official language of the Republic of Iceland, with some 315,000 native speakers. It is the tongue that is the closest to what has been called Old Norse, spoken in Scandinavia and, to some extent, in the British Isles during the early Middle Ages; from the twelfth century, it is the written language in Iceland, and it has been kept ‘pure’ on purpose: in modern Icelandic, there are none of the internationally used words of Greek or Latin extraction, such as television, telephone, satellite, etc. All new terms are coined and customized on the basis of Icelandic derivatives. Thus the language spoken and written in Iceland today is quite close to what has been called Old Norse, such as it appears in the medieval texts. The linguistic territory is Iceland, a rugged, volcanic isle between the Atlantic Ocean and the Arctic Sea. A huge rock in the middle of the ocean, covered with glaciers, tall mountains, wide lava-fields, long dark winters and midnight suns. Sturdy, horned sheep graze in the sparse meadows, and the small Icelandic horse runs wild across the wasted lands.  Indeed, Icelandic as it was written in the twelfth century is a gold mine for those looking for evidence in the archaeology of knowledge and of language.