From Old Norse to Modern Icelandic

old norse

From Old Norse to Modern Icelandic

By Ólöf Pétursdóttir

old norse

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, following Michel Foucault’s example, for instance in his Folie et déraison, where he studies what is said while also taking a long, hard look at what is left unsaid. (Foucault 1961)


A bit of archaeology

Several places in Iceland bear names with a Celtic ring to them, and recent archaeological findings point to settlements older than the ones officially recognized. The archaeology of language also yields several words that are obviously loanwords from Celtic languages, and a great many of those do not figure prominently in other Scandinavian languages. The oral tradition in Iceland still carries motifs and patterns that have a distinct Celtic feel to them. The unique literary tradition in Iceland springs from such an oral tradition; a saga’s plot is more often than not embedded in a cunningly wrought dróttkvæði at its center, a piece of compactly rhymed text containing linguistically archaic forms. The rhymes and rhythm served to help memorize the text, and such texts apparently managed to survive in the Icelandic oral tradition for up to three hundred years, although a great many epic poems, of which we only know the headings or stray quotations, have been lost.

It must be borne in mind that the ancient manuscripts are written in a language that remains understandable to the modern Icelandic reader. It is also worth mentioning that grammatical treaties were also written in Iceland in the course of twelfth century. The first such grammatical treaty sets forth an alphabet for written Icelandic, and it also deals with the phonology of Icelandic, vowel length, etc., using minimal pairs. This is paramount to a sound recording, and thus we know that the pronunciation has changed considerably, while the text of The First Grammatical Treatise remains easy enough for a modern Icelander to read.


So, according to the written records, adventurous seamen arrived to the rugged shores of Iceland some twelve centuries ago, some from came from the British Isles, and some from Norway. The settlement records were written two centuries after the fact they relate, and they have always been considered irrefutable in Iceland. In recent years, however, new archaeological findings have been made. They bear witness to settlements in Iceland well before the official date of 870, but such findings are still regarded as sensitive and they have been brushed aside for the time being (Theodórsson 2011). However, we can safely assert that in the course of the ninth century, there was indeed a rush of settlers hailing from Europe to seek new lands. The sagas of the Icelanders are largely accounts of how the settlers fared in their new surroundings. They founded a parliamentary assembly, gathering every year to deal with current affairs and to recite the law. These Icelanders seem to have travelled extensively, founding settlements on the east coast of Greenland and sailing to a new continent they called Vínland, later to be known as America. They also kept in touch with their countries of origin, and they visited Scandinavian settlements in the British Isles, viewing the Atlantic as a highway to any destination. The sagas contain accounts of battles and raids, but some of the expeditions recorded therein were peaceful commercial endeavors.

Christianity and the written word

In due course, the inhabitants of Iceland took up a new religion, in order to maintain trade and friendly relations with Christian nations across the sea. This marks a turning point, and the shift from the oral tradition to a written one, with a strong emphasis on the recording of history:

Christianity, it has been said, is ‘a religion of historians’, both because its sacred books are works of history and because it provides a historical framework—between creation and judgement—within which all human history unfolds.

For the Icelanders, as for the other Germanic peoples of early medieval Europe, Christianity was also a religion that made possible, for the first time, the writing down of oral history: it was the advent of Christianity to Iceland in the year 999/1000 which brought writing to that country and perhaps it is not surprising that, when the Icelanders began to write themselves, one of the first subjects they chose was their own conversion to Christianity. Ari’s Íslendingabók is the oldest and most famous account of the moment of conversion in Iceland, accompanied by a brief description of the much longer process of Christianization that followed it. (2006) p. vii


Those early Icelanders, officially converted, spoke Norse, or Old Icelandic, and most of them must have been fluent in Gaelic as well. Iceland’s toponymy indicates a strong Celtic trend, and there are several surreal accounts in Landnámabók, where the writer endeavors to explain Celtic place names by creating a Norse context for them. It is remarkable that one of the first known written texts in Icelandic is the account of the settlement of Iceland. It might be argued that the rewriting of history seems to have moved many an Icelandic settler to put the records in writing in order to legitimate the settlements. The stories untold are worth analyzing.

The first Nordic settlers in Iceland were rebels hailing from Norway. They were not happy with the efforts of Haraldr to unify that huge country, and levy taxes on all and sundry On that subject, Jean Renaud points out, (Renaud 1992) that there is a slight problem with the chronology: Haraldr could hardly have become king of all Norway following the battle of Hafrsfjörðr, leading tothe travels and settlements of these Norsemen to Iceland as recorded in Íslendingabók – The Book of Icelanders – and Landnámabók – The Book of Settlement. This is what a nineteenth-century English translator had to say about that latter book:

The very earliest record of the Settlement, and History of Iceland, is contained in the Landnama Book. This book, at once the Domesday and Golden Book of Iceland, is worthy to be ranked with the Bible of Ulphilas ; the Saxon Chronicle, and the Norman Survey, amongst foremost monuments of the history of our race. Opening with a brief sketch of the Settlement, it proceeds to give a notice of each settler (some 400 in all), his pedigree and descendants, and his claim in geographical order, beginning with the south firths and going completely round the island from west to east. (Ellwood 1894) p. viii


This is, in other words, the founding of a nation in writing. In the last chapter of Landnámabók, the author feels compelled to mention that a few of the original settlers had already been Christianized when they came to Iceland:

Svo segja vitrir menn, að nokkurir landnámsmenn hafi skírðir verið, þeir er byggt hafa Ísland, flestir þeir, er komu vestan um haf. Er til þess nefndur Helgi magri og Örlygur hinn gamli, Helgi bjóla, Jörundur kristni, Auður djúpauðga, Ketill hinn fíflski og enn fleiri menn, er komu vestan um haf, og heldu þeir sumir vel kristni til dauðadags. En það gekk óvíða í ættir, því að synir þeirra sumra reistu hof og blótuðu, en land var alheiðið nær hundraði vetra. (1978) 102. kafli

Or, in the English translation published by Elwood in 1894:

So have wise men said that some of the settlers who come from the west by sea (er komu vestan um haf) and colonized Iceland had been baptized, these were named Helgi the Lean, and Orlygi and Helgi, and Jorundr the Christian, and Aud the Deep-eyed, and Ketil-Flatnose, and more men who came from the west by sea. Some of these retained Christianity to the day of their death, but that became extinguished in the course of generations so that some of their sons raised a heathen temple and sacrificed, and the land was altogether heathen for nearly one hundred otherwise one hundred and twenty winters.

The above-mentioned Christian settlers came from the West, i.e. from Ireland and the British Isles. Their brand of Christianity was different from the continental kind, and it was not transmitted to the next generation. The Christian settlers did not bother to embrace the religious customs of their neighbors, and there was apparently a great deal of toleration in Icelandic society before 1000 A.D.


From then on, the Icelanders gradually took up writing as a trade, copying manuscripts for exportation to other Nordic countries, as the language barrier was virtually non-existent at the time.

Icelandic and the road to independence

Since the thirteenth century, other Scandinavian languages (save Finnish, which is unrelated to the others) have taken on different courses, away from the Old Norse, mingling with German and/or French, a fashionable language which was spoken at the royal courts of Denmark and Sweden, whereas Iceland kept the old tongue, became an overseas territory under the Norwegian crown, and later, to make a long story short, it became part of the kingdom of Denmark, finally becoming an independent republic in 1944. During the centuries of Danish rule, the influence of Danish language was strongly felt, especially in Reykjavík and other places of trade and of administration. The Danes did not ban the Icelandic language. On the contrary, they respected its history and saved many an Icelandic manuscript from being lost. As for the Icelanders, their leaders among men of letters, poets, and philologists, welded their language as an argument for autonomy and independency. One of them was poet and scientist Jónas Hallgrímsson (19807-1845), who coined Icelandic words for such sophisticated terms as ether (ljósvaki/”light awakener”), a term still used to indicate radio waves. A few more examples of scientific terms coined by Jónas, a random list published by Guðmundur Finnbogason, and their translation in Danish where the meaning is not obvious:

Eg hefl til gamans skrifað hjá mér hátt á annað hundrað þessara nýyrða. Hér eru nokkur þeirra, gripin af handahófl: sjónarhom, sólkyndlar, sverðbjarmi, ljósvaki, sjónauki, sjónfœri, sjónarsvið, sjónarmunur (parallaxe), samhliði, breiðhorn, mjóhorn, klofalínur, sporbaugur, sporbaugsgeiri, fleygbogi (parabole), breiðbogi (hyberbole), sólnánd, sólfjœrð, Ijósvilla (aberration), rugg (nutation), hringskekkja (excentricitet), viðvik (vibration), staðvindar, eldvarp, sjálfbjartur. (Finnbogason 1907)

In the course of the 19th century, the Icelandic language and the cultural heritage attached to it became a cause worth struggling for. The inter-comprehension between Icelandic speakers and continental Scandinavians was a thing of the past, and the influence of Danish vocabulary was regarded as a sign of interference, to be avoided and prevented. The modern Icelandic speakers are not generally fluent in Danish anymore, but most of them do speak and read English as a second language.

Icelandic today

Still alive and kicking, with a renewal of creativity in poetry and literature, but a bit muddled as regards science, since there has not been a common consensus regarding several branches of terminology in Icelandic. In some instances, the working language tends to be English, in order to keep things simple. New Icelandic novels are now being widely translated, and this is a very encouraging fact. During the 20th century, several Icelandic authors chose to write in Danish in order to reach a broader public. This is not an issue anymore.


(1978). Landnámabók, Netútgáfan.

(2006). Íslendingabók Kristni saga Landnáma – The Book of the Icelanders The Story of the Conversion. London, Viking Society for Northern Research – Unversity College.

Ellwood, M. A., Rector of Torver (1894). Landnama book of Iceland as it illustrates the dialect, place names, folk lore, & antiquities of Cumberland, Westmorland,and North Lancashire. Highgate, Kendal [Eng.] : T. Wilson, Printer.

Finnbogason, G. (1907). Johnas Hallgrímsson. Reykjavík 10.

Foucault, M. (1961). Folie et déraison.

Renaud, J. (1992). Les Vikings et les Celtes. Rennes, Editions Ouest-Frabce.

Theodórsson, P. (2011). Upphaf landnáms á Íslandi. Reykjavík, Raunvísindastofnun Háskólans.

We thank ​Ólöf Pétursdóttir for this submission. You can visit her website where she offers translation services.