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Linguistic purism in Icelandic

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Linguistic purism in Icelandic

Linguistic purism in Icelandic is the sociolinguistic phenomenon of linguistic purism in the Icelandic language. Its aim is to substitute loanwords with the creation of new words from Old Icelandic and Old Norse roots and prevent new loanwords entering the language. In Iceland, linguistic purism is archaising, trying to resuscitate the language of a golden age of Icelandic literature. It is an effort, beginning in early 19th century, at the dawn of the Icelandic national movement, to replace older loanwords, especially from Danish, and it continues today, targeting English words. It is widely upheld in Iceland and it is the dominant language ideology. It is fully supported by the Icelandic government through the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, the Icelandic Language Council, the Icelandic Language Fund and an Icelandic Language Day.


Early innovations

A page of Heimskringla.

The first signs of the Íslendingabók, through the Landnámabók (book of colonization), to Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla. Especially the prose of the sagas of the Icelanders and Snorri’s skaldic poetry are a clear sign of an appreciation of the native language.

By 1300, after the Icelanders had joined in union with the Norwegian crown, Icelandic had developed several characteristics that distinguished it from the dialects of the Norwegian districts from where many had centuries earlier emigrated to Iceland.

By the 16th century, the language was so differentiated from the other languages spoken in Nordic lands that Icelanders coined the term íslenska to denote their native tongue. A serious effort to preserve the now quite distinct Icelandic from the "corrupting" influences of foreign words, especially by the Danish and German merchants who dominated Iceland’s trade, began in the early 17th century thanks to Arngrímur Jónsson.

18th and 19th centuries

The first real instigator of Icelandic linguistic purism (hreintungustefna) as it is today was Eggert Ólafsson (1726–1768). Between 1752 and 1757 he accompanied his friend Bjarni Pálsson on an expedition through Iceland. In his report, he described the situation of the Icelandic language as lamentable. This inspired him to write the poem Sótt og dauði íslenskunnar, in which he personifies his mother tongue as a woman, who has fallen mortally ill through an infection with too many foreign words. She sends her children to look for good and pure Icelandic that can cure her, but uncontaminated language is nowhere to be found, and she dies. At the end of the poem he urges his compatriots to defend their language and reminds them of the great esteem in which Icelandic is held abroad and how well it has been preserved by their forefathers.

Eggert Ólafsson was very well-read in Old Icelandic literature and this was noticeable in his writings. This interest in the old language brought him into contact with other Icelandic students in Copenhagen, where he joined a secret society called Sakir (1720–1772). This was the beginning of the use of Old Icelandic as a key feature in the Icelandic national awakening. Eggert wrote the first orthographical dictionary (Réttritabók Eggerts Ólafssonar) in which he proposed orthographic and phonetic rules. The influence of the book was considerable, and Ólafur Olavius, originator of the Hrappseyjarprentsmiðja, the first privately owned printing shop in Iceland, followed Eggert’s rules to a significant extent.

Eleven years after Eggert’s death, the Íslenska lærdómslistafélag (Icelandic Art-Learning Society) was founded in Copenhagen with Jón Eiríksson, administrative director at the Danish Ministry of Finance, as its president. The society published annual writings from 1781 to 1796, which dealt with practical subjects like trade and business, but also with varied scientific topics about which little had been read until then. This brought along a flood of new Icelandic terminology, which was generated from purely Icelandic lexical stock.

In Denmark, the rise of Romanticism brought with it a greater interest in Norse mythology. This opened the eyes of Icelanders with regard to their cultural importance and increased their self-confidence. The Danish linguist Rasmus Rask (1787-1832) learnt Icelandic in his youth and it became his favorite language. He compiled the first real Icelandic grammar, which was, in comparison with earlier attempts, a huge step forward. He refused to accept the differences between Old and Modern Icelandic and was afraid that a too great difference between the two would decrease the interest in the land and its culture. This attitude gave rise to an even more increased tendency toward language archaisation. On Rask’s initiative the Icelandic Literary Society, Hið íslenska bókmenntafélagið was founded. Its goal was “to preserve the Icelandic language and literature and therewith the culture and the honour of the land”. An important publication was Almenn jarðarfræða og landaskipun eður geographia (1821–1827), which contains much new genuine Icelandic terminology. It gave the opportunity to show the validity of Rasmus Rask’s vision that the Icelandic language had, above most languages, an “endless neologistic generating capability”.

During the 19th century, the movement of linguistic purism is inextricably connected with the magazine Fjölnir (published from 1835 to 1839 and from 1844 to 1847). The magazine was published in Copenhagen by four young Icelanders: Konráð Gíslason, Jónas Hallgrímsson, Brynjólfur Pétursson and Tómas Sæmundsson. The most important of these four was Jónas Hallgrímsson, who also translated literary work from Heine and Ossian. His translation of a textbook about astronomy (Stjörnufræði, 1842) became exemplary for later translations of scientific literature. Many of the neologisms he coined have become an integral part of present-day Icelandic terminology: aðdráttaraflgravity, hitabelti - tropics, sjónaukitelescope, samhliða - parallel.

Konráð Gíslason (1808–1891), professor in Old Scandinavian languages at the University of Copenhagen, published the first Danish-Icelandic dictionary in 1851.

20th century onwards

With sovereignty in 1918, the governmental regulation of language matters began. Initially, as with some other preservation attempts noted above, the focus was on orthography, but regulation of language matters grew steadily and became more formalised. Early in the 20th century, the third element in Icelandic preservation, ordinary speakers, especially those in modernising sectors, also began to contribute to language preservation efforts. For instance, in 1918 the Association of Engineers (Verkfræðingafélagið) began a systematic approach to neologisms. In 1951, a Dictionary Committee of the University of Iceland (Orðabókarnefnd Háskólans) began publishing lists of new words marking the beginning of formal government sponsorship of neologisms.

In 1965, a ministerial decree of the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture (Menntamálráðuneytið) established the Íslenzk málnefnd (Icelandic Language Committee) to “guide government agencies and the general public in matters of language on a scholarly basis”. This group however, comprised only three members and simply could not keep up with the task it was given, even after the addition of two more members in 1980. To remedy this situation, in 1984 the Althing passed legislation which ratified the five person membership and also established a permanently functioning secretariat, the Íslensk málstöð (Icelandic Language Institute). The Council was enlarged to fifteen members in 1990, appointed by and from a number of sectors in the society. Thus, the Council paralleled its counterparts elsewhere in Scandinavia.

Day to day operations are the province of the Institute. Occupying a suite of offices on Neshagi, a street near the University, and previously the site of the American Embassy’s cultural center, the Institute today is headed by Ari Páll Kristinsson and has only four employees who give advice on language and usage matters to public authorities and the broadcasting service (Ríkisútvarpið) and answer questions from the society at large. In September 2006, the Institute was merged into the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies.


The Icelandic language is a basic element of the national identity of the Icelanders.[1] The main focus of linguistic purism in Icelandic is to maintain the structure of the language (as a heavily declined language compared to other West-European Indo-European languages, such as English or French), and to develop its vocabulary particularly, so the language can be used to speak about any topic—no matter how technical—which, in turn, contributes to keep the language up-to-date.[2] Since Icelandic has been made the official language of Iceland, the Icelanders have developed new words in all fields to keep the language alive.[2]

Creation of new words

Organisations and individuals in many specialist areas together with the Icelandic Language Institute propose and use new technical lexis, which diversifies the Icelandic lexicon as a whole.[2] When trying to introduce words for new or modern concepts, it is common to revitalise old words that have fallen into disuse that have a similar meaning or are in the same semantic field. For example, the word sími, an old word for ‘long thread’, was brought back with a new meaning—‘telephone’. Alternatively, new compound words such as veðurfræði (‘meteorology’) can be formed from old words (in this case veður ‘weather’, and fræði ‘science’).[2] Because of this, it is easy for speakers of Icelandic to deconstruct many words to find their etymologies; indeed compound words are very frequent in the Icelandic language. This system also makes it easier for new words to fit in with existing Icelandic grammatical rules: the gender and declensions of the compound word can easily be extracted from its derivatives, as can pronunciations. In recent years, the government has promoted an interest in technology and efforts to produce Icelandic language software and other computer interfaces have also taken place.[2]


However intensive the efforts for linguistic purification, loanwords are still entering the language. Some of these loanwords have been adapted and moulded to fit in with Icelandic grammatical rules, like the aforementioned inflection and pronunciation. For example, the word bíll (“a car”) comes from the word ‘automobile’ via the Danish shortened version bil.[2] Sapir and Zuckermann (2008) demonstrate how Icelandic camouflages many English words by means of phonosemantic matching.[3] For example, the Icelandic-looking word eyðni, meaning "AIDS", is a phonosemantic match of the English acronym AIDS, using the pre-existent Icelandic verb eyða (“to destroy”) and the Icelandic nominal suffix -ni.[4][5] Similarly, the Icelandic word tækni (“technology”, “technique”) derives from tæki (“tool”) combined with the nominal suffix -ni, but is, in fact, a phonosemantic match of the Danish (or international) teknik (“technology”, “technique”). This neologism was coined in 1912 by Dr Björn Bjarnarson from Viðfjörður in the East of Iceland. It had been little in use until the 1940s, but has ever since become highly common, as a lexeme and as an element in new formations, such as raftækni (“electronics”) literally meaning “electrical technics”, tæknilegur (“technical”) and tæknir (“technician”).[6] Other phonosemantic matches discussed in the article are beygla, bifrabifrari, brokkál, dapurdapurleiki - depurð, fjárfesta - fjárfesting, heila, guðspjall, ímynd, júgurð, korréttur, Létt og laggott, musl, pallborðpallborðsumræður, páfagaukur, ratsjá, setur, staða, staðallstaðla - stöðlun, togatogari, uppi and veira.

Icelandic has grammatical cases: an example of adaptation of a foreign word is "Israeli" (same meaning as in English, as a noun), which in Icelandic has the plural Ísraelar, like with native Icelandic words such as the poetic gumi (“a man”) and bogi (“a bow”).

Foreign language learning

Linguistic purification does not imply limitations or neglect for foreign language learning. Teaching of foreign languages in Iceland is heavily emphasized, and the learning of English and Danish (or another Scandinavian language) in school is compulsory.[2] Danish was taught as Iceland was a dominion of Denmark until 1918 (sharing the king until 1944); studying is still compulsory to maintain ties with Scandinavia. English is learned as the main international language, especially due to the internationalization of the economy of Iceland with the intensive trade and capital flows to and from the outside world. Entering a gymnasium students are also usually required to choose a third foreign language. Traditionally that was either German or French, but in recent years Spanish has also been offered, at least in some gymnasia. Other languages are sometimes added as an option but then usually in the context of choosing a language-heavy study at the cost of an education in the natural sciences. Students in elementary schools who have lived in other Nordic countries or for whatever reason have an understanding at some level of other Scandinavian languages are sometimes offered to continue their study of other Scandinavian languages instead of Danish.


The flag of High Icelandic or Þórsfrónvé is an alternate Icelandic flag with the same division of the three colours but with a stylized "Thor's Hammer" replacing the Nordic cross.

"High Icelandic" or "Hyper-Icelandic" (Háíslenska or Háfrónska) is a minor movement of ultrapurism, since 2004 headed by Pétur Þorsteinsson. It was started by Jozef Braekmans of Lier, Belgium, alias "Timbur-Helgi Hermannsson" (Timbur-Helgi "carpenter-saint" being his loan-translation of Joseph), around 1992, aimed at removing loan words from the modern Icelandic language. The project has received some media attention in the early 2000s, but it has no official status in Iceland. The language was named after høgnorsk ("High Norwegian"), a traditional form of Nynorsk. The second element "frónska" is derived from "frón", the poetic name of Iceland, which was one of the names of the Earth in the Prose Edda.

The emphasis in High Icelandic mainly lies on málgjörhreinsun (ultrapurism), the most extreme form of linguistic purism. Braekmans cites as his inspiration the 19th-century Fjölnismenn. In contrast to the existing Icelandic language policy, the removal of Latinisms and Germanisms in the old language is considered a top priority.

Braekmans has also created a lot of symbolism around the language. The main facets of the symbolism are the "armored egg of vitality" (Brynfjöregg), the lexically "immaculate mountain child" (hið slettulausa fjallbarn),[7] the "Thor's country flag" (Þórfrónsvé) and the nýyrðaskáldshúfa "cap of the Neologisctic skalds", symbolizing the protection of the language against foreign influence. The Brynfjöregg is equivalent to a ‘life-thread’ in Icelandic symbolism. It is a familiar motif in Icelandic folklore, where one can destroy trolls, giants, etc., by finding where their "life-egg" (fjöregg) is hidden and hurling it at them so that it hits them in the head.[8] The "mountain child" is a reference to the woman of the mountains (Fjallkonan), the female incarnation of the Icelandic nation who is often portrayed on national holidays.

Braekmans started his experiment in 1992, when he started creating native replacements for those adapted loanwords that are considered as integrated parts of the Icelandic language and for which no purely Icelandic word existed. By 1998 he started to make extensive use of internet and usenet to promote his work,[9][10] and in the year 2000 he created the website Nýyrðasmiðja Málþvottahús ("Neologistic factory 'Language Laundry'"), from 2005 known as 'Miðstöð Háfrónska Tungumálsins' "High Icelandic language centre".[11] Braekmans first made mention of the name Háfrónska on November 23, 2003 on the newsgroup is.islenska. Braekmans had made himself and his work very unpopular on is.islenska,[10] and eventually passed his project to a successor, Pétur Þorsteinsson as "chief neologistic skald" (allsherjarnýyrðaskáld) and a few other nýyrðaskáld (neologistic poets), and he discontinued his involvement and took down his website in 2012.

Some Icelandic newspapers had an article about the language;[12] the newspaper DV had a full-page interview with Braekmans concerning his language in 1999.[13] Icelandic television channel Stöð 2 had a small item on the project in November 2005.[14] Icelandic radio station Rás 1 has a weekly radio show, Orð skulu standa, which features uncommon Icelandic words, and has on occasion introduced High Icelandic words into the language by way of a game revolving around guessing the words' meaning.

See also


  1. ^ Colloquial Icelandic, Daisy J. Neijmann, 2001, Routledge
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Icelandic: at once ancient and modern
  3. ^ Sapir, Yair and Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2008), "Icelandic: Phonosemantic Matching", in Judith Rosenhouse and Rotem Kowner (eds), Globally Speaking: Motives for Adopting English Vocabulary in Other Languages, Clevedon-Buffalo-Toronto: Multilingual Matters, pp. 19-43 (Chapter 2).
  4. ^ See pp. 28-29 of Sapir and Zuckermann (2008 above; cf. 爱滋病 aìzībìng (lit. "a disease caused by (making) love"), another phonosemantic match of AIDS, in this case in Modern Standard Chinese - see p. 36 of the same article.
  5. ^ In Icelandic, eyðni competes with another, wholly Icelandic word, alnæmi. The question is not settled yet.
  6. ^ See pp. 37-38 of Sapir and Zuckermann (2008) above; cf. تقنيّ taqni/tiqani (lit. "of perfection, related to mastering and improving"), meaning "technical, technological", another phonosemantic match of the international word technical, in this case in Modern Arabic - see p. 38 of the same article.
  7. ^ "Fjallbarn". Website Fjallbarn. 
  8. ^ Many Icelanders consider their language as the ‘vital egg’ of their culture affectionately calling it ástkæra ylhýra ("beloved warmth"). e.g. Á málþinginu er ætlunin að fjalla um Íslenskuna, ástkæra, ylhýra móðurmálið "Íslenska sem einfalt mál", Málþing Fjölmenningarseturs og Háskólaseturs í tilefni af Evrópska tungumáladeginum og upphafi Viku símenntunar. [1]
  9. ^ "Language Hat". Discussion on language site Language Hat. 
  10. ^ a b "is.islenska". is.islenska posts. 
  11. ^ "High Icelandic Language Centre". High Icelandic Language Centre website. 
  12. ^ A 2003 section about High Icelandic on the Icelandic news programme 'Ísland í dag' (Iceland today) 2004 article about High Icelandic in Birtingur, the local paper of Akranes. 2007 article about High Icelandic Fréttablaðið
  13. ^ Article about Braekmans neologistic work in DV (edition: January 30, 1999)
  14. ^ "Ísland í dag". A section on the Icelandic news 'Ísland í dag' (Iceland today). 


  • Halldór Halldórsson (1979). "Icelandic Purism and its History". Word 30: 76–86. 
  • Kristján Árnason; Sigrún Helgadóttir (1991). "Behovet och nyttan av terminologiskt arbete på 90-talet. Nordterm 5. Nordterm-symposium". pp. 7–21. 

External links

  • Neologisms and loanwords in Icelandic and Faroese
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