Icelanders are famous for still being able to read their medieval manuscripts. But why is this? We reached out to doctor of Icelandic literature, Dr. Arngrímur Vídalín, for answers:
“There are several reasons why Icelanders can still read their oldest literature,” he tells us. “However, it must be said that few are capable of reading medieval manuscripts without training. Second, it cannot be said that the language is the same—sagas are written in Old Norse and Icelandic is different in many significant ways. Due to Iceland‘s geographic distance from Scandinavia, however, the language did not change in the same way other Nordic languages did. The evolution of Icelandic was slower and less prone to influence from other European languages, such as French.”
“But Icelandic did change drastically in many respects. When national romanticism gained headway in Iceland in the 19th century, proponents of language purism urged for a more pure Icelandic, harkening back to the language of the sagas,” he continues. “Their efforts along with national propaganda, contrary to what might have been expected, proved effective. Gradually, archaic language was restored, and new words were made out of old vocabulary. The reason why Icelanders can still read sagas as if they were written in modern times is thus not because the language has not changed, but because of heavy propaganda and public pressure that saw the language reset to a certain degree. Icelandic keeps evolving, yet the opinion persists that the language should be preserved in this same formaldehyde state. But we may not be able to stop change forever. Language finds a way.”
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