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Iceland

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Icelandic is the only official language of Iceland. It is spoken by the whole population (275,000) of Iceland. There are also about 20,000 - 30,000 people who speak Icelandic in Canada and USA. They are the descendants of Icelanders who emigrated at the end of the 19th century because of the severe conditions in Iceland at the time.

Norwegian settlers colonized Iceland at the end of the 9th century. The origins of Icelandic come from Old Norse, which was used by the settlers. Iceland has been quite isolated through the centuries. The language has changed very little since the 9th century. The changes that have occurred are relatively minor compared to the other Scandinavian languages. It has not been influenced by other languages. A strong literary culture developed at and early stage and this helped to preserve the features of the language.

To this day, you can see the similarities of Icelandic to the other Scandinavian languages, but many features have been lost in the others. Icelandic has kept the letter "ž", which is pronounced something like the English "th" in "thing". In the other Scandinavian languages this letter "ž" has been replaced by "t" or "d" (žing = ting or žú = du).

The Icelandic inflection system is considerable more complicated than in the other Scandinavian languages. For example, an Icelandic substantive has four cases (common, genitive, accusative, and dative) while Swedish has only two cases (common and genitive). Icelandic sentences also have a relatively free word order.

Another unique aspect of modern Icelandic is the fact that there are hardly any dialects within the language. The differences that do exist are mainly limited to variations in pronunciation. There is a distinction between "noršlenska" ("the northern way of speaking") and "sunnlenska" ("southern way of speaking"). These two dialects pronounce the letters "p", "t", and "k" differently. The people in northern Iceland have a "hard" pronunciation of "p", "t", and "k", which is quite similar to the English letters. In the southern parts, these sounds have a "soft" pronunciation, therefore the "p" sounds almost like "b", and the "t" sounds like "d", and "k" sounds like "g". There are other noticeable differences in other regions of the country, but most of them seem to be leveling out.

Icelandic is related to Danish, Faroese, Norwegian, and Swedish. Together these make up the North Germanic branch of the Germanic language group, which is included within the Indo-European language family.

Many foreigners who visit Iceland become confused when they look through an Icelandic telephone directory, because persons are listed alphabetically by their first name. Icelanders regard the first name as the "real" name. The last name of a person is rarely used to identify a person.

Icelandic surnames are also quite special. Surnames, which exist from generation to generation in other European cultures, are rare in Iceland. In Iceland, the father's first name is used as the base to the child's last name. For example, Baldur Žórsson and Freyja Óšinsdóttir have two children, Kristín and Björn. The children's last names would be Kristín Baldursdóttir and Björn Baldursson. It is also possible to make a last name using the name of the mother, but it is uncommon.

The same naming tradition existed in Sweden and Norway until the second part of the 19th century. In certain areas of western Sweden, it continued even longer.

Another characteristic of the modern Icelandic society is the resistance towards foreign influence on the language. Because of modern communication, Iceland is not as isolates as it once was. Icelandic is constantly in contact with other languages and new words and ideas, especially in the field of technology. These new words and ideas are usually given Icelandic names or assimilated into the language to fit into the Icelandic language system. An example is the word "tölva" (= computer) which was created using the word "tala" (= number) and the word "sími" (= telephone) which is an Old Icelandic word which originally meant, "thread".

Although Icelanders try to resist foreign influence on their own language, they realize the necessity in having knowledge in other languages. All Icelandic school children are taught English and Danish. These languages are obligatory in high school and many students take German, French, or Spanish.