What is Icelandic linguistic purism?

Iceland is a small country located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean between Scandinavia and North America. With a population of around 320,000 with more than two thirds of its inhabitants living in the capital, Reykjavik, its native language, Icelandic, is a little-spoken language, especially outside Iceland itself.

Icelandic is subject to strict linguistic purism, meaning the Icelandic government takes a strong interest in replacing foreign loanwords with newly created Icelandic words. These are usually derived from Old Icelandic and Old Norse, and the goal of the movement is to prevent any non-Icelandic words from entering the language; hence, ‘purism’.

This idea is rooted in sociolinguistics. Language is intrinsic to our sense of cultural identity, and this is particularly true of the geographically isolated Icelanders. Icelandic is a highly unique language, bearing only a passing resemblance to its closest existing relatives such as Norwegian and Danish. By retaining as much of the language as possible, Icelandic is better prepared to preserve the rich history and culture of the island and its people.

The approach taken by the Icelandic government is in direct contrast to governments of English-speaking countries. English has always been a melting pot of other languages, with its history stemming from Latin, French, the Nordic languages and the Germanic family, amongst others. English has adopted much of its lexicon from other languages, and as such we enjoy a rich and varied vocabulary, and with it, a complex system of rules for grammar and pronunciation.

An example of the creation of a new word in Icelandic is ‘sími’, the word for ‘telephone’. This is an old, previously disused word for ‘long thread’ which was pulled out of history and reused for the somewhat similar concept of a telephone. The disparity between Icelandic and other languages is clear in this case: in Spanish, it is ‘telefóno’; in French, ‘téléphone’; in Norwegian, ‘telefon’; in Irish, ‘teileafón’.

In Iceland, English is a compulsory language, and virtually all young Icelanders will be fluent. However, this example of linguistic purism highlights the importance of learning new languages, as learning a language such as Icelandic could hold the key to unlocking a whole new culture and its fascinating history.

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