The Icelandic Language Day

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Icelandic language day has been celebrated on November 16 every year since 1996. The idea to have a special day dedicated to the Icelandic language originated from the Minister of Education, Björn Bjarnason, in 1995. He believed it was important to celebrate and make efforts to preserve Icelandic, which has been relatively well-preserved in its original form for centuries. 

November 16th was chosen as it was the birthday of Jónas Hallgrímsson, an Icelandic poet, author and naturalist who ardently advocated for Iceland’s independence from Denmark. He also significantly enriched the Icelandic vocabulary by translating numerous words that to this day are a part of everyday language. 

Icelanders take a lot of pride in their language as it is one of the most rare languages in the world. Even in this day and age, with increasing technology and influences from languages such as English, Icelandic has remained remarkably pure.


What is special about the Icelandic language?

The Icelandic language has not changed substantially since the 11th century, allowing modern Icelandic speakers to read and understand the original manuscripts of the sagas, written almost a 1000 years ago. 

With approximately 370.000 speakers (as of 2024), predominantly in Iceland, Icelandic is considered remarkably well-preserved despite its small speaker base. Recognising the challenge of preservation in this day and age, the government actively pursues language conservation. This is for example done by prioritising the creation of neologisms influenced by older Icelandic words rather than borrowing words from other languages. 


Preservation of Icelandic

The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies plays a crucial role as they preserve mediaeval manuscripts as well as studying the language and its literature. Additionally, a Language Council advises the government on language policies. The Icelandic Naming Committee, maybe the most controversial among locals, contributes to language preservation by determining whether given names that do not have a president in the Icelandic language are suitable for integration into the country’s language and culture. 

The celebrations

The festivities and promotions surrounding Icelandic Language day, or “Dagur íslenskrar tungu, aim to actively involve speakers and raise awareness. With diverse events ranging from poetry readings and cultural activities to the active participation of schools and the media, Icelanders are encouraged to grab the opportunity to celebrate the origins of their language.

Additionally the government presents an annual award in honour of Jónas Hallgrímsson to an individual who has significantly contributed to the Icelandic language in some way. 


Deep North Episode 52: The Awful Icelandic Language

icelandic flag

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming for this different and fun archival piece for the annual Icelandic Language Day. In this 1973 article, an Irish student at the University of Iceland laments the difficulties of learning Icelandic. We dust off this article and see what’s changed, and what hasn’t, about learning Icelandic.

Read the original archival article here.

Nordic Noir Author Arnaldur Indriðason Awarded

Best-selling Nordic noir author Arnaldur Indriðason was awarded the Jónas Hallgrímsson Prize yesterday. The award is given annually on November 16, Icelandic Language Day, to individuals whose work has helped the Icelandic language flourish through writing, teaching, or scholarship. Arnaldur’s books have sold over 14 million copies worldwide and have been translated into 40 languages.

Arnaldur is a prolific writer whose crime fiction books are popular in Iceland as well as abroad. In 2006, his novel Jar City was made into a film directed by Baltasar Kormákur. On receiving the award yesterday, Arnaldur stated that he was accepting it on behalf of all crime fiction writers in Iceland. “I believe the award is also a recognition of the branch of literature of which I have been a representative for about a quarter of a century and has flourished in our literary flora in recent years,” he stated.

Podcast host Vera Illugadóttir also received special recognition at the ceremony. Vera is the creator of the Icelandic-language podcast series Í ljósi sögunnar, produced by RÚV. The podcast presents global history in a gripping, narrative format, often telling of historic events that have rarely been written about in Icelandic.