Every year on November 16, the country of Iceland celebrates its language. Icelandic is an interesting language; it is part of the Germanic language family. During the late Iron Age, most of what is now Scandinavia spoke Old Norse – the language used to write most of the sagas. Over time, this split into West Norse (Icelandic and Norwegian) and East Norse (Swedish and Danish). Over time, each individual language evolved into what it is today. Because of the country‘s geographical isolation, Icelandic evolved at a slower pace and retained some of the characteristics of Old Norse so that today, it is the closest to this original language than other Scandinavian languages. And with so few speakers – Iceland‘s population is still under 400,000 people – the fact that the language survived and is still going strong is something worth celebrating!
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In a changing world, globalization and technology have at times threatened the Icelandic language. Icelanders have therefore stubbornly refused to adopt certain phrases and words and instead created their own. For instance, computers, tölva, translates directly to number witch, and aeroplanes, flugvél, literally translates as flying machine!
One of the most effective and popular ways to communicate through Icelandic – and Old Norse for that matter – is poetry. The medieval Norwegian kings would often employ Icelandic poets at the court. So it is no surprise that the Icelanders celebrate their language on the birthday of one of the country‘s most iconic poets – Jónas Hallgrímsson.
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Jónas Hallgrímsson was an author, publisher, politician and natural historian, but his poetry was instrumental in shaping the Icelandic identity during the nineteenth century. He was part of a poetry group called Fjölnir, which included several Icelanders studying and living in Copenhagen. At this time (1830s), Iceland was still a part of the Danish kingdom. Jónas and his pals published poems in the hopes of stirring up Icelandic nationalism and of jumpstarting a call for independence from Denmark. Jónas wrote extensively about the beauty of Iceland‘s nature, describing its mountains, glaciers and other wonders. He eventually became known as the father of Icelandic romanticism.
While the independence movement would not truly begin until the 1840s, Jónas Hallgrímsson‘s poems accomplished his goal. They set the gold standard for nature poetry in Icelandic, and his work remains some of the nation‘s most beloved poems today. He, therefore, represents not only Icelandic independence but also the beauty and power of the Icelandic language. On November 16, the Jónas Hallgrímsson award is handed out to someone who has contributed to the Icelandic language in a unique way.