Despite more than 500 miles (800 km) separating it from the nearest European country, Iceland has always been considered a European nation .
As a result, its language and literature are quintessentially European. But what languages do the locals speak?
People in Iceland speak Icelandic and English. A small number of migrants speak other European languages, such as German, French, and Danish.
Polish, Lithuanian, and Filipino are also spoken by migrant communities in Iceland.
This article will list the most commonly spoken languages in Iceland. It will also describe what makes the Icelandic language unique and the early Icelandic settlement that influenced its language.
In addition, this article will also discuss the early medieval epics and poems that made Icelandic literature famous.
Also, see What Language Do People Speak in Norway? to learn more.
The Most Commonly Spoken Languages in Iceland
Almost all of the Icelandic population speaks Icelandic, and most also speak English.
The island nation has one of the most homogenous populations in the world.
Since Icelandic people make up over 90% of its population, the widespread use of their native language is understandable.
Icelandic is the nation’s official language, and they have their own local sign language variety.
On the other hand, practical considerations explain the broad uptake of English in the country.
As a global link language, English plays a substantial role in helping connect Iceland to the rest of the world.
For instance, tourism and other Icelandic industries rely on it.
Moreover, English learning has not been accidental: it has been consistently driven by Icelandic education policy over the years .
Most Icelanders learn English as a second language at school and are fluent in it.
Visitors to Iceland can get by with basic proficiency in English almost anywhere they go in the country.
Languages Besides English and Icelandic Spoken in Iceland
Although Iceland is not a member of the European Union, it maintains close ties with Europe.
Iceland is a signatory of the Agreement on the European Economic Area (AEEA) that established the single European market in 1994.
The nation has close business ties with many European countries .
Iceland has also signed the Schengen Agreement, which allows citizens across many European nations to travel to Iceland for work or pleasure passport-free.
In return, Icelandic nationals enjoy the same privileges across the Schengen Area .
These trends have resulted in a more significant movement of European citizens into Iceland in recent years.
Iceland is also among the richest nations in the world today .
Like many other developed nations, it attracts migrants from poorer countries looking for better economic opportunities.
The Icelandic economy also needs these workers as it modernizes away from traditional economic activities such as agriculture and fishing.
By far, the largest group of recent immigrants into Iceland has been the Poles .
There are also significant numbers of Lithuanians.
Filipinos make up the most prominent Asian migrant population in the country .
Not surprisingly, therefore, the third-most common language spoken in the country is Polish.
And there are a sizable number of people who speak Lithuanian and Filipino too.
People from many of the Northern European nations that have historically had close ties to Iceland—such as Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and Norway—have also moved to Iceland in recent decades.
This means that a tiny portion of the population now speaks languages like Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and German .
What Makes the Icelandic Language Special?
The earliest settlement in Iceland dates back to the 9th century when the Viking Age was at its peak.
The first settlers were the Norse and Celtic people. Icelandic (like English) is classified as an Indo-European language . It is closely related to North Germanic languages like Norwegian.
However, the language has a unique feature that makes it stand out in the world of linguistics.
It has not undergone many changes over the centuries, so it has remained largely the same.
For instance, Norwegian has been strongly influenced by the languages of its neighbors—Danish and Swedish.
Similarly, Old English is heavily influenced by Old Norse, from the era when the Norse controlled large parts of England.
Following the Norman invasion, it also imbibed a strong French influence.
Icelandic, however, has remained essentially unchanged since the 12th century.
Words borrowed from other languages were removed from the Icelandic vocabulary in the 19th century.
This makes Iceland one of the rare countries where schoolchildren can read classical literature from the early medieval era without much difficulty.
Due to its unmodified nature, Icelandic has a complex grammatical system.
It has three genders, four noun cases, and highly complex verb usage rules, making it one of the most challenging languages to learn.
Fortunately, visitors to Iceland can still get by without knowing the language.
Why Icelandic Literature Is Key to Its European Identity
Iceland doesn’t have a history of human settlement before the Norse arrived.
Its literature links it to the culture of the Norse and firmly establishes it as a European culture.
When Icelanders look into classical Icelandic literature, they find a treasure trove of early medieval writings that is among the greatest literary works of its era.
This is ironic, given that the Norse of the Viking Age was a primarily oral culture.
While they did have a script, it was used principally to inscribe monuments, such as runes, and not for writing texts.
Without the sagas, eddas, and the skaldic poems of Iceland, the only available accounts of the Norse today would have been written by outsiders.
But besides being an invaluable repository of Norse culture, medieval Icelandic literature is beautiful in its own right.
The epic tales it tells do not merely list historical facts; rather, they speak of heroic battles involving gods, kings, and all sorts of supernatural entities.
It’s no wonder they have delighted readers for centuries.
Moreover, the Norse world of the sagas continues to inspire storytellers even today.
Two of the most famous epic contemporary narratives, JRR Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings and George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, were both inspired by the worlds of Norse mythology.