Self-Access Centre - Icelandic

Welcome to the Self-Access Centre materials database. Here you can find out about the Icelandic materials available in the SAC.

If you are interested in studying Icelandic at UCL, please click here.

The SAC is here to provide you with opportunities to study Icelandic outside class time. You may feel extra study is necessary in order to achieve the exam score you want, or you may just enjoy studying Icelandic. Either way, the SAC could be useful for you.

If you have a very clear idea of what you need to study in Icelandic, use the Resources menu above to look for the study topics which are of importance to you. If you need advice and guidance on what to study, you should talk to your class tutor, who will help you identify your strengths and weaknesses and make recommendations on what to study.

We have a wide range of resources to help you study Icelandic on your own. In the Self-Access Centre you can find course books, dictionaries, but also, reading and grammar books. You can also browse through magazines and newspapers in Icelandic, watch online TV or listen to radio stations. You can also watch Icelandic films and other TV shows. You can also practice your Icelandic by doing the online exercises.

A bit about the language

Icelandic (íslenska) is an Indo-European language belonging to the North Germanic branch of the Germanic languages. It is the closest living relative of Faroese; these two languages, along with Norwegian, comprise the West Scandinavian languages, descended from the western dialects of Old Norse. Danish and Swedish make up the other branch, called the East Scandinavian languages. More recent analysis divides the North Germanic languages into insular Scandinavian and continental Scandinavian languages, grouping Norwegian with Danish and Swedish based on mutual intelligibility and the fact that Norwegian has been heavily influenced by East Scandinavian (particularly Danish) during the last millennium and has diverged considerably from both Faroese and Icelandic.

Geographic distribution

  • Map of Iceland

The vast majority of Icelandic speakers live in Iceland. There are a little over eight thousand speakers of Icelandic living in Denmark, of whom approximately 800 are students. The language is also spoken by over 2,500 people in the USA and by about 400 in Canada (mostly in Manitoba). 97% of the population of Iceland consider Icelandic their mother tongue, but in communities outside Iceland the usage of the language is declining. Icelandic speakers outside Iceland represent recent emigration in almost all cases except Gimli, which was settled from the 1880s onwards.

The Icelandic constitution does not mention the language as the official language of the country. Though Iceland is a member of the Nordic Council, the Council uses only Danish, Norwegian and Swedish as its working languages, though it publishes material in Icelandic. Under the Nordic Language Convention, since 1987, citizens of Iceland have the opportunity to use Icelandic when interacting with official bodies in other Nordic countries without being liable for any interpretation or translation costs. The Convention covers visits to hospitals, job centres, the police and social security offices, however the Convention is not very well known and is mostly irrelevant as most Icelanders have an excellent command of English anyway. The countries have committed themselves to providing services in various languages.

The state-funded Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies serves as a centre for preserving the medieval Icelandic manuscripts and studying the language and its literature. The Icelandic Language Council, made up of representatives of universities, the arts, journalists, teachers, and the Ministry of Culture, Science and Education, advises the authorities on language policy. The Icelandic Language Fund supports activities intended to promote the Icelandic language. Since 1995, on November 16 each year, the birthday of 19th century poet Jónas Hallgrímsson is celebrated as Icelandic Language Day.


The oldest preserved texts in Icelandic were written around 1100. Many of them are actually based on material like poetry and laws, preserved orally for generations before being written down. The most famous of these, which were written in Iceland from the 12th century onward, are without doubt the Icelandic Sagas, the historical writings of Snorri Sturluson and eddaic poems. The language of the era of the sagas is called Old Icelandic, a western dialect of Old Norse, the common Scandinavian language of the Viking era. The Danish rule of Iceland from 1380 to 1918 had little effect on the evolution of Icelandic, which remained in daily use among the general population except for a period between about 1700 and 1900 where the use of Danish by common Icelanders became popular. The same applied to the U.S. occupation of Iceland during World War II.

  • Landnámabók (The Book of Settlement)

Though Icelandic is considered more archaic than other living Germanic languages, important changes have occurred. The pronunciation, for instance, changed considerably from the 12th to the 16th century, especially of vowels. The modern Icelandic alphabet has developed from a standard established in the 19th century, by the Danish linguist Rasmus Rask primarily. It is ultimately based heavily on an orthographic standard created in the early 12th century by a mysterious document referred to as The First Grammatical Treatise by an anonymous author who has later been referred to as the First Grammarian. The later Rasmus Rask standard was basically a re-creation of the old treatise, with some changes to fit concurrent Germanic conventions, such as the exclusive use of k rather than c. Various old features, like ð, had actually not seen much use in the later centuries, so Rask's standard constituted a major change in practice. Later 20th century changes are most notably the adoption of é, which had previously been written as je (reflecting the modern pronunciation), and the abolition of z in 1974.

Written Icelandic has, thus, changed relatively little since the 13th century. As a result of this, and of the similarity between the modern and ancient grammar, modern speakers can still understand, more or less, the original sagas and Eddas that were written some eight hundred years ago. This ability is sometimes mildly overstated by Icelanders themselves, most of whom actually read the Sagas with updated modern spelling and footnotes — though otherwise intact (much as with modern English readers of Shakespeare). Many Icelanders can also understand the original manuscripts, with a little effort.

Icelandic literature

Icelandic literature is best known for the sagas written in medieval times, starting in the 13th century. As Icelandic and Old Norse are almost the same, and because Icelandic works constitute most of Old Norse literature, Old Norse literature is often wrongly considered a subset of Icelandic literature. But still, works by Norwegians are present in the standard reader compiled by Sigurður Nordal on the grounds that the language was the same.

Early Icelandic Literature

The Eddas

There has been some discussion on the probable etymology of the term “Edda”. Most say it stems from the Old Norse word edda, which means great-grandmother, but some see a reference to Oddi, a place where Snorri Sturluson (the writer of the Prose Edda) was brought up.The Elder Edda or Poetic Edda is a collection of Old Norse poems and stories originated in the late 10th century. Although these poems and stories probably come from the Scandinavian mainland, they were first written down in the 13th century in Iceland. The first and original manuscript of the Poetic Edda is the Codex Regius, found in the southern Iceland in 1643 by Brynjólfur Sveinsson, Bishop of Skálholt.

The Younger Edda or Prose Edda was written by Snorri Sturluson, and it is the main source of modern understanding of the Norse mythology and also of some features of medieval Icelandic poetics, as it contains many mythological stories and also several kennings. In fact, its main purpose was to use it as a manual of poetics for the Icelandic skalds.

Skaldic poetry

Skaldic poetry mainly differs from Eddaic poetry by the fact that skaldic poetry was composed by well-known skalds, the Icelandic poets. Instead of talking about mythological events or telling mythological stories, skaldic poetry was usually sung to honour nobles and kings, commemorate or satirize important or any current event (e.g. a battle won by their lord, a political event in town etc.). Skaldic poetry is written with strict metric system and many figures of speech, like the complicated kennings, favourite among the skalds, and also with much “artistic license” concerning word order and syntax, with sentences usually inverted.


The sagas are prose stories written in Old Norse, that talk about historic facts of the Germanic and Scandinavian world; for instance, the migration of people to Iceland, voyages of Vikings to unexplored lands or the early history of the inhabitants of Gotland. Sagas are usually realistic and deal with real events, although there are some legendary sagas, sagas of saints, bishops and translated romances. Occasionally some mythological references are added or a story is rendered more romantic and fantastic than it really happened. Sagas are the main source to study the History of Scandinavia between the ninth and thirteenth centuries.

Middle Icelandic literature

Important compositions of the time from the fifteenth century to the nineteenth include sacred verse, most famously the Passíusálmar of Hallgrímur Pétursson; rímur, rhymed epic poems with alliterative verse that consist of two to four verses per stanza, popular until the end of the nineteenth century; and autobiographical prose writings such as the Píslarsaga of Jón Magnússon. A full translation of the Bible was published in the sixteenth century. The most prominent poet of the eighteenth century was Eggert Ólafsson (1726-1768), while Jón Þorláksson frá Bægisá (1744-1819) undertook several major translations, including the Paradísarmissi, a translation of John Milton's Paradise Lost.

  • Gudbrandsbiblia Frontispiece of the elaborate printed Bible of the bishop Guðbrandur Þorláksson, printed in 1584

Modern Icelandic literature

In the beginning of the nineteenth century, there was a linguistic and literary revival. Romanticism arrived in Iceland and was dominant especially during the 1830s, in the work of poets like Bjarni Thorarensen and Jónas Hallgrímsson. Jónas Hallgrímsson, also the first writer of modern Icelandic short stories, influenced Jón Thoroddsen, who, in 1850, published the first Icelandic novel, and so he is considered the father of modern Icelandic novel. This classic Icelandic style from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were continued primarily by Grímur Thomsen, who wrote many heroic poems and Matthías Jochumsson, who wrote many plays that are considered the beginning of modern Icelandic drama, among many others. In short, this period was a great revival of Icelandic literature.

Realism and Naturalism followed the Romanticism. Notable Realistic writers include the short-story writer Gestur Pálsson, known by his satires, and the Icelandic-Canadian poet Stephan G. Stephansson, noted for his sensitive way to deal with the language and for his ironic vein. In the early twentieth century several Icelandic writers started writing in Danish, among them Jóhann Sigurjónsson, and Gunnar Gunnarsson, one of the best-known and most translated Icelandic authors. However, the best-known Icelandic author internationally is Halldór Laxness, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955, author of several articles, essays, poems, short stories and novels, the best known of which are Expressionist works Independent People, Salka Valka and Iceland's Bell. After World War I, there was a revival of the classic style, mostly in poetry, with authors such as Davíð Stefánsson and Tómas Guðmundsson, who later became the representative of traditional poetry in Iceland in the twentieth century. Modern authors, from the end of World War II, tend to merge the classical style with a modernist style. More recently, crime novelist Arnaldur Indriðason's works have met with success outside of Iceland.

Source: adapted from www.wikipedia.org