You’ll notice that this article is titled “What Language Is Spoken In Iceland,” not “Which Languages Are Spoken In Iceland.” That’s because Iceland is by and large a monolingual country, even if most Icelanders can speak multiple other languages beyond their official tongue.
The official language of Iceland is Icelandic, which is spoken by at least 300,000 of the 336,000 people who live there (if not more). Iceland has a 100 percent literacy rate, and according to a semi-official source, about 97 percent of Icelanders speak Icelandic as their mother tongue.
Secondarily, there are also about 200 deaf people in Iceland as of 2005 (or less than 1 percent of the population). Icelandic Sign Language is another language that’s recognized by law.
Icelandic is a rather idiosyncratic language, and this is somewhat by design. It’s an insular language, and not just because it developed in geographic isolation from other languages. It has also been intentionally preserved through language purism efforts to keep the language from absorbing foreign influences.
Icelandic comes from the Indo-European language family, belonging to the same North Germanic branch as Norwegian, Swedish and Danish. It’s also related to Faroese.
However, the similarities end at a distinct point because Icelandic is pretty much the same language that it was when Iceland was settled in the 9th and 10th centuries (which is to say, somewhat similar to the Norwegian of the time). Norwegian eventually went on to absorb characteristics of Swedish and Danish, but Icelandic stayed nearly the same.
The linguistic purism movement arose in the 19th century, when Iceland was climbing out from under Danish rule. Iceland won home rule in 1874, and it became sovereign in 1918, at which point its efforts to conserve its independence became fully established. Many borrowed words from Celtic, Danish, Latin and Romance languages were replaced with Icelandic versions.
Other Languages Spoken In Iceland
When it comes to Icelandic, what you see is pretty much what you get. Iceland isn’t a big country, and there aren’t really any distinct dialects of Icelandic, though there are some soft regional differences you might encounter. In Reykjavík, you might hear more soft consonants, for example, as opposed to aspirated stops after a long vowel in the northeast.
While just about all Icelanders speak Icelandic, they also tend to be a fairly multilingual bunch. The majority of Icelanders can speak fluent English, in addition to other languages like Danish, German, Spanish and French. That’s because it’s mandatory for students to study English and another Scandinavian language in school.
Danish is spoken by enough people to count as a minority language in Iceland, but there are only about 1,000 “true” Danish speakers in Iceland.
Interestingly enough, Polish is a significant minority language as well, spoken by 2.71 percent of the population.
Other languages you might hear spoken in Iceland include Lithuanian, Portuguese, Filipino, Thai and Latvian.