The History of Icelandic
At the time Iceland was settled (in the ninth-century), that part of the north which is called Scandinavia formed one language area. The language of those who lived there was often given the one name, the Danish tongue. It gradually branched out dialectically and differences grew. Now one may speak of the Nordic languages, that is, Norwegian, Icelandic, Faeroese, Danish, and Swedish, which all belong to the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language tree.
It is hardly possible to speak of Icelandic as a separate language existing during the first centuries of settlement as there was very little difference between Icelandic and the languages spoken by the Scandinavians of Norway or the other Norse settlements. The oldest Icelandic written sources (from the twelfth-century) suggest that very little difference then existed between Icelandic and Norwegian. The changes began to increase in the thirteenth- and fourteenth-centuries, especially because of the simplification of the Norwegian system of verb conjugation and noun declension.
But changes have also occurred in Icelandic. The phonological system has undergone significant changes as has, to a lesser degree, the system of inflection; although the Old Norse system has been preserved in Icelandic in all its major aspects. It is in the Icelandic vocabulary that most of the changes have taken place. These changes have occurred, in particular, because of changing work patterns during the last century, although foreign influence has also been something of a factor.
Most expressions and figures of speech have their origins in old work patterns, customs, games and sports, and habits. They may seem strange to young people who have no knowledge of the conditions of the old rural society, but they certainly embellish the nuances of the language. Many of them raise amusing images of what people once did.
Phrases and Proverbs
“Að sigla milli skers og báru”, or to sail between the skerry and the wave, means that one tries to carry oneself well with both of the opposing sides, or proceed carefully in one’s relations with people. In the expression, “bára” means “brotsjór” (that is, a breaker). People had to be careful not to collide against the skerry and to keep clear of breakers. For this reason, people are said to go carefully if they sail between skerry and wave (breaker). For example, “Dísa sigldi milli skers og báru þegar hún tók ekki afstöðu í deilumáli vinstúlkna sinna”: Dísa sailed between skerry and wave when she did not take sides in her girlfriends’ disagreement.
“Að leiða saman hesta sína,” or to lead their horses together, means to debate, quarrel, or fight. Horse fighting was a popular sport in early times: men would bring together their stallions to fight and watch the spectacle for amusement. The phrase normally refers to a strong disagreement. “Nemendur leiddu saman hesta sína á málfundi um náttúruvernd”: the students lead their horses together in a public discussion of environmental protection.
“Að tefla í tvísýnu,” or literally to play in risk, means to take a risk or put something in danger. People are said to play in risk when they play an uncertain or risky move in chess, but can be used if one’s opponent is not on their guard. “Menn tefla í tvísýnu er þeir fara illa búnir á fjöll í slæmu veðri”: People play in risk when they go ill-prepared into the mountains in poor weather.