Most Western European languages have greatly reduced levels of inflection, particularly noun declension. In contrast, Icelandic retains a four-casesynthetic grammar comparable to German, though considerably more conservative and synthetic. Icelandic is distinguished by a wide assortment of irregular declensions. Icelandic also has many instances of oblique cases without any governing word, much like Latin. The conservatism of the Icelandic language and its resultant near-isomorphism to Old Norse (which is equivalently termed Old Icelandic by linguists) means that modern Icelanders can easily read the Eddas,sagas, and other classic Old Norse literary works created in the tenth through thirteenth centuries.
Icelandic is closely related to, but not mutually intelligible with, the Faroese language. It is not mutually intelligible with the continental Scandinavian languages, and is farther away from the most widely spoken Germanic languages English and German than those three are.
The vast majority of Icelandic speakers—about 320,000—live in Iceland. More than 8,000 Icelandic speakers live in Denmark, of whom approximately 3,000 are students. The language is also spoken by some 5,000 people in the United States and by more than 1,400 people in Canada, notably in the province of Manitoba. While 97% of the population of Iceland consider Icelandic their mother tongue, the language is in decline in some communities outside Iceland, particularly in Canada. Icelandic speakers abroad represent recent emigration in almost all cases except Gimli, Manitoba, which was settled from the 1880s onwards.
A page from the Landnámabók, an early Icelandic manuscript.
The oldest preserved texts in Icelandic were written around 1100 AD. Many of the texts are based on poetry and laws traditionally preserved orally. The most famous of the texts, which were written in Iceland from the 12th century onward, are the Icelandic Sagas. They comprise the historical works and the eddaic poems.
The language of the sagas is Old Icelandic, a western dialect of Old Norse. The Dano-Norwegian, then later Danish rule of Iceland from 1536 to 1918 had little effect on the evolution of Icelandic (in contrast to the Norwegian language), which remained in daily use among the general population. Though more archaic than the other living Germanic languages, Icelandic changed markedly in pronunciation from the 12th to the 16th century, especially in vowels (in particular, á, æ, au, and y/ý).
The modern Icelandic alphabet has developed from a standard established in the 19th century, primarily by the Danish linguist Rasmus Rask. It is based strongly on an orthography laid out 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 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 archaic features, as the letter ð, had not been used much in later centuries. Rask's standard constituted a major change in practice. Later 20th-century changes include the use of é instead of je and the removal of z from the Icelandic alphabet in 1973.
Apart from the addition of new vocabulary, written Icelandic has not changed substantially since the 11th century, when the first texts were written on vellum. Modern speakers can understand the original sagas and Eddas which were written about eight hundred years ago. The sagas are usually read with updated modern spelling and footnotes but otherwise intact (as with modern English readers of Shakespeare). With some effort, many Icelanders can also understand the original manuscripts.