The American Cyclopædia (1879)/Iceland, Language and Literature of
ICELAND, Language and Literature of. Islenska, or Islenzk tunga, the Icelandic tongue, is the language of the Scandinavians who settled in Iceland in the 9th century. The earliest name given to it in the old writings of the north, in the 11th and 12th centuries, was either the “Danish tongue” (Dönsk tunga) or “Northern language” (Norræna, or Norrænt mál). While the language became much altered in Denmark and Scandinavia, it remained essentially the same in Iceland, and the names of Danish, Norwegian, and Northern being no longer applicable to it, the term Icelandic came into use. By Norwegian philologists it is called old Norse or old Norwegian (gammel Norsk), while the Danish and German philologists frequently style it old Northern (old nordisk, altnordisch). Icelandic is a daughter of the old Norse proper, the dialect spoken as late as the 11th century in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and the adjacent islands, and a sister of the old Norse dialect which is the parent of modern Swedish and Danish. It still preserves, with very slight inflectional and orthographical changes, its earliest known form, and is the oldest living language of the Teutonic family. (See Germanic Races and Languages.) Although its literary monuments, in their existing shape, do not date quite as far back as the Gothic version of the Bible, it has yet kept many old Teutonic forms which the Gothic had lost even in the days of Ulfilas. Hence its importance in Teutonic philology. In consequence of the invasions of the Northmen, it influenced to a considerable extent the development of the English, and has furnished to the English vocabulary such words as are, take, call, law, till, to the exclusion of Anglo-Saxon forms. The stationary character of the language is partly explained by its secluded position in an island, and partly by the zealous study by the Icelanders of the ancient songs and sagas. The first characters in which Icelandic was written were the runes (rúnir), which are supposed to be adaptations from the Phoenician alphabet. Each letter consisted of an upright stroke, to which various cross strokes were added. The letters were at first only 16 in number. It cannot be ascertained when these characters were introduced. They were chiefly used for inscriptions on stones, wooden sticks, weapons, and household utensils, and hardly for literary purposes proper. At the time of the introduction of Christianity they were superseded by the Roman alphabet, in the form then used by the Anglo-Saxons and Germans. The alphabet, including accented vowels, consists of 36 letters, and differs from the English in not using c, g, and w, and in having the letters ð and þ, the former with the sound of th in this, the latter with that of th in thin; the double letter æ, sounded like English i in pine; and lastly the letter ö. Until recently also c and q formed part of the Icelandic alphabet, but they were dropped, as their sounds are fully represented by s and k. Vowels are either accented or unaccented, and are accordingly either long or short. Masculine and feminine nouns have four declensions each, of which the first two have three variations and the last two only two. The neuters have three declensions, with four variations for the first and two for the second and third. There are two numbers and four cases, nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive. Adjectives have a definite and an indefinite declension, which resemble the old and new declensions of the substantives. Icelandic has only a definite article, which is suffixed to nouns and precedes adjectives, and is inflected in all cases and genders. The first and second personal pronouns have also a dual form. Verbs have active and passive forms; the indicative, infinitive, subjunctive, and imperative moods; an active and a passive participle; and a supine. They have only two simple tenses, past and present; the other tenses are formed with auxiliary verbs. The language has a great facility for forming new words. It does not adopt the common foreign names of science and new inventions, but a telegraph is called either fréttafleygir, bearer of news, or rafsegulthrádr, electric thread, and a telegram hradfrétt, quick news. The foreign words formerly introduced into Icelandic, chiefly by the clergy, are now so transformed that their origin can hardly be recognized. The dialect of the old Norse spoken in the Faroes, which has been illustrated in collections of ballads and folk-lore made by Hammershaimb and others, differs from the Icelandic chiefly in orthography and in the admixture of Danish words. The best Icelandic grammar is the German edition of Wimmer's Altnordische Grammatik (Halle, 1871); the best lexicons are Cleasby and Vigfússon's “Icelandic-English Dictionary” (Oxford, 1868-'74), to which an excellent grammar is prefixed, and for the early skaldic and eddaic poetry Sveinbjörn Egilsson's Lexicon Poeticum antiquæ Linguæ Septentrionalis (Copenhagen, 1860); the best chrestomathy is Dietrich's Altnordisches Lesebuch (Leipsic, 1864).—The Icelandic literature, which, with the exception of a few unimportant Norwegian productions, was written wholly in Iceland or by Icelanders, may be divided into two very marked periods, the ancient and the modern. The first terminated a century after the fall of the republic; the other comprises the period intervening between that date and the present time. Soon after the settlement of the island the genial influence of free government caused a marked development of the national spirit, which was early exhibited in the field of letters. The climate, as well as the isolated position of the island, had also much to do with it. In the long evenings of a long winter, an intelligent people would naturally have recourse to literature; and as soon as the introduction of Christianity brought with it the knowledge and use of the Latin alphabet, the earliest employment of the new gift was in writing out the pagan songs which had been orally transmitted from one generation to another. In such a manner the priest Sæmund Sigfússon, called “the learned” (1056-1133), or some other early scholar, compiled the elder or poetic Edda. (See Edda.) Besides these, the poetry that has come down to us from the days of the republic consists generally of songs of victory or of praise, elegies, and epigrams, in which latter the old skalds especially excelled. The most noted skalds of the 10th century are Bersi Torf usson, Egill Skallagrimsson (904-990), Eyvind Finsson, Glúm Geirason, Kormak Oegmundarson (died 967), Gunnlaug Hromundarson (983-1012), Hallfred Ottarson (died 1014), Thord Sigvaldaskald, and Thorleif Hakonarskald. The 11th century was very prolific of poets; we have Arnor Thordarson, Einar Helgason, Eirik, Gisli Illugason, Odd, Ottar, Sighvat, Skúli Thorsteinsson, Sneglu-Halli, Hallar-Steinn, Stein Skaptason, Stúfur Blindi, Thjódólf Arnórsson, Thorarin, and Thord Kolbeinsson. The 12th century presents the names of Bödvar, Einar Skúlason, Hall, Hallbjörn, Ivar Ingimundarson, and a host of others. In the 13th century we find scarcely any names but those of Einar Gilsson, Gudmund Oddsson, Ingjald Geirmundarson, and Olaf Thórdarson, showing that the loss of liberty had begun to affect the labors of the muse. The 14th century has little of value to show except the singular poem Lilja (“The Lily”), a song in honor of the Virgin by Eysteinn Asgrímsson. Nor were the historians and romancers less numerous. The sagas properly fall into two classes, fictitious and historical. Among the former are the Volsunga saga, Nornargests saga, the Vilkina saga (narrating the exploits of Diederich of Bern, and thus belonging to the same heroic cycle as the Heldenbuch and Nibelungenlied), Hálfs saga, “Saga of King Hrólf Kráka and his Champions,” “Saga of King Ragnar Lódbrók” (which contains the celebrated Lódbrókarkvida, or “Death Song of Lódbrók”), Frithiofs saga, Hervarar saga, Oervar Odds saga, the sagas connected with the Arthurian and Carlovingian cycles of romance, and Snorri Sturlason's “Younger or Prose Edda.” Some of these are in part historical, but it is difficult to distinguish the true from the false. Far more valuable as well as more numerous are the sagas of the historical class. They consist of histories in the largest sense of the word, of local and family histories, and of biographies. Of those which relate to Iceland, the most noted are the Islendingabók, by Ari Thorgilsson (1068-1148); the Landnámabók, a detailed account of the settlement of the island; the Kristin saga, a narrative of the introduction of Christianity into Iceland; Njáls saga, a classic composition; Gunnlaugs Ormstunga saga; Viga Glúme saga; Egils saga, the biography of a renowned poet and chieftain; Kormaks saga; Eyrbyggja saga, an abstract of which has been published by Sir Walter Scott; Laxdæla saga; Sturlunga saga, a history of the race of the Sturlungar, so important in Icelandic history, by one of its members, Sturla Thórdarson; and Grettis saga. The chief sagas relating to other countries are: the Orkneyinga saga, a history of the Orkneian jarls; the Færeyinga saga, relating to the Faroes; the Jomsvíkinga saga, an account of the sea rovers, whose seat was at Jomsburg near the mouth of the Oder; the Knytlinga saga, a history of the Danish kings from Harald Blaatand to Canute VI.; the sagas of Olaf Tryggvason, one by Odd (died 1200), and the other by Gunnlaug; the saga of St. Olaf; the Heimskringla, or “Chronicle of the Norwegian Kings,” by the celebrated statesman and historian Snorri Sturlason; and various minor sagas relating to Scandinavia, Russia, Great Britain, and Greenland. The most elaborate codes of law were the Grágás, Járnsída, Jónsbók, and Kristinréttur. Many of the works enumerated in this list are masterpieces of style, and are still read with delight by modern Icelanders. This list (and it contains but a few of the published sagas) shows the attention paid to the culture of letters in a remote corner of the world, at a time when the whole continent of Europe was sunk in barbarism and ignorance.—The second or modern period of Icelandic literature by no means commences with the termination of the old literature; a long time of utter mental inactivity followed, and the 15th and 16th centuries produced scarcely anything but a few unimportant religious books. In the 17th century the knowledge of the ancient literature and glory of the island began to revive. Foremost in the movement were Arngrím Jónsson (Jonas, 1568-1648), Gudmund Andræ (died 1654), Rúnólf Jónsson (died 1654), Arni Magnússon (Magnæus, died 1730), and Thormód Torfason (1636-1719). The last named, better known under his Latinized name of Torfæus, was especially zealous in his efforts to disseminate a knowledge of the early history of Iceland. In theology, Gudbrand Thorláksson (died 1627), under whose direction the first complete edition of the Icelandic Bible was issued, Bishop Thorlák Skulson, and Jón Vídalin (1666-1720), the author of a popular collection of homilies, were the eminent names; while jurisprudence was rep- resented by Pál Vídalin (1667-1727). But the true revival of letters dates from the middle of the 18th century, and was coincident with the commencement of an increase in population. During the last hundred years no other nation can show so large a proportion of literary men. Finn Jónsson (1704-'89), author of an elaborate ecclesiastical history of the island, which has been continued by Pétur Pétursson (born 1808), Hannes Finsson (1739-'96), Jón Jónsson (1759-1846), and Arni Helgason (born 1777), were eminent theologians. Antiquities, philology, and the old literature have been largely illustrated by Hálfdan Einarson (died 1785), the author of an Icelandic literary history, Björn Haldórsson (died 1794), the compiler of a large Icelandic-Latin lexicon, which was edited by Rask, Jón Olafsson (1731-1811), S. T. Thorlacius (1741-1815), G. J. Thorkelin (1752-1829), Hallgrím Schéving (1781-1861), Finn Magnusson (1781-1847), Konrad Gíslason (born 1808), H. K. Fridriksson (born 1819), Jón Thorkelsson (born 1822), Gunnlaug Thórdarson (died 1861), and by Gudbrand Vigfússon, now (1874) the foremost Icelandic philologist. An elaborate history of the island, in continuation of the Sturlunga saga, has been written by Jón Espólin (1769-1836), while an extensive collection of folk lore has been made by Jón Arnason. The poetical literature of the period has been rendered remarkable by the names of Hallgrim Petursson (1714-'74), the author of the popular passion hymns, Jón Thorláksson (1744-1819), translator of “Paradise Lost,” Bjarni Thorarensen (1786-1841), Jónas Hallgrimsson (1807-'45), Sveinbjörn Egilsson (1791-1852), translator of the Odyssey, Benedikt Gröndal (born 1826), translator of the Iliad, and many others. But the attention of the Icelanders has been largely given to political economy, and the result has been a rapid and marked improvement in the economical condition of the country. Particularly active in this respect have been Jón Eyriksson (1728-'87), Stephán Thórarinsson (1754-1823), Magnus Stephensen (1762-1833), Bjarni Thorsteinsson, Thord Sveinbjarnarson, Baldvín Einarsson (1801-'33), Jón Jónsson (born 1806), Pál Melsted (1791-1861), and Jón Sigurdsson (born 1811), equally noteworthy as an archæologist and statesman. In natural history we find recorded the names of Eggert Olafsson (1726-'68), whose tour through Iceland in company with Bjarni Pálsson is still one of the most interesting works on the subject, O. J. Hjaltalin (1782-1840), Jón Thorsteinsson (1794-1855), and J. J. Hjaltalin (born 1807). Among the younger writers, most of whose political opinions are liberal, are Gísli Brynjúlfsson (born 1827), Jón Thórdarson (born 1819), Magnus Grímsson, Steingrím Thorsteinsson, Sveinn Skúlason, and E. Magnússon, who has published English translations of several old Icelandic works. The series of transactions published by the Lærdoms-lista Félag in the latter part of the 18th century, and the numerous volumes issued within the past 25 years by the Islenzka Bókmenntafélag, or society of literature, are of great value.—The best sources of information in regard to the old literature are Petersen's Bidrag til den oldnordiske literaturs historic (Copenhagen, 1866); Gudbrand Vigfússon's Um tímatal í Islendinga sögum (“On the Chronology of the Sagas of Icelanders,” Kaupmannahöfn, 1855); the introductions to Keyser's “Religion of the Northmen,” translated by Pennock (New York, 1854), to Laing's version of Snorri Sturlason's Heimskringla (London, 1844), and in Dasent's translation of “The Story of Burnt Njal” (London, 1861). The best saga texts are those edited by Munch, Keyser, Unger, and Bugge in Christiania, and by the Arni-Magnæan commission in Copenhagen. A few valuable texts have been published by Möbius and Maurer in Germany, and by the professors in the college at Reykjavik.