Evolution of an Alphabetic Writing System: The Case of Icelandic

Authored by: Jörgen Pind

Handbook of Orthography and Literacy

Print publication date:  September  2005
Online publication date:  May  2013

Print ISBN: 9780805846522
eBook ISBN: 9780203824719
Adobe ISBN: 9781136781353


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Iceland has a literary tradition reaching back for almost a millennium, with the earliest written Icelandic documents dating from the 11th century. During the 13th and 14th centuries numerous important literary works—sagas, poetry, histories—were produced. In the 12th century an alphabet was created for Icelandic in an important treatise, commonly termed the First Grammatical Treatise, written by an unknown author. The treatise elaborates on the letters needed for showing the phonemic distinctions of the language; it also shows a realization of the fact that numerous other considerations apply in writing than purely phonemic ones. The current Icelandic orthography has been gradually shaped over the past centuries, with the latest changes being introduced in 1973-1974. Establishing the current Icelandic system of writing has involved a struggle between two opposing viewpoints, one viewpoint arguing for the necessity of being true to the origins of words and the long tradition of writing, the other wanting to move the writing closer to pronunciation. The most recent changes introduced were, though, primarily motivated by educational concerns. The current Icelandic orthography is a compromise between these different viewpoints. The result is a writing system that is relatively transparent for the reader but rather difficult for the speller.

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