The Icelandic Language at the Time of the Reformation

Some Reflections on Translations, Language and Foreign Influences




The Icelandic Reformation, Printed books, The New Testament, The Bible, Loanwords, The German Prefix be-


The process of the Reformation in Iceland in its narrow sense is framed by the publication of the New Testament in 1540 and the whole Bible in 1584. It is sometimes believed that Icelandic lan­guage would have chang­ed more than what it has, if these translations had not seen the day.

      During the 16th century, in all 51 books in Icelandic were printed. Almost all are translations, mostly from German. These books contain many loanwords, chiefly of German origin. These words are often a direct result of the Reformation, but some of them are considerably older. As an example, words with the German prefix be- were discussed to some length in the article.

      Some loanwords from the 16th century have lived on to our time, but many were either wiped out in the Icelandic language purism of the nineteenth and twentieth century, or never became an integrated part of the language, outside of religious and official texts. Some words even only show up in one or two books of the 16th century.

      The impact of the Reformation on the future develop­ment of the Icelandic language, other than a temporary one on the lexicon was limited, and influence on the (spoken) language of common people was probably little.

Author Biography

Veturliði Óskarsson, Uppsala University

Born in Borgarnes, Iceland, in 1958, Veturliði Óskarsson studied linguistics and Icelandic language and literature at the University of Iceland 1981–1985, Nordic philology at the University of Copenhagen 1987–1991, and Nordic languages at the University of Uppsala 1997–2001. Between 1991 and 1997, he worked for the Icelandic Language Board. He received his doctorate in Uppsala in 2001. From 2003 until 2010, Óskarsson was employed at the University of Iceland, Scool of Education, professor in Icelandic language from 2006. From 2010, he has been at the University of Uppsala, Sweden, where he has been a professor of Nordic languages since 2012. His main research interests are language contacts between Icelandic and other languages, as well as late medieval and early Icelandic language history and text philology. His latest work is an edition of the Old Icelandic Slysa-Hróa saga, published in 2019. Since 2010, he has been editor (from 2013 co-editor) of the peer reviewed journal Scripta Islandica. Veturliði Óskarsson is a member of Kungliga Humanistiska Vetenskaps-Samfundet in Uppsala, Agder Academy of Sciences and Letters, and Societas Scientiarum Islandica.




How to Cite

Óskarsson, Veturliði. 2019. “The Icelandic Language at the Time of the Reformation: Some Reflections on Translations, Language and Foreign Influences”. Nordlit, no. 43 (November):102–114.