chapter  1
12 Pages

Evolution of an Alphabetic Writing System: The Case of Icelandic

In this chapter I give an outline of the history of the Icelandic writing system and briefly discuss some aspects of literacy in Iceland. Two factors make the Icelandic case somewhat unique. First, the Icelandic language is quite conservative and has remained relatively stable in its morphology and syntax, though the phonology has undergone considerable changes. Because of this conservatism, Icelanders can still read the literature of the earlier centuries. Second, of considerable interest is the fact that there exists an important document from the earliest period of Icelandic writing called the First Grammatical Treatise (FGT). In this work the author, who remains unknown, describes in great detail his considerations when applying the Latin alphabet

to the Icelandic vernacular. No other comparable description exists from such an early period for what must have been a quite common undertaking. Indeed, it is only in the 20th century that similar considerations have been explicitly given to the principles for reducing speech to writing. The Icelandic orthography has undergone considerable changes from medieval times, and intense debates about spelling reforms have characterized this evolutionary process. The final reforms were undertaken as late as 1974. It is clear that the current orthography reflects numerous, partly irreconcilable, views about the optimal way to write a living language with a long literary past.