FOLLOW US

World Travel Guide > Guides > Europe > Iceland

Iceland History, Language and Culture

History of Iceland

The island was settled by the Norse seafarers in the ninth century; they established the world's first known republic and parliament in about AD 930. The original seat of this democratic system may be found at Þingvellir, about an hour's drive from Reykjavík, where the original Viking settlers used a natural amphitheatre, formed by a cliff wall, as an assembly.

In the mid-13th century the islanders submitted to the authority of the King of Norway, and when Norway came under the control of Denmark in 1380, Iceland did too. In 1814, Norway became independent, but Iceland remained a Danish territory. In 1840 it was granted its own constitution – effectively allowing internal self-government. Full independence was granted in 1918, although it was not until 1944 that Iceland became a fully independent nation with its own head of state.

Contemporary Icelandic politics display the customary Western European spectrum of political parties, although a notable feature has been the influence of women within the main parties (Independence, Progressive, and Social Democratic). One of Iceland's most famous political figures of recent times is also a woman, Vigdis Finnbogadottir, who served four consecutive terms as President between 1980 and her resignation in 1996. She was replaced by Olafur Grimsson, who broke Finnbogadottir’s record, beginning his fifth term as President in 2012, who in turn was replaced by Guðni Th. Jóhannesson in 2016.

The Parliament (Alþingi) has generally been dominated by coalition governments. These were of a broadly centre-right persuasion until the mid-1970s, when the left began to gain more power until the election of a centre-right government in 2013.

The great economic collapse of the country in 2008 caused Icelanders to rise up in arms against what they viewed as a corrupt government. After highly visible protests, the then Prime Minister stepped down and the government collapsed. A new coalition government was created and the country’s economic and political situation has stabilised.

Icelandic foreign policy is dominated by two factors: fishing and relations with Atlantic powers. Iceland is a member of Nato, the Nordic Council and of the Council of Europe. Ties with Nato have been loosening since before the end of the Cold War – in May 1985, the Alþingi declared Iceland a 'nuclear-free zone' – and this process has accelerated with the closure of a large Nato base at Reykjavik.

Iceland applied for membership to the European Union in 2009, but the Eurosceptic government elected in 2013 decided to annul the bid in 2015.

Did you know?
• Iceland introduced a universal ban on alcohol in 1915, which was, over the years, slowly relaxed. Beer, however, remained illegal until March 1989.
• Surveys suggest more than half of Icelanders refuse to rule out the existence of the supernatural huldufólk (hidden people).
• There are no surnames in Iceland. Rather, people adopt the first name of their father of mother as a last name, adding the suffix son (meaning son) or dóttir (meaning daughter).

Iceland Culture

Religion in Iceland

Lutheran, with a Catholic minority.

Social Conventions in Iceland

Visitors will find Iceland is a classless society with a strong literary tradition. Handshaking is the normal form of greeting. An Icelander is called by his first name because his surname is made up of his father's Christian name plus 'son' or 'daughter' (eg John, the son of Magnus, would be called John Magnusson, while John's sister, Mary, would be known as Mary Magnusdóttir). People are addressed as Fru (Mrs) and Herra (Mr). Visitors will often be invited to homes, especially if on business, and normal courtesies should be observed. Icelanders pay careful attention to their appearance and, as for most Western countries, casual wear is widely acceptable although unsuitable for smart and social functions.

Language in Iceland

The official language is Icelandic; English and Danish are widely spoken.

Phrases

  • Beer = Bjór
  • Closed = Lokad
  • Danger = Hætta
  • Do you speak English? = Talardu ensku?
  • Doctor = Læknir
  • Eight = Átta
  • Eighty = Áttatíu
  • Entrance = Inngangur (noun)
  • Exit = Útgangur (noun)
  • Fifty = Fimmtíu
  • Five = Fimm
  • Forty = Fjörtíu
  • Four = Fjórir
  • Friday = Föstudagur
  • Goodbye = Bless
  • Hello = Halló
  • Hotel = Hótel
  • How are you? = Hvernig hefurdu thad?
  • How much does it cost? = Hversu mikið kostar það?
  • I'm very well = Ég hef thad ágætt
  • I don't understand = Ég skil ekki
  • I feel ill = Ég er lasin
  • Menu = Matsedill
  • Monday = Mánudagur
  • My name is … = Ég heiti …
  • Nine = Níu
  • Ninety = Nítíu
  • No = Nei
  • One = Einn
  • One Hundred = Eitt hundrad
  • One Thousand = Eitt thúsund
  • Open = Opid
  • Please = Viltu gjöra svo vel
  • Restaurant = Veitingastadur
  • Saturday = Laugardagur
  • Seven = Sjö
  • Seventy = Sjötíu
  • Six = Sex
  • Sixty = Sextíu
  • Sunday = Sunnudagur
  • Ten = Tíu
  • Thank you = Takk (takk fyrir)
  • Thirty = Thrjátíu
  • Three = Thrír
  • Thursday = Fimmtudagur
  • Today = Í dag
  • Toilets = Salerni
  • Tomorrow = Á morgun
  • Tuesday = Thridjudagur
  • Twenty = Tuttugu
  • Two = Tveir
  • Wednesday = Midvikudagur
  • Where is …? = Hvar er …?
  • Wine = Vín
  • Yes = Já