Language, society and identity in early Iceland

Language, society and identity in early Iceland. By Stephen Pax Leonard. (Publications of the philological society 45.) Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. Pp. ix, 188. ISBN 9781118294963. $39.95.

Reviewed by B. A. Thurber, Shimer College

Stephen Pax Leonard sets out to explain how the people who settled Iceland came to speak a unified dialect despite their varied points of origin. The people who settled Iceland in the eighth and ninth centuries came from different parts of Norway and the British Isles, and, therefore, would have spoken different dialects on arrival. Although they were scattered around the perimeter of Iceland, the settlers developed a unified language instead of many local dialects. L examines the social factors that led to this development, focusing on how a common language was important for an Icelandic identity.

The book consists of six chapters, including an introduction and brief conclusion, a list of references, and an index. The introduction (1–23) provides a framework for the book. It includes L’s goals and historical background on the settlement of Iceland. About half the chapter is comprised of a description of the primary sources used. These sources are varied, including historical and religious texts, as well as literature, but the main focus is on legal texts. In Ch. 2, ‘Language and identity: Theoretical considerations’ (24–53), L describes a number of sociolinguistic theories and how they can or cannot be applied to the situation in early Iceland. He emphasizes how Iceland’s isolated situation and its settlement patterns influenced the development of its language.

Ch. 3, ‘Norm-establishment in Iceland’ (54–90), begins with background on the settlers. L describes where they are from and the evidence for dialectal variation in those areas. He then explains how Iceland’s language became homogeneous, including a discussion of the roles of legal texts, the sagas, and skaldic poetry. Ch. 4, ‘Social structures in the lexicon’ (91–115), covers social structures, including the Althing and the role of the law in Icelandic society and how they helped the Icelanders develop their identity on both social and individual levels.

In Ch. 5, ‘Perception and use of language as an identity marker’ (116–43), L examines ways in which the Icelanders considered their language an identity marker. He describes the ways in which Icelanders differentiated themselves from others linguistically, by way of references to foreign languages and the use of pronouns. The chapter ends with a discussion of the grammar of spatial orientation and how it reflects Icelandic identity. L finishes the book with a brief conclusion (144–46), summarizing the results of the study. This is followed by a list of references (147–83) and an index (184–88).

The book should be of interest to anyone studying early Iceland, especially sociohistorical linguists, who will see it as an example of how a common dialect formed under unusual circumstances.