Is Iceland’s language a Norse code – or legacy of Celtic settlers?

Gaelic origins of Icelandic words and landmarks challenge orthodox view of Viking heritage, says author

According to folklore, a Gaelic-speaking warrior queen called Aud was among Iceland’s earliest settlers. Her story is central to an emerging theory that Scottish and Irish Celts played a far bigger role in Iceland’s history than realised.

A book by Thorvaldur Fridriksson, an Icelandic archaeologist and journalist, argues that Gaelic-speaking Celtic settlers from Ireland and western Scotland had a profound impact on the Icelandic language, landscape and early literature.

Aud had been queen of Viking Dublin in the ninth century before taking her family, and Scottish and Irish crewmen, on the voyage to Iceland. Fridriksson believes that through settlers such as Aud, Gaelic language and culture were integral to Iceland’s early history.

He has compiled a list of common Icelandic words and, with other academics, identified Icelandic landmarks that he believes have Gaelic roots. Iceland’s skaldic poetry, edda poetic traditions and the sagas upon which Iceland’s history is based were heavily influenced by Gaelic culture and immigrants, he argues.

“Every Icelander who has been living for a long time in another Scandinavian country – who has learned to speak Norwegian, Danish or Swedish very well – comes home back to Iceland, hears words in Icelandic never spoken in these languages,” Fridriksson said.

“And I started to look at these words and I found them in Gaelic dictionaries, so I began to look at placenames, and a very great deal of Icelandic placenames, mountains, spaces – very important placenames – are very hard to explain in a Scandinavian way.”

The theory, which is controversial, challenges the orthodox view that Iceland is a wholly Viking place, founded 1,100 years ago as part of Viking conquests and expansion along the Atlantic’s north-eastern seaboard.

It has growing support among academics after groundbreaking DNA research over the past 20 years by the deCODE genetics company in Reykjavik and the University of Oxford found that 63% of Iceland’s earliest female settlers were of Irish and Scottish origin, as were 20% of early male settlers.

Many are assumed to have been women enslaved by Vikings during their conquest of the Gaelic-speaking Hebrides and eastern Ireland around Dublin, founded by the Vikings in the ninth century. Before the Vikings arrived in Iceland, early Christian Irish hermits, known as papar, founded small settlements there.

The DNA evidence upended a long-held belief that Icelanders were almost entirely of Norwegian heritage, a stance central to Iceland’s quest for independence from Denmark in 1918. Icelandic nationalists greatly downplayed evidence that enslaved Celts had helped populate the island.

An eruption at the Bárðarbunga volcano
The Bárðarbunga volcano in Iceland is said to come from the Gaelic word for guardian (bàrd). Photograph: Arctic-Images/Corbis

In a recent paper on Iceland’s Irish links, called Gaelic Whispers, Prof Gísli Sigurðsson of the Árni Magnússon Institute in Reykjavik showed that many of Fridriksson’s arguments are gaining currency. But Sigurðsson said that not all of his claims were substantiated. More work by linguists, particularly specialists in early Gaelic, was needed, he added.

“It is now well established that the first population in Iceland was much more mixed than previously accepted and therefore, the question of linguistic influence from the Gaelic needs to be addressed more seriously than scholars have been willing to do hitherto,” Sigurðsson said.

Fridriksson believes differences in social status meant that in some cases, the Gaelic influence was subtle or lost; in other cases, it was clear.

Aud’s story shows that high-status Gaelic-speaking women, who voluntarily married Viking men, were among the settlers. In the early medieval period, Shetland, Orkney and the Outer Hebrides were Viking kingdoms. Aud, known as Auður djúpúðga in Iceland, is said to have freed the enslaved Celts who sailed under her command from Scotland, settling in western Iceland.

He said the names of many of Iceland’s largest volcanoes have clear Gaelic roots, such as Bárðarbunga (from the Gaelic for guardian, “bàrd”) and Hekla (from the Gaelic for terrifying, “eagal”). That meant they were named by high-status people, as were other landmarks.

Fridriksson hopes his book, Keltar, which has yet to be translated into English, will prompt debate and academic investigation. “The Gaelic influences in our culture are much deeper and greater than people believed up to now,” he said.

That intermingling with Viking cultures enriched Iceland, he added, as did the heavy exposure to Celtic Christianity among Viking converts from the monastic settlement on the Hebridean island of Iona, which played a pivotal role in the spread of early Christianity across northern Britain.

“The best of the so-called Viking culture is from the Gaelic areas; it’s the poetry, the music,” Fridriksson said.

Icelandic words believed to be derived from early Irish and Scots Gaelic

Lyf – Icelandic for medicine, from the Gaelic “luibh”, for herbs

Glíma – Icelandic wrestling, from the early Gaelic “gliad”, meaning battle

Ljómi – Icelandic for glow, from the Gaelic “laom”, meaning fire

Hrútur – Icelandic for ram, from the Gaelic “reithe”

Strákur – Icelandic for boy, derived from the Gaelic “strácair”

Source: Keltar by Thorvaldur Fridriksson


Severin Carrell Scotland editor

The GuardianTramp

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