Language Change and Linguistic Variation in 19th-Century Icelandic and the Emergence of a National Standard

Fundamental changes took place in Icelandic society in the 19th and 20th centuries, which affected the language in various ways. During this period the status of Icelandic changed from that of a remote minority language in the Danish kingdom, to a national language in a sovereign state, used in all spheres of society. In assuming the role of an official language, a common linguistic norm had to be defined and developed. In the project we will focus on the beginnings of the standardization of Icelandic in the 19th century, and study its linguistic, sociolinguistic and ideological foundations. The dominant model for the emerging standard was the medieval language, and the attitudes tended towards purification of the language, both wrt. variants deriving from post-medieval language change and from language contact. The questions we ask concern the nature and the spread of internal and external linguistic changes; the distribution of linguistic variants and their correlation with sociolinguistic and stylistic factors; and the influence of expressed opinions on linguistic features and of organized intervention on the linguistic development. A central and fundamental question, with general theoretical relevance, is the following: Is it possible to reverse a linguistic change? We will apply two corpora of written texts from the 19th century as a basis for our analysis, one of private letters and other personal writings, and the other of newspapers and journals, as well as a diachronic treebank for syntactic investigations. The results of the project will greatly improve our knowledge of 19th-century Icelandic, and contribute to our understanding of how and to what extent linguistic changes can be affected by language standardization.

The project is funded by The Icelandic Research Fund 2012-2014. Principal investigator is Ásta Svavarsdóttir.

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