Iceland’s People and Their Way of Life

Icelanders enjoy one of the world's highest standards of living and longest life expectancies. As has been mentioned, it is one of the world's most literate societies, with nearly 100 percent of all adults able to read and write. Surveys suggest that it is also one of the most honest countries, with very little crime or corruption. In this chapter, you will learn what makes this so.


With a population of 286,250 (January 1, 2002, official figure), Iceland has only about half as many people than the least populated U.S. state, Wyoming. The country's population density of seven people per square mile (four per square kilometer) may suggest that people are scattered throughout the island, but this is not the case. Icelandic settlement (where people live) clings to the island's coasts. Nearly all of the country's rugged, partially icecovered interior is wasteland in terms of economic use, transportation access, and human settlement. Approximately 170,000 people, or nearly 60 percent of the total population, are tightly clustered in and around the capital city, Reykjavik. In fact, nearly all Icelanders are urban—99 percent of them live in cities or towns with 200 or more people.

Demographically (statistics on the human population), Iceland is a very stable country. Its rate of natural population increase (number of births over deaths) is a relatively low 0.5 percent per year, about the same as that of the United States and well below the world average of 1.3 percent. This small gain is nearly balanced, however, by out-migration, or number of people leaving the island. During recent decades, the country has experienced a very slow and relatively small increase in population.

Living standards and life expectancy go hand in hand. Iceland's people enjoy excellent medical care, are welleducated, and earn good incomes. Under these conditions, most people can expect to have long, healthy, and productive lives. In only four other countries can people expect to live longer than do the residents of Iceland. At birth, Icelanders can expect to live an average of 80 years, with women living to 82 and men to 78, on average.

Iceland also has one of the world's most homogeneous populations. Nearly all of the island's residents can trace their ancestry to Norse (Scandinavian) or Celtic (Irish) roots. As is true of most Nordic peoples, Icelanders tend to have fair skin and blond to light-brown hair. Their culture, or way of life, also tends to be very homogeneous. Nearly everyone lives, worships, dresses, eats, and thinks the same. There is little racial or cultural diversity within the Icelandic population.


Icelandic is the country's official language, but most citizens are multilingual, speaking two or more languages. Both Danish and English are taught in the schools and are widely spoken and understood.Many people also speak Norwegian or other European tongues.

Icelandic is a language virtually identical to that spoken by the islanders' Norse forefathers and is nearly unchanged from that spoken by the Vikings more than 1,000 years ago. During the eighth to tenth centuries, all Norse people spoke the same language. Through time, however, each Scandinavian country developed its own tongue—Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish. But Iceland retained the ancient language that has remained virtually unchanged through the centuries. It is, in fact, the oldest modern European language.

One can experience this historic language through the country's legendary “sagas” (meaning “something said”). Beginning in the Middle Ages and continuing on for centuries, Norse stories of feuds, romance, legends, and other events in the lives of the people were passed from generation to generation as oral histories. During the eleventh century, and on through the fourteenth century, writers recorded the sagas. Their writings preserved this valuable history of Icelandic legend, mythology, and other Norse events.

Today, many people are afraid that their language is threatened by change. They are particularly worried about the many new words being introduced through the media and by other means, particularly in response to the appearance of new technologies such as the computer. So concerned are they that an Icelandic Language Committee has been formed to invent words that will keep their language current while still retaining its character. The committee's word for television, for example, is sjonvarp, meaning “a throwing out of pictures.”


In America, if your name is Jon and your parents are Jim and Mary Larson, your name would be Jon Larson. Larson is your family name, or surname. In Iceland, however, only about 10 percent of Icelanders have surnames.

The rest use the system called “patronymics,” in which the surname is formed by the father's first name combined with either “son” or “dottir” (daughter). Thus, if Richard and Inga are the children of Jon Stefansson, their names would be Richard Jonsson and Inga Jonsdottir. Because of this system, it is considered proper to address Icelanders by their first names. Also, because there are no “family” names, a woman does not change her name with marriage. Since so many Icelanders have the same name, telephone directories list each person's occupation in addition to his or her name and address.

Many Icelandic toponyms (place names) also indicate the nature of the feature they identify. In chapter 2, for example, you may have noted that the name of the huge glacier Vatnajokull was not followed by the word “glacier.” This is because jokull already means glacier. Other similar terms that appear often on the Icelandic map as part of a place name include: fell (mountain), fjordur (fjord), floi (bay), foss (falls), hraun (lava field), nes (peninsula), vatn (lake), and vik (cove, inlet). By knowing the meaning of such words, the reader will find that maps in fact speak colorfully of the many features they display.


During the mid–sixteenth century, on the heels of the Protestant Reformation, the Lutheran faith became the dominant religion in much of northwestern Europe as well as in Iceland. Today, all Icelanders at birth are registered in the Evangelical Lutheran church, the official state religion; a person must apply to leave church membership. Although religious freedom of choice is practiced, about 93 percent of all Icelanders are registered Lutherans.

Many Icelanders are church members in name only, however. Attendance is often sparse, except for special events such as weddings, baptisms, funerals, and special holiday services. On the other hand, many people are quite devout in their belief in spirits and other supernatural things. According to a survey conducted by the University of Iceland, slightly more than half of all Icelanders believe in elves, “hidden people,” and other supernatural notions. It should be remembered, however, that a great many Americans also believe in flying saucers, ghosts, and other strange things!


In addition to its high rate of literacy, Iceland also boasts the world's highest percentage of school-age youngsters attending school—again, almost 100 percent. All youngsters between the ages of six to sixteen must attend school, and education is free at all levels through university.

The school year varies in length, depending upon location, but most schools are in session for nine months, from the beginning of September through the end of May. One particularly interesting school requirement that seems to be unique to Iceland is that all students must know how to swim in order to graduate from elementary school. This may seem strange, but in a country where so much depends upon the sea and nearly all of the people live near the water, the rule makes very good sense.

Because of the harsh winter weather, many of the schools outside Reykjavik board students. Students live at the school during the week or, in more remote locations, for weeks at a time. During the summer, when schools are not in session, the facilities are used as hotels. Since it is not economically feasible to build hotels that would be filled only during the short summer tourist season, this arrangement works extremely well. By converting empty schools' sleeping rooms into tourist lodging, the need for hotels is satisfied and money is generated to help support the schools.

Secondary schools are specialized, with curricula divided into three tracks: general education, vocational education, or university preparatory. A high percentage of secondary school graduates continue their education, going on to college or university. The University of Iceland, founded in 1911 and located in Reykjavik, has an enrollment of some 7,000 students and offers undergraduate degrees in more than 20 fields of study. The university also offers advanced degrees in several subjects, but many Icelanders prefer to go abroad to pursue their postgraduate education.


Other than the conditions imposed by its remote location, life in Iceland is not much different than that of Western Europe, or the United States for that matter. The standard of living is one of the world's highest. Incomes are quite high and nearly everyone is in the middle social and economic class; the country has very few extremely wealthy people and extreme poverty is unknown. For most people, life is good.

Cost of Living

Because of its great distance from other lands, the cost of living in Iceland is quite high. Nearly everything must be imported and transportation costs must be added to the prices charged for goods. To help meet family expenses, both husband and wife commonly hold jobs. In fact, nearly 90 percent of all women hold jobs outside the home.


Housing in Iceland is expensive, yet more than 80 percent of Icelandic families own their own homes or condominiums. Structures must be sturdily built to withstand the frequent earthquakes and howling winds that frequently blow at gale force along the coasts. The most commonly used building material is steel-reinforced concrete. Many houses are painted in pastel colors, perhaps in response to an otherwise somewhat dreary landscape.

Leisure-Time Activities

Icelanders are the world's most avid readers. On a per capita (per person) basis, more books, magazines, and newspapers are published and read in Iceland than in any other country in the world. Reading keeps people occupied during the long, cold, winter nights, and many families take great pride in their personal libraries. The country is home to a number of well-known writers, including Halldor Laxness, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955.

In addition to the printed media, other forms of communication are very important to Icelanders. The government is anxious to move the country away from its economic dependence on natural resources and toward an “information economy.” There are now more than 70 radio stations, 14 television stations, and 7 Internet service providers operating in the country. It has invested heavily in cellular technology and both fiber optic and satellite links to Europe and North America. Today, Iceland has the world's highest rate of mobile phone ownership.

During the short summer, Icelanders enjoy outdoor activities as much as possible. Fishing and hunting are popular, as are hiking, horseback riding, and sailing. Nearly everyone loves to camp, and golf and soccer are popular competitive sports.Winter outdoor activities include skiing, skating, and snowmobiling. Indoors, basketball and handball are popular sports, as are chess and bridge, which help residents pass the long periods of winter darkness. Icelanders can swim throughout the year in both indoor and outdoor pools that are heated by hot springs.

Cultural Events

Music, theater, dance, and art are popular throughout Iceland, even in the smallest communities. The country is home to a national theater company, the Icelandic Ballet Company, and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. It is doubtful that any other city in the world can match Reykjavik in its per capita number of theaters, art galleries, musical performances, and other cultural activities. There are also many museums and festivals that preserve such traditional activities as woodcarving and weaving. While many Icelanders have achieved widespread recognition for their talents, none is better known than the pop singer Bjork, who was born in Reykjavik and has gained international recognition.

Food and Dining

Iceland's Nobel Prize–winning author Halldor Laxness (in his The Fish Can Sing) described an early-twentiethcentury banquet made up of “smoked lamb, pickled whale and sardines . . . steaming hot blood sausage . . . [and] singed sheep's heads.” The country's diet, by some standards, is very bland and somewhat monotonous. Until recently, nearly everything eaten was produced locally; it was simply too expensive to import any but the most essential foodstuffs, such as sugar, coffee, and flour.

Fish is the mainstay of the Icelandic diet.Most people eat fish in some form at least once a day. It is eaten raw, pickled, smoked, or cooked in a variety of ways. Lamb and mutton are also popular meats. Boiled potatoes are served with most main meals, along with a boiled vegetable. Salads are rare, because most ingredients cannot be grown in Iceland. Dairy products are common; milk, ice cream, cheese, and yogurt are an important part of the diet. Skyr is a popular national dish similar to yogurt that is made from milk and eaten for breakfast, or as a dessert. Few spices, other than sugar and salt, are used in Icelandic cooking.

Traditional dining habits in Iceland are similar to those in the United States, with three meals a day the norm and dinner, which is usually served between 7:00 P.M. and 8:00 P.M., the largest meal. As also is true in the United States, as Icelandic families have become increasingly busy, the evening meal often is the only one at which all family members are together.

Icelanders are rightfully proud of their many accomplishments, their heritage and traditions, and their high standard of living. Although they are few in number and their homeland is small, rugged, and located at the very edge of the inhabited world, Icelanders have carved out a way of life that in many respects is unsurpassed.