On ÍTM - the basics

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Nedelina Ivanova

Nedelina Ivanova, fagstjóri rannsókna á SHH

Basic facts on ÍTM

Icelandic Sign Language (íslenskt táknmál, ÍTM) is a natural language and the first language of the Deaf and their children in Iceland. ÍTM is indigenous minority language (Stefánsdóttir, Kristinsson & Hreinsdóttir, 2019). The Deaf community in Iceland defines itself as a linguistic minority, i.e. not on the basis of biological or medical deafness but from the language they consider their mother tongue (Stefánsdóttir 2005; Sverrisdóttir 2007). ÍTM was acknowledged as the first language of the Deaf, hard of hearing and deaf-blind people with the establishment of Act No. 61/2011- Act on the Status of the Icelandic Language and Icelandic Sign Language. The Act states that ITM is “the first language of those who rely on it for expressing themselves and communicating with others. It is also the first language of their children. The authorities shall nurture and support it.“ (article 3) and that the Icelandic government and local authorities are responsible for the preservation of ÍTM and shall facilitate the development, research, teaching and distribution of ÍTM and support cultural activities, education and training for Deaf, hard of hearing and deaf-blind people (Article 5). According to the 2015 annual report from the Icelandic Sign Language Council (Stefánsdóttir et all, 2015) and to Stefánsdóttir, Kristinsson and Hreinsdóttir (2019), this has not been followed through resulting in ÍTM being an endangered language and the language community still experiencing discrimination. In their 2019 article, Stefánsdóttir et al stress that ÍTM is still associated with disability and impairment.

ÍTM is the first language of 250-300 Icelanders (Report of the committee on the judicially status of Icelandic and Icelandic Sign Language, 2010:86; Brynjólfsdóttir et al 2012; Thorvaldsdóttir & Stefánsdóttir 2015; Stefánsdóttir, Kristinsson & Hreinsdóttir, 2019). Recording to Thorvaldsdóttir & Stefánsdóttir (2015), The Communication Centre for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (the Communication Center) in Iceland has provided interpreter service to 178 Deaf signers according to the latest data from 2013. They point out that not all Deaf signers use the interpret service from the Communication Center, so the number of native signers might be higher. In addition, there are about 50 Deaf immigrants in Iceland who use ÍTM (Stefánsdóttir, Kristinsson & Hreinsdóttir, 2019). The authors estimate that there are about 1000-1500 hearing L2 users of ÍTM.

Atypically, hereditary deafness barely exists in Iceland. It is to be found only in three families, in one which goes at least three generation back and in two which goes only one generation back (The Center, p.c. Thorvaldsdóttir). On the other hand, some of the Deaf immigrant families who have Deaf children report hereditary deafness several generations back (the Center, Ivanova). This has given rise to a unique situation where 75% of the children under 10 who use ÍTM are second generation Deaf of Deaf immigrants, and all of them are born in Iceland (Koulidobrova & Ivanova, 2020). They grow up unimodal bilingual, with the heritage sign language and ÍTM. They learn written Icelandic when they start school, and it is their L3, even L4 if they learn the written language of the heritage sign language. Koulidobrova and Ivanova (2020) report that 25% of the signing children under the age of 10 have access to sound by hearing aids and hearing parents. They grow up bimodal bilingual, with spoken Icelandic and ÍTM. There are no Deaf children of Deaf parents of Icelandic origin who grow up monolingual, i.e. only with ÍTM. Taking all facts into account, an unavoidable impact is that ÍTM changes because the youngest generation of native signers is a second generation Deaf of Deaf immigrants and there is only one Deaf family with Deaf children with both parents of Icelandic origin but only the other parent having grown up with ÍTM.


The first school for the Deaf in Iceland was established in 1867 by the Rev. Páll Pálsson (Thorvaldsdóttir & Stefánsdóttir, 2015). Before that time 24 deaf children were sent to Denmark and 16 came back (Kristjánsson, 1945). Until 1922 when the Act on education of deaf and mute children (nr. 24/1922) came into effect, parents of Deaf children could choose whether their Deaf child will be educated, in Iceland or in Denmark. After 1922 all Deaf children were required be educated in Iceland from the age of eight and their education was compulsory. Even though some children were educated in Denmark before 1922, there is insufficient scientific evidence for the claim that ÍTM is derived from Danish Sign Language. Research (Aldersson & McEntee-Atalianis, 2007; Sverrisdóttir & Thorvaldsdóttir, 2016) shows similarities in the lexicon between ÍTM and DTS. Those are due borrowing but not of a genetic relation (Sverrisdóttir & Thorvaldsdóttir, 2016). As Thorvaldsdóttir and Stefánsdóttir (2015) point out ÍTM has been and still is in contact with other spoken and sign languages which have influenced its development. Today, there are 13 foreign sign languages which are used in Iceland.

Social context

ÍTM doesn´t have dialects or genderlects, but there is significant age-graded variation (Thorvaldsdóttir & Stefánsdóttir, 2015). The lack of dialects may be explained by the fact that both the preschool and the compulsory school for the Deaf have always been in Reykjavík, as are the Association for the Deaf and the interpreter services provided by the Communication Center. More research is needed on ethnolects in ÍTM today resulting from the Deaf immigrants. ÍTM is taught as L2 in different type of courses at the Communica tion Center and in the Sign Language Studies BA program at University of Iceland. There is a lack of teaching materials and tools of ÍTM as L1.


The grammar of ÍTM has been researched less than many other sign languages. The formal research started with the foundation of the Communication Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in 1990. Even if research on ÍTM has been ongoing for 30 years, only certain parts of the language have been studied (See for example Sverrisdóttir 2000; Alderson 2007; Thorvaldsdóttir 2007; Ivanova 2008; Thorvaldsdóttir 2011; Brynjólfsdóttir 2012; Guðmundsdóttir Beck 2013; Brynjólfsdóttir et al. 2012). The role of the Communication Center, according to the Act on the Center (no. 129/1990) is to facilitate research and teaching of ÍTM, administer interpreting services and other associated services. The research at the Center has been mainly of practical nature; much of the information that has been gathered has not published in journals. The Center for Sign Language research was established in 2011 with the aim of enhancing theoretical grammar research and the cooperation between the Communication Center and the Institute of Linguistics at University of Iceland.

There is currently no proper corpus for ÍTM, but such a resource would greatly help the survival of the language. Most of the existing video recordings are in practice difficult to use; since they are not annotated, it is hard to search for examples in them. Some first steps towards building up an annotated corpus for ÍTM at the Communication Center were taken with two short-term projects in 2014 and 2017 funded by the Student Innovation Fund (the Center, p.c. Thorvaldsdóttir). All data and results are kept at the Communication Center and in the light of the information above it is very important that they are used for ongoing work in order to preserve and document the language, follow its historical development, and secure the survival of ÍTM.  


Act on the Communication Centre for the Deaf and Hard of hearing no. 129/1990 [Lög um Samskiptamiðstöð heyrnarlausra og heyrnarskertra nr. 129/1990]. Available in Icelandic at https://www.althingi.is/lagas/nuna/1990129.html

Act on the education of deaf and dumb students no. 24/1922 [Lög um kennslu heyrnar- og málleysingja nr. 24/1922]

Act on the status of the Icelandic Language and Icelandic Sign Language no. 61/2011. Available in English at www.althingi.is/altext/stjt/2011.061.htm

Aldersson, Russell R. & Lisa J. McEntee-Atalianis. 2007. A Lexical Comparison of Icelandic Sign Language and Danish Sign Language. BISAL 2:123–158.

Brynjólfsdóttir, Elísa Guðrún. 2012. Hvað gerðir þú við peningana sem frúin í Hamborg gaf þér? Myndun hv-spurninga í íslenska táknmálinu [What did you do with the money that the madame of Hamburg gave you? Wh-questions in Icelandic Sign Language]. Reykjavík: University of Iceland M.A. thesis. http://hdl.handle.net/1946/12835.

Brynjólfsdóttir, Elísa Guðrún, Jóhannes Gísli Jónsson, Kristín Lena Þorvaldsdóttir & Rannveig Sverrisdóttir. 2012. Málfræði íslenska táknmálsins [Grammar of Icelandic Sign Language]. Íslenskt mál og almenn málfræði 34:9-52. Guðmundsdóttir Beck, Thórhalla. 2013. Í landi myndanna. Um merkingu og uppruna lýsandi orða í táknmáli [In the kingdom of images: On meaning and origins of descriptive words in sign language]. Reykjavík: University of Iceland M.A. thesis https://skemman.is/handle/1946/13773

Ivanova, Nedelina S. 2008. Tillaga um nýja íslenska táknmálsorðabók á málvísindalegum forsendum [Proposal for a new Icelandic Sign Language dictionary on linguistic terms]. Reykjavík: University of Iceland M.A. thesis https://skemman.is/handle/1946/3452

Koulidobrova, E. & Ivanova, N. 2020. Acquisition of phonology in child Icelandic Sign Language: Some unique findings. Annual Meeting of the Linguistic Society of America, New Orleans. January 2020. Kristjánsson, Ó.P. 1945. Málleysingjakennsla hér á landi. [The teaching of the mute here in the country]. Menntamál 18(1), 7:17

Report of the committee on the judicially status of Icealndic and Icelandic Sign Language. 2010. Avaible in Icelandic at https://www.stjornarradid.is/media/menntamalaraduneyti-media/media/ritogskyrslur/skyrsla_islensk_tunga_2010.pdf

Stefánsdóttir, Valgerður. 2005. Málsamfélag heyrnarlausra: Um samskipti á milli táknmálstalandi og íslenskutalandi fólks [The language comunity of the Deaf: On the communication between sign language speakers and Icelandic speakers]. Reykjavík: University of Iceland M.A. thesis https://skemman.is/handle/1946/26975

Stefánsdóttir, V., Kristinsson, A.P, Eiríksdóttir, H.D., Haraldsdóttir, H.A. & Sverrisdóttir, R. 2015. Annual report of the Icelandic Sign Language Council. Available in Icelandic at https://www.islenskan.is/images/Skyrsla-MIT-2015.pdf

Stefánsdóttir, Valgerður Ari Páll Kristinsson & Júlía G. Hreinsdóttir. 2019. The Legal Recognition of Icelandic Sign Language: Meeting Deaf People’s Expectations? In Maartje De Meulder, Joseph J. Murray and Rachel McKee (eds.) The Legal Recognition of Sign Languages: Advocacy and Outcomes Around the World. Multilingual Matters. Multilingual Matters

Sverrisdóttir, Rannveig. 2000. Signing Simultaneous Events: The Expression of Simultaneity in Children’s and Adults’ Narratives in Icelandic Sign Language. Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen Cand mag. thesis.

Sverrisdóttir, Rannveig. 2007. Hann var bæði mál- og heyrnarlaus: um viðhorf til táknmála [He was both mute and deaf: On attitudes towards sign languages]. Ritið 7(1). 83–105.

Sverrisdóttir, Rannveig & Kristín Lena Þorvaldsdóttir. 2016. Why is the SKY BLUE? On colour signs in Icelandic Sign Language. In Zeshan, Ulrike & Keiko Sagara (eds.). Semantic Fields in Sign Languages. Colour, Kinship and Quantification. Sign Language Typology Series No. 6, pp. 209-249. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter and Nijmegen: Ishara Press.

Thorvaldsdóttir, Guðný Björk. 2007. The use of space in Icelandic Sign Language. Dublin: The University of Dublin, M.Phil. thesis

Thorvaldsdóttir, Kristín Lena. 2011. Sagnir í íslenska táknmálinu. Formleg einkenni og málfræðilegar formdeildir [Verbs in Icelandic Sign Language: Formal feature sand grammatical categories]. Reykjavík: University of Iceland M.A. thesis http://hdl.handle.net/1946/9997.

Thorvaldsdóttir, Kristín Lena & Valgerður Stefánsdóttir. 2015. Icelandic Sign Language. In Julie Bakken Jepsen, Goedele De Clerck, Sam lutalo-Kiingi & William B. McGregor (eds.). Sign Languages of the World - A Comparative Handbook, pp. 409-429. Berlin and Boston: Mouton de Guyter and Preston: Ishara Press.