Is the Icelandic language difficult? How do you pronounce Eyjafjallajökull? How do you read the Icelandic alphabet? Are there any similarities between English and Icelandic?
As a big fan of languages and the Icelandic language in particular, I want to try to answer these questions and a few more.
Foreigners often complain over or admire the Icelandic language and most people agree that it’s a tough language to learn. For first time visitors, some of the Icelandic place names – as well as people’s names - can be real tongue twisters.
Some people get the hang of it after a while, for others these words continue being impossible to pronounce. (FYI, Icelanders don't use surnames but just add -dóttir (daughter) or -son (son) after one of their parent's first name, normally the father's name. I.e. my father's first name is Gunnar, therefore I am Gunnar's daughter = Gunnarsdóttir).
Hopefully I can help you get started, and make it look less of a challenge than you think!
When Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in 2010 the world took notice since international flights were halted. I’m not going into details about that eruption. But one of the most entertaining things to come from that eruption was the way that news reporters – and tourists – butchered the pronunciation of the volcano: EYJA-FJALLA-JÖKULL. There are some great examples in the videos above.
But is Icelandic really that hard? I personally don’t think so, and I want to break it down for you as best as I can. To make this as simple as I can, I will only be making translations between Icelandic and English and examples in these two languages.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Max Naylor. No edits made.
Lets start with the most basic thing, the alphabet and its pronunciation. I have to say, the most irritating mistake I hear when people try speaking Icelandic is pronouncing Þ like a P (it’s NOT a P!) or pronouncing J like the English way of saying J (with a sort of a D sound) - so try not to do that!
Icelandic is a very phonetic language, when you’ve learned how to pronounce the letters, you can read and pronounce words correctly. The stress is always on the first syllable and there are no silent letters, so the best tip I can give you is to enunciate! The Icelandic alphabet has 32 letters. These are:
Aa Áá Bb Dd Ðð Ee Éé Ff Gg Hh Ii Íí Jj Kk Ll Mm Nn Oo Óó Pp Rr Ss Tt Uu Úú Vv Xx Yy Ýý Þþ Ææ Öö
Notice that there is no C, no Q, no W and no Z. All of the regular vowels (A, E, I, O, U and Y) have an identical vowel with a comma over it. This comma is not an accent but signifies a different vowel with a different sound. In addition the Icelandic alphabet has the vowels Æ and Ö. So in total, there are 14 vowels in the Icelandic alphabet – and 18 consonants.
Most letters sound the same in Icelandic as they do in English – but I will list the pronunciation of the odd ones out.
Ð – ð: This letter that looks like a D with a line through it when it’s a capital letter, is sometimes confused for an Ó when it is in lower case. In fact, this letter sounds identical to TH in the word ‘the’, ‘they’ or ‘then’.
G – g: The letter G is identical to the English G in some words, such as ‘golf’ (golf), ‘gata’ (street) or ‘gefa’ (give). Sometimes there is a soft pronunciation of the letter G, such as in ‘vegur’ (way/road) or ‘skógur’ (forest). This soft G is similar to G in the English words ‘thing’, ‘design’ or ‘campaign’.
H – h: The H is pronounced like a regular H in English – EXCEPT when it’s combined with a V, then it sounds like a K. This happens for example in all of our question words: ‘hvað’: kvath (what), ‘hver’: kver (who – or hot spring!), ‘hvenær’: kven-I-r (when), 'hvernig': kvernig (how), 'af hverju': af kveryu (why).
J – j: The letter J presents people with some difficulties. It’s not hard to pronounce – but the pronunciation is not the same as in English. The Icelandic J is pronounced like the English Y. A great example is ‘jójó’ (yo-yo) that’s pronounced exactly the same way. ‘Jól’ (yule/Christmas) and ‘eyja’ (island) are pronounced as: ‘yol’ and ‘A-ya’. The English word ‘jazz’ is pronounced ‘djass’ in Icelandic.
L – l: A regular L is pronounced the same as an L in English. The trouble starts when there is a double L, such as in the word ‘jökull’ (glacier). The double L has a little click sound and can best be described as pronouncing it as TL (so, yökutl – more on Ö later).
R – r: The R in Icelandic is rolled. You can get away with rolling it just a little bit but if you can roll it properly, you’ll be able to pronounce ‘Reykjavík’: RAkyaveek (smoky bay) like a local!
V – v: The letter V is pronounced like V in English – or like a W. There is no W in Icelandic and Icelanders most of the time won’t hear the difference between V and W. You can have fun with that, ask them to talk about videos and VCR’s and other words beginning with a V in English…
Þ – þ: The famous Icelandic Þ! Þ appears in many words, most notably in ‘Þingvellir’ (parliament fields) on the Golden Circle. This is NOT a P so please don’t ever pronounce Þingvellir as Pingvellir. Or write it down like that. Þ is pronounced like TH in the word ‘thing’ or ‘think’ and an acceptable way to write Þingvellir if you have no Þ in your keyboard is Thingvellir.
Æ – æ: Simply, Æ is pronounced like a capital I. Always. You can also remember it as sounding like YE in the word ‘bye’ (bæ).
Ö – ö: Ö is different from O (pronounced like O in the English word ‘ought’ or ‘fought’) and Ó (pronounced like the English O in ‘oh’ or ‘over’). Ö is pronounced like U in the word ‘urn’, ‘murmur’ or ‘under’.
Additionally, the combination of a couple of letters makes them sound different. These combinations are:
Au: When A is combined with U (AU) it is pronounced differently. I can’t think of an example of it occurring in English but it kind of sounds like a combination of Ö+I (öi).
Ei / Ey: The combination of E and I (EI) or of E and Y (EY) sound exactly the same. And it’s pronounced like a capital A. Or AY in the word ‘way’. An Icelandic example is ‘eyja’: A-ya (island).
Here you can find more details on how to pronounce the Icelandic alphabet.
All of these words are combined words.
Lets break down Eyjafjallajökull, probably the most internationally known Icelandic volcano after the 2010 eruption. This word actually consists of three separate words: ‘eyja’ (island), ‘fjall’ (mountain) and ‘jökull’ (glacier). So the daunting task of pronouncing Eyjafjallajökull is a little easier when you break it down, just as Islandmountainglacier would look like a tough word to say if it were an English word, it’s OK when it’s in 3 words.
‘Þingvellir’ is comprised of the words ‘þing’ (parliament) and ‘vellir’ (fields).
‘Kirkjubæjarklaustur’ is a combination of ‘kirkja’ (church), the possessive form of ‘bær’ (town) and ‘klaustur’ (convent) = ChurchTown’sConvent.
‘Jökulsárgljúfur’ is 3 words, possessive form of ‘jökull’ (glacier), possessive form of ‘á’ (river) and the word ‘gljúfur’ (canyon). Glacier’sRiver’sCanyon.
The town ‘Egilsstaðir’ in the East of Iceland basically means Egil’s place. Egill is a man's name.
Finally, ‘Fjaðrárgljúfur’ means FeatherRiverCanyon.
As you can see, most place names in Iceland are very seethrough. Eyjafjallajökull is indeed a glacier on a mountain on an island, the parliament used to gather at the fields of Þingvellir and there used to be a convent at Kirkjubæjarklaustur.
Icelandic is not the only language that has a habit of combining words into a longer one, this is also prominent in German, such as in the word ‘kugelschreiber’ (Icelandic: kúlupenni, English: ball-pen). English also has many words that are a combination of words, although they seldom have more than two words together (blacksmith, cheesemonger, heartache).
And then there's Welsh. The longest town name in the world is Welsh and unfortunately there are no big news stories coming from Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, because I would love to hear news reporters pronounce that!
There are PLENTY of similarities between Icelandic and English. Icelandic has at least two internationally known words: ‘Geyser’ and ‘Saga’. The word ‘geyser’ derives from Iceland’s biggest geyser, Geysir (found on the Golden Circle) and the Icelandic Sagas that were written in the 1200’s are great examples of epic sagas. The word ‘saga’ simply means ‘story’ in Icelandic.
There are many more similarities between Icelandic and English words than just those two. Maybe you’ve seen some in the examples given above ('dóttir' = daughter, ‘jól’ = yule, ‘gefa’ = give, ‘vegur’ = way).
According to the Icelandic sagas then hundreds of years ago, in Viking times, people in Iceland could converse with Scandinavian people as well as people living in England, without much difficulties.
Iceland is an isolated country and its language has stayed pure and close to its roots and is the closest you can get to Old Norse. The same can not be said about English for example, as besides being influenced by Nordic languages there are many French, German, Latin and Greek influences in English, i.e. Rendez-vous, déjà-vu, Zeitgeist, biology, philosophy, zoology, curriculum vitae etc.
Icelandic is quite similar to many old words in English. The word ‘you’ was for example taken up in England quite recently and replaced ‘thou’, ‘thy’ and ‘thee’ because it was more similar to the fashionable ‘vous’ in French, that was spoken by the upper classes. ‘Thou’ or ‘thy’ isn’t too far off from ‘þú’ (Icelandic for singular form of ‘you’) and ‘thee’ isn’t far from ‘þér’ (a form of 'þú' and the old way of addressing people politely).
There is no 'polite' way of addressing people in modern Icelandic, such as 'Sie' or 'Vous' in German and French, everyone uses the word 'þú'. On that note, everyone is also addressed by their first name, never by their surname.
The word ‘eyja’ (that you should be familiar with now) can be shortened to ‘ey’ and still mean ‘island’. That would explain the names of the Orkney islands, as well as Jersey and Guernsey.
The English word ‘husband’ doesn’t have an obvious meaning behind it – but it’s very similar to the Icelandic word ‘húsbóndi’ that literally translates as ‘house farmer’ or ‘man of the house’. ‘Húsbóndi’ isn’t commonly used as a term for a husband in the sense of ‘man and wife’ (or ‘man and husband’) in Icelandic anymore, that word is now ‘eiginmaður’ (that literally translates to 'a man of your own').
Many English old place names are similar to Icelandic words, such as mountains with the word ‘fell’ in them (i.e. Scafell Pike and Cross Fell) an obvious connection to the Icelandic word for mountain: ‘fjall’.
There are also tons of similar words related to fishing and the sea, such as ‘gangvegur’ (gangway), ‘skip’ (ship), ‘bátur’ (boat), ‘fiskur’ (fish), ‘akkeri’ (anchor), ‘sjór’ (sea) etc.
Icelandic is a very old language that hasn’t changed much throughout the centuries. New Icelandic words are frequently invented - and in theory, anyone can invent a new word. A special word committee makes up new words for every new invention or slang that’s thrown our way. Some words become popular and become used in every day speak, others don’t fare as well.
Whereas many languages use the same root of a word for new inventions (and old roots for words such as chemistry, biology or psychology) – Iceland is determined to make their own unique words for every word there is.
Many stable words such as ‘land’ = land, ‘vín’ = wine, ‘hús’ = house and ‘glas’ = (drinking) glass are similar and easy to learn. On the other hand, newer words such as ‘tölva’ (computer), ‘sjónvarp’ (television) or ‘rafmagn’ (electricity) are very different from one another.
The word for computer, ‘tölva’ is a combination of the old word ‘völva’ (fortune teller) and the T from the word ‘tala’ (number). So essentially, ‘computer’ is ‘numeric teller’ in Icelandic.
The word ‘sjónvarp’ (television) is comprised of the words ‘sjón’ (sight) and ‘varp’ (projection). ‘Rafmagn’ (electricity) is comprised of ‘raf’ (electron) and ‘magn’ (mass). So many words make total sense when you know the individual words within them, such as ‘ísskápur’ (ice closet = fridge) or 'frystikista' (frozen chest = freezer).
I’m a big fan of the Icelandic language and think it’s a very fun language. Icelanders are very proud of their language and indeed there’s a 100% literacy rate in the country. There are also endless amounts of Icelandic books to choose from, 1 in every 5 Icelanders will write a book in their lifetime according to statistics. Before every Christmas there is a surge of new books being released and this rush of released books is aptly named ‘jólabókarflóð’ or ‘YuleBookFlood’.
Iceland has many peculiar and fun phrases and sayings and in every Easter egg there will always be an old saying inside. Many people think that the saying inside their Easter egg is even more of a treat than the chocolate itself.
Many Icelanders put in an effort to speak correctly and keep up to date on new words. A popular television series from 2013 called Orðbragð plays with Icelandic words and dissects the language – and it was popular enough for a second series in 2015.
And you can read about new Icelandic words on the side of your milk cartons. The language is rich in words but a lot of words have double or triple meanings, meaning word puns are popular in (completely untranslatable) jokes.
Icelandic is known for being a hard language to learn. For Western Europeans and people with English as their native language, I dare say it’s still not that hard. (You might disagree!)
Sure, Icelandic has many forms and words change a little depending on the sentence they are used in, sometimes we speak on the in-breath and we have more than a dozen words for ‘snow’ - but it is a very phonetic language, where letters always sound the way they sound (very different from English and French for example – but similar to Spanish). The alphabet is Latin and familiar to Western European languages.
In fact, it's even possible to learn how to speak Icelandic in just one week, if you're extremely good with languages! This was proved by Daniel Tammet from the UK, back in 2004.
Learning a new language is always hard but I dare say that if you already know English, then Icelandic shouldn’t be too hard, at least not as much of a challenge as learning a language with a completely different structure and alphabet, such as Chinese, Arabic or Russian. And as for European languages, Welsh has got to be more difficult than Icelandic!
There are some useful websites where you can learn Icelandic online, either for free or for a small fee. These include icelandiconline.is, icelandiconline.com and italki.com. You can also learn Icelandic online, or attend classes if you are in Iceland at the Tin Can Factory. Their classes also include visits to galleries or band rehearsals, cooking Icelandic recipes together and much more.
Halló - Hello
Hæ - Hi
Bless - Goodbye
Já - Yes
Nei - No
Góðan daginn - Good day
Góða nótt - Good night
Gaman að kynnast þér - Nice to meet you
Sjáumst (seinna) - See you (later)
Takk fyrir síðast - Thanks for last time
Takk sömuleiðis - Thanks, likewise
Takk - Thank you
Takk fyrir mig / Takk fyrir matinn - Thank you for dinner
Verði þér að góðu - You're welcome
Velkomin / Velkominn - Welcome
Hvað kostar þetta? - What does this cost?
Hvar er næsti hraðbanki? - Where is the next ATM?
Einn bjór, takk - One beer, thanks
Skál - Cheers
Ég ætla að fá ... - I'm going to have ...
Gæti ég fengið vatnsglas? - Could I have a glass of water?
Ég er að læra íslensku - I am learning Icelandic
Ég tala reiprennandi íslensku - I speak fluent Icelandic
Hvernig berðu þetta fram? - How do you pronounce this?
Ég heiti ... - My name is ...
Ég er frá ... - I am from ...
Hvar er ráðhúsið / Harpa / Hallgrímskirkja? - Where is the city hall / Harpa / Hallgrímskirkja?
Mælir þú með góðum veitingastað / bar? - Do you recommend a good restaurant / bar?
Hvað er fiskur dagsins? - What is the fish of the day?
Hvað er réttur dagsins? - What is the dish of the day?
Veistu símanúmerið hjá ...? - Do you know the phone number for ...?
Ég elska Ísland / Björk / Sigur Rós / þig - I love Iceland / Björk / Sigur Rós / you