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Guide to the Icelandic Language

Learn about history, structure and how to learn the Icelandic language

|December 16, 2020
Vita has hiked glaciers in Alaska, climbed fourteeners in Colorado and is all about sharing her stories and promoting responsible tourism. These days she is often wandering the streets of Vilnius with a film camera in her hand or reading.

Are you interested in Icelandic? You might wonder whether or not learning Icelandic is as difficult as it sounds.

Or perhaps you are simply interested in how this unique language developed and what its key characteristics are. Whatever your reasons are for being interested in the Icelandic language, we’ll take you on a fascinating journey exploring its history, semantics, practical learning tips, and much more. Plus, after reading this guide, you will have an understanding of all the expressions you’ll need to know when you visit Iceland. 

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What is the Icelandic Language?

Icelandic is the official language of the Republic of Iceland. As one of the Nordic languages, it belongs to the Germanic language family. If you speak German, Norwegian, or Faeroese, you’ll have an edge in mastering Icelandic faster, since Icelandic is closely related to these languages. Some knowledge of a Scandinavian language is also a plus. 

icelandic alphabet letters

Being a phonetic language, learning the language is much easier when you know how to pronounce all the letters in the Icelandic alphabet. The Icelandic language uses the Latin-script alphabet. There are 32 letters, in which three are used only for foreign words. The letter Z used to be in the alphabet but is now obsolete. 

The letters, C, Q and W, are only used for words of foreign origin or some names that are also of foreign origin. For other cases, these three letters are replaced by the Icelandic letters, k/s/ts, hv, and v, respectively. 

The Icelandic Alphabet Pronounciation

Simple Icelandic Phrases For Travelers

These phrases are very easy to learn and can help you kickstart a conversation in Iceland. To expand your knowledge on some quirky expressions, please read about these 12 weird Icelandic phrases and sayings. 

Góðan daginn - Good day 

Takk - Thanks 

Takk fyrir - Thank you very much 

 - Yes 

Nei - No 

Afsakið - Excuse me 

Augnablik - One moment 

Kannski - Maybe 

Á morgun - Tomorrow 

Í dag - Today 

Í gær - Yesterday 

Ég - I 

Þu - You 

Hann / Hún - He / She 

Ég heiti - My name is 

Ég er - I am 

Strætó - Bus 

Bílaleigubíll - Rental car 

Leigubíll - Taxi 

Bjór - Bear 

Brauð - Bread 

Mjólk - Milk 

Practical Icelandic Tips for Foreigners Traveling to Iceland

You may be interested in learning some basic Icelandic before you visit Iceland. And that’s perfect! Here we have several resources you can use to learn the language for free. 

notebook for learning icelandic language
  • Icelandic Online is a comprehensive platform catering to all levels of learners. 
  • Íslenska Fyrir Alla (Icelandic For All) is for beginners and it’s helpful if you want to learn some basic expressions. 
  • If you prefer to learn a language using videosViltu læra íslensku (Do you want to learn Icelandic) is perfect for you. Its videos capture some everyday moments in daily dialogues. 
  • Mobile apps are also good options to learn a new language, although there are only a few apps on the market. You can download an app called Drops, for Android or iOS, and spend five minutes per day expanding your Icelandic vocabulary. 

Here is a list of books on learning the language: 

  • Complete Icelandic: A Teach Yourself Guide by Hildur Jonsdottir
  • Colloquial Icelandic: The Complete Course for Beginners by Daisy L. Neijmann 
  • News sources for keeping up with what’s going on in Iceland in the language: 
  • RÚV - The Iceland National Broadcast Service 
  • Fréttablaðið - Iceland’s largest newspaper 
  • Vísir - An online newspaper in Iceland
  • Morgunblaðið - Another popular newspaper in Iceland 

The Origin of the Icelandic Language

Icelanders are very proud of their language as it’s commonly perceived to be the purest language in the world. The reason for that is the language hasn’t been majorly influenced by other languages or modernization.  

Modern Icelanders can read ancient Icelandic text without too much effort as the language has been well-preserved over the last millennium. One could say that the “Viking language” is still here today! 

collage of an icelandic manuscript language

In the 9th century, the Vikings, who were mostly Norwegianand a small population of Swedes and Irish began settling in Iceland. The Norwegian Vikings brought a dialect of Old Norse to the island, which was isolated from the rest of the world. The dialect became the prototype of the Icelandic language we speak today. 

In the 12th century, the early settlers of Iceland found that Iceland’s long, dark winters were the best time for being creative, so they started to write. They created famous Icelandic literature and Icelandic sagas including poems, stories, nature records, and detailed memoirs.  

Why Icelandic?

It’s nice to know even just a few words or expressions when you are traveling in another country. Although many Icelanders speak English well, saying “thank you” in their native tongue is highly appreciated. You will also be able to grasp the culture and connect with its people more profoundly if you make an effort to speak the language.  On a more practical note, it may help you in times of need. 

For those who are looking for foreign language to tackle, Icelandic is an interesting option. That being said, Icelandic is not widespread, so the natural question is why choose Icelandic? Apart from any personal affection or obsession for all things related to Iceland, from a pure linguistic aspect, the language is a very special one. 

In Icelandic, the flow from a sentence sounds rich and thick, and syllables aren’t distinctively discernible since they all combine and flow togetherOnce you get over these phonetic hurdles, the beauty of the language starts to emerge. 

The “R” sound is also easy to distinguish. Compared to several other languages with a strong “R” sound, Icelandic’s “R” sounds more like trilling sound, producing a slight, poetic vibration between its adjacent vowels.  

It definitely doesn’t sound as musical as the “R” in Italian, Spanish, or Russian, nor as dramatic as the “R” in French or Scottish. You can hear this distinction in Bjork’s English song below. 

Its infamously complex grammar also contributes a unique beauty to how the language sounds. The declensions in Icelandic almost shape the phonetics of the language, making it sound almost prosodic. 

In the example below, you will hear the rhythm of Icelandic through the poem: The River in the Lava / Áin í Hrauninu. 

Ólafur Arnalds - Árbakkinn ft. Einar Georg

The Poem in Icelandic and English.

Áin í hrauninu

Í bláum draumi/hún unir ein/með ærslum leikur/á strengi og flúðir/og glettin skvettir/á gráan stein/í hyl og lygnu/er hægt á ferð/með hæverskum/þokka/áin niðar/sí-endurfædd/og undraverð/hún fremur þá list/sem fegurst er/úr fornum eldi/er hljómbotn gerður/ég heyri óminn/í hjarta mér/ég heyri óminn/í hjarta mér.

The river in the lava

In a blue dream/she lingers alone/frolicly playing/on strings and rapids/and playfully splashing/the gray stone/in a still pool/the speed reduced/with modest charm/the river murmurs/continually reborn/and marvelous/she practices the art/which is the fairest/from ancient fire/resonance is made/I hear the sound/in my heart/I hear the sound/in my heart.

Why Icelandic Has Become Popular?

In recent years, learning Icelandic has become popular among foreigners. According to the major language institution at the University of Iceland –  Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies –  more and more applications from people around the world are being received. Icelanders are intrigued by the increasing popularity of their native language, which they know is not an easy one for foreigners to learn. 

The general interest toward this Nordic island nation has boomed since the eruption of the volcano Eyjafjallajokull in 2010. (Yes, it’s definitely a tongue-twisting name!)  

big ash cloud above eyjafjallajokull volcano

Since then, Iceland has welcomed millions of visitors each year. This is exceptional, considering the country has such a small population. As a side effect of tourism, Iceland’s language and culture have become the center of attention. Also, the popularity of Icelandic might simply be because it’s a beautiful language once you come to master it. 

Is It True That Icelandic is Hard to Learn?

Icelandic is challenging. Its complex grammar rules can cause quite the headache even among the most eager of learners. In order to be able to speak Icelandic fluently   without making too many grammar mistakes –  you need to overcome the following hurdles: 

Odd Pronunciation

It’s inevitable that it’ll take a while to perfect the accent when you start learning a foreign language. But it is important to learn to pronounce words correctly, especially when it comes to Icelandic. An accent can change the pronunciation and the meaning of a word completely. For beginners, it's important to pay extra attention to the nuances of pronunciation and make sure you start with a good foundation. 

Icelandic is a phonetic language, but for anyone who has had no previous exposure to the language, it’s hard to be as phonetically capable as you would be in English, French, or Spanish. 

Icelandic Pronunciation: Oddities Explained

Sophisticated Vocabulary

Icelanders are adamant about preserving the purity of their mother tongue. That means in Icelandic there won’t be many borrowed words from other languages since they create their own words in Icelandic.  

Icelandic is also famous for putting all kinds of words together to make a new word –  no matter how long the new word is. One extreme example that proves this just happens to be the longest word in Icelandic: “vaðlaheiðarvegavinnuverkfærageymsluskúraútidyralyklakippuhringur.” It refers to a specific keychain ring for the outdoor key of a road workers shed in a moor called Vaðlaheiði. 

Of course, this is a rare case. Most words are easy to deconstruct and not too hard to remember. 

Complex Grammar

Icelandic belongs to the Indo-European language family. Its rules haven’t changed much since the beginning, which makes the grammar very complex. There are four cases of nouns and two in numbers. Plus, there are three genders. And for most adjectives and some adverbs, there are three degrees of comparison. 

Additionally, in Icelandic most adjectives have two types of inflection: strong and weak. There are also three people in verbs, three moods, and two voices. And there are auxiliary verbs that can be entered into several constructions to create the desired tenses.  

Lastly, verbs have three nominal forms and two participles. These rules are exceptionally intertwined, driving language learners a little crazy!  

The longest Icelandic word | #AskGudmundur

Cultural Barrier

Iceland is a small and close-knit society. For those who don’t speak the language, it’s challenging to grasp what is going on on the island. The language conveys everything related to current affairs that’s necessary to know in order to live an informed life.  

Yet, the language barrier can often transform into a cultural barrier that constantly makes foreigners feel like outsiders. Speaking the language is the only way to stay in the loop.  

small turf houses for elves in iceland

Some Rules in Icelandic Travelers Need to Know

The purpose and the focus of learning Icelandic can vary among tourists, expats, and immigrants. In this section, we are only going to talk about the Icelandic must-knows for visitors. 

First, let’s cover how Icelanders structure location names since it’s one of the most important things for tourists to know. 

Like English, Icelandic also has prefixes and suffixes. These letter groups can help identify the types of locations and where they are. Let’s use the location names in Reykjavik as an example. 

The last three letters in Reykjavik mean bay. You can see why they named the charming little town on the South Coast of Iceland “Vik” –  it is situated on a large bayReykjavik means smoking bay, because when the early settlers arrived, they saw the bay area was filled with steam coming up from the ground. 

Here is a list of letter groups signifying the types of locations: 

  • Á, sometimes ár, means a river or a stream. Example: Hvítá (white river), a river where you can go river rafting along its beautiful streams. Jökulsárlón (glacier river lake), the lake with floating blue icebergs.
  • Bær means a town or a municipality. There are seven municipalities in the Capital Region of Iceland in which two of them have it in their names: Mosfellsbær and Garðabær. 
  • Brú means a bridge, as seen in Skeiðarárbrú, Iceland’s longest bridge, and Borgarfjarðarbrú, the second-longest bridge in Iceland. 
a walking bridge between two continental plates in reykjanes
  • Dalur means valley. There are a lot of names in Iceland that end with dalur, for example, Laugardalur in Reykjavik, and Reykjadalur near the town of Hveragerði. 
  • Ey, and Eyjacan both mean an island. The most straightforward examples are the names for the islands of Drangey, Grimsey, Heimaey, and Surtsey. The famous volcano, Eyjafjallajokull, has eyja in it as its name means island mountain glacier.
  • Fjörður, or Fjord means a fjord. There are plenty of examples: Hafnarfjörður, BorgarfjörðurWestfjörður, and Seydisfjordur. 
  • Foss means waterfall. And this is must-know since there are so many stunning waterfalls in Iceland: Gullfoss, the Golden WaterfallSkogafoss, the Forest Waterfall; Svartifoss, the Black Waterfall; Kirkjufoss, the Church Waterfall, and many more. 
taking pictures of tourists near skogafoss waterfall
  • Gata means a street. You will find there are many street names ended with gata just in downtown Reykjavik, for example, Njálsgata, Týsgata, Grettisgata, and Hverfisgata.
  • Hraun means lava. There is a place named Midhraun in the Reykjavik area that’s literally situated in the middle of a lava field.
  • Jökull means a glacier. Europe’s most voluminous glacier Vatnajökull is located in South Iceland. Solheimajökull, a beloved glacier for adventure seekers, can be reached right off the Ring Road when you drive pass Skogafoss waterfall.
  • Laug is a pool. Many public swimming pools in Iceland are named by combining their neighborhood name: Vesturbæjarlaug, Laugardalslaug, and Árbæjarlaug, these three swimming pools in Reykjavik municipality are found respectively in the districts of Vesturbær, Laugardalur, and Árbær.  Though, of course, not every swimming pool follows this naming rule, as long as you recognize “laug” in a world, it can’t be too far from being a pool.
seljavallalaug geothermal pool in south iceland
  • Lón is a lagoon. The most famous one is the Blue Lagoon that’s spelled “Bláa lónið” in  Icelandic; and Jokulsarlón, Fjallsárlón, and Breiðárlón are three glacier lagoons located close to each other on the black sand beach of Breiðamerkursandur.
  • Nes means a promontory or a peninsula. The most famous peninsulas are Snaefellsnes and Reykjanes. Snaefellsnes Peninsula is also nicknamed “Miniature Iceland” as it has all the signature Icelandic sceneries. Reykjanes Peninsula has a variety of attractions including geothermal lake diving at Kleifarvatn lake, and geothermal bathing at the renowned Blue Lagoon.
  • Staðir, or staður, means a place. It’s more like a general term for any locations anywhere in Iceland since we have a charming town named Egilsstaðir, a popular base for those who want to explore East Iceland. Iceland’s largest forest can be found in Hallormsstaður.
  • Tún means a field or grassland. As you may have noticed that Iceland has extensive areas of fields no matter it’s filled with hardened lava or soft moss, which explains why “tún” is popular designation in location names. Good examples: Ártún and Nóatún in Reykjavik.
  • Vegur means road. Iceland’s only road that circles the entire island is named Hringvegur, aka the Ring Road or Route 1, the only also the best option for a road trip in Iceland. You will also notice this suffix from a lot of road names in Reykjavik, or anywhere in Iceland. The main street in the capital is named Laugavegur, meaning wash road.
a paved road near grindavik town in reykjanes
  • Vogur can be a cove, a bay, or an inlet. Iceland has many small inlets around the country, therefore, they are many locations connected to this name: Kopavogur, one of the seven municipalities in the Capital Region; Djúpivogur, a charming port town on the coastline of Southeast Iceland.
  • Vatn means water, but when it’s attached to the end of other words, it usually means a lake. The largest natural lake in Iceland is called Thingvallavatn, located on the popular tourist route of the Golden Circle. Hvítárvatn is a glacier lake that’s fed by glacial meltwater from the second largest glacier in Iceland, Langjokull, which is a wonderful location for snowmobiling.

From all these examples, you might have already sensed that the Icelandic language likes to stick words together to make a new word that connects to a new thing that’s not completely irrelevant only by changing cases. That’s why they bothered to come up with the longest word for the ring of a specific keychain.

What is Discussed about the Icelandic Language Today

This part of the blog, I hope to be very informative for any travelers planning your trip to Iceland. For anybody who has a general interest in any language or Icelandic specifically, we want to update you on what has been discussed in Iceland about the language that’s spoken by around 350,000 people worldwide. Although it’s a medium language judging on its native speakers, the growing interest from foreigners has been proving otherwise.

According to the state-funded Icelandic language institute Arni Magnusson for Icelandic Studies, more and more people came here to learn Icelandic, either for advancing their academic skills in Old Norse manuscript or for improving their Icelandic language skills in general. It shows that people from all around the world grow to be curious and take actions in learning.

However, there’s worry about the possibility of extinction for the language someday in the future hasn’t gone away, and Icelanders blame the digital age.

The Icelandic Language digital extinction ?

Many people like to change the language settings on their smartphones to a language they are learning as it helps them get exposure. It’s almost impossible if you want to set up in Icelandic because it’s not on the list. Few tech companies would want to invest millions of dollars on a language that’s spoken by fewer than a half million people. It's simply not good business for a small market.

But Iceland does not and will not surrender to the threat of digital extinction without a fight. The government has given tremendous financial support into paving the pathway and advancing Icelandic in the digital age. That said, there’re still some paradoxical moments for newly minted Icelandic speakers.

Icelanders tend to switch to English once they sense it might be difficult to carry out a simple conversation with a beginner. So there’s no chance to practice it in real life scenarios. Even for proficient speakers, the challenge exists too. Just in 2016, a German meteorologist at the Icelandic Weather Office broadcasted a weather forecast in Icelandic but received mixed comments. Some perceived his slight accent as acceptable and even charming, some went a bit extreme claiming that his accent will affect the accuracy when the fisherman and road workers receive the information which is crucial for their line of work. We are not going to dive into how accents affect the accuracy of the information being delivered. Instead, we need to think about the mentality behind this. Iceland hasn’t had many immigrants until recently.

Before, everyone speaks Icelandic perfectly - without any accents - because they are all native speakers born in Iceland. But now, more than 10% of the population are immigrants. Inevitably, when they speak Icelandic, you will hear some accents from their own native languages. It’s can be a bit of a challenge for the native ears.

Well, these discussions are all well reasoned, but they do illuminate one potential factor for improvement. If a culture would like to increase its tolerance of accented language, it might also help the language thrive.

All in all, most Icelanders love to hear about foreigners trying hard to learn their mother tongue, although there might be some people having mixed feelings and concern in the language purism. But, if you can respond a nice gesture by saying “takk,” it will get you a long way.

thank you takk words in icelandic language

On a bigger scale, the language is, in fact, going through a period under the spotlight as the unprecedented number of tourist influx in recent years help spread at least a few expressions in Icelandic and make an even bigger impact. We hope that you will have fun learning some Icelandic words and expressions, and feeling connected to the root of the culture while you visit the beautiful country.

Goða ferð! - Bon Voyage!

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