Icelandic Language: A Guide

Icelandic Language: A Guide

Angie Diamantopoulou Author

Text by: Angie Diamantopoulou

Oh, the Icelandic language. The tourist's biggest foe! Or is it?

One of the biggest concerns of tourists is how they are going to communicate on their trip to Iceland. After all, it's not as if you can learn the Icelandic language in a few weeks!

Or maybe, if you are not concerned about communicating, then you might just be curious about the Icelandic language, its roots and its history!

Either way, this guide will make sure that you know everything you need to know about the Icelandic language before your trip to Iceland! So, keep reading to find out more about this beautiful language, as well as get some tips on how to talk like a local!


Before we dive deep into this linguistic journey on the Icelandic language, let's first take a look at what you can find in this blog:

  • what language is spoken in Iceland?
  • where does the Icelandic language come from?
  • what does the Icelandic language sound like?
  • is Icelandic similar to any other languages?
  • how hard is the Icelandic language?
  • what are some useful Icelandic phrases?
  • some tips from a local!

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what language is spoken in iceland?

Hallgrimskirkja in downtown Reykjavik

Image by Arnór Trausti | @arnortrausti

The official language spoken in Iceland is, of course, the Icelandic language. Yes, this country with a population of 300,000-something people has its very own language! 

You might know from your own native language or from any foreign languages that you speak that it is very common for regions to have their own dialect. You might be surprised to hear that there is no such thing in Iceland. 

There aren't really any regional dialects here, even though the populations of different towns around Iceland were originally quite isolated. The closest thing that the Icelandic language has to regional dialects is actually just a small change in the accent

Specifically, the residents of Akureyri are notorious for their use of stronger, drawn out 'k's; something that Reykjavik natives love to point out.

However, you might be relieved to find out that almost everyone in Iceland speaks English! Even the majority of the oldest and youngest generations speak at least a little bit of English, so you will never have trouble communicating in Iceland! 

And if all else fails, you can always use the good old universal language of...well, pointing at things!


the roots of the icelandic language

icelandic language

Extract from "Colloquial Icelandic"

So, where does the Icelandic language come from? ​Icelandic is a North Germanic language, and the second westernmost of the Indo-European languages. 

Icelandic is, in fact, the closest language to Old Norse, more so than actual Norse. That is because the Icelandic language, unlike Norse, has retained much of its original grammar, syntax, and vocabulary

As a result, it is very easy for Icelandic people to read and understand Old Norse texts!​

The language's conservatism means that it has retained its original inflections, unlike most Western European languages. The level of inflections is comparable to German and Greek, although the linguistic phenomenon is even more conservative in Icelandic. ​

The Icelandic language is closely related to Faroese. However, they are not mutually intelligible. Therefore, Icelandic and Faroese people can't understand each other's language, for the most part, save for perhaps some words and sentences. ​


what does the icelandic language sound like?

icelandic language

In a word? Weird.

It might not seem too weird to you if you are from the north, particularly Denmark or other Scandinavian countries. However, anywhere below that is bound to be utterly confused by this language.

While people from the Eastern part of the world will definitely consider Icelandic as very foreign, so will anyone from the Americas and Western, Eastern and Southern Europe. Icelandic has a very distinct sound to it, with some very hard and some very soft consonants, as well as drawn-out vowels.

The pronunciation ​has not changed much throughout the years, save for a big change from the 12th to the 16th century, especially in the vowels. The only recent big change took place in the 20th century, when Icelanders replaced "je" with "é", and also removed the letter "z" from their alphabet. 

Fun fact: if you see any signs with the letter "z" on them, then they were made before 1973!​

I'm not going to get too much into the phonology of the language, but I have one thing to say to you; no matter how hard you try to pronounce the letter "ö"​, you probably won't do it right (three years and counting for me)!


icelandic vs other languages

Icelandic sagas

Extract from Icelandic Sagas

As I mentioned earlier, Icelandic is not really similar to any other languages, apart from Old Norse (but I doubt you speak Old Norse).

So, if you are wondering whether knowing German or Norse will help you learn Icelandic, then the answer is no. Surprisingly, the Icelandic language has remained pure for centuries.​ While on the one hand, traditionally Iceland has been isolated from the rest of the world, on the other hand it has been occupied by the Danish, the Norwegians, the British, and the Americans

Therefore, it is quite a wonder that the language has remained this pure, despite all the invasions and occupations that Iceland has gone through. ​With few exceptions, Icelandic people are not particularly purist when it comes to their language and culture. However, somehow the Icelandic language has managed to not only survive, but also repel any outside influence.


how hard is the icelandic language?

Independent People

One of the most famous books written by an Icelandic author, Independent People by Halldór Laxness

​Icelandic is very, very hard. One particularly difficult aspect of it is, of course, the grammar. Since there are so many inflections, it can be quite hard to remember all of them. Furthermore, there are plenty of irregular nouns and verbs, which makes learning Icelandic even more difficult.

The pronunciation is also rather difficult. Even seasoned Icelandic speakers from other countries often don't sound like locals, so don't get discouraged if you can't get the pronunciation right straight away!

Despite of its difficulty, if you want to learn Icelandic, then go for it! It's all about personal preference and how much work you are willing to put into it. I, for one, found it easier to learn Icelandic and Japanese than French! So definitely don't be scared by its difficulty! At least you already know the alphabet!​


useful icelandic phrases

And now, what you've all been waiting for! Some Icelandic phrases that you can use on your trip to Iceland!

As I mentioned earlier, almost every Icelander knows English. However, if you want to be able to impress your new Icelandic friends (or a date!), or order something in Icelandic, or even be able to understand the road signs that are in Icelandic, keep reading for some useful phrases!

Icelandic

(Yaw)

Nei (Ney)

​Takk (fyrir) (Tahk fi-rir)

Afsakið (Av-sa-kith)

Halló (ha-low)/Hæ (Hi)

Fyrirgefðu (Fy-rir-gyev-thu)

Ég tala ekki íslensku (Yeh ta-la eh-ki ees-len-skuh)

Talarðu ensku? (Ta-lar-thu en-skuh?)

Bless/Bless bless (Bless)

Þetta reddast (Thet-ta red-dast)

​Takk fyrir mig (Tahk fi-rir migh)

Ég er grænmetisæta (Yegh er gra-en-met-is-a-eta)

Hvað segirðu? (Kvadh seh-gir-thu?)

Laug (low-ehg)

Foss (Foss)

English

Yes

No

Thanks/Thank you

Excuse me (getting attention)

Hello

Excuse me (begging pardon)

I don't speak Icelandic

Do you speak English?

Goodbye

Everything will work out/be okay!

Thank you for having me (said after a meal to the host)

I am a vegetarian

What's up?

Any sort of pool/spring, if you see it on a sign, it's probably a hot spring!

Waterfall. Again, if you see it on a sign, it's probably leading you to a waterfall!


tips from a local

As someone who has spent quite some time in Iceland and still can't speak Icelandic, my biggest tip is to not give up! Yes, it's hard, but if it interests you, then keep working on it!

Also, don't be afraid to speak your newly-learnt Icelandic phrases in front of Icelanders! There might be a bit of playful banter, but I can assure you that they will appreciate the effort, and they will be very delighted that you spoke Icelandic to them. After all, they don't really hear it from foreigners!​


some final words

​I hope you have a lovely trip to Iceland, whenever and wherever you decide to visit! It is truly a magnificent place that I am sure will charm you like it has charmed me and everyone else!

Did you enjoy this guide on the Icelandic language? Did you manage to speak a little bit of Icelandic during your trip? Let me know in the comments!​ And, as always, don't forget to share with other travelers!

Oh, the Icelandic language. The tourist’s biggest foe! Or is it? One of the biggest concerns of tourists is how they are going to communicate on their trip to Iceland. After all, it’s not as if you can learn the Icelandic language in a few weeks!

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