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Guide to the Icelandic Language

An In-depth Guide - Origin - History - Toponymy - Travel Vocabulary - Language Tips

June 3, 2019
author YS Lee

By YS Lee

A journalist, photographer and nature lover, YS finds inspiration in Iceland’s vast wilderness and wants to share with her audience everything about travelling in Iceland through words and visuals.


Iceland is visual. Each and every photograph you see of Iceland is different, but the one thing they all have in common is showing the simple beauty of Icelandic nature. The connection to its audience is direct.


The Icelandic language, on the other hand, is the complete polar opposite of the minimalist art created by the shapes and lines of the natural landscapes. Many Icelandic words look like a drunk person typed on a keyboard with his or her buttocks - utterly random. You might wonder if it’s true that Icelandic is really a “monster” language that a non-natives can’t tackle? In this guide, we are going to make approaching the language easy, with practical tips for travelers to Iceland.

Iceland challenges you to sing The Hardest Karaoke Song in the World! Try to keep up with Steindi and discover the A-Ö of Iceland through this joyful Icelandic song.

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 family of the Germanic languages. Traditionally, divided into subgroups : the North Germanic, the West Germanic, and the extinct East Germanic languages. If you speak German, Norwegian or Faeroese, you have an edge in mastering Icelandic faster, since Icelandic it’s closely related to these languages. Some knowledge in Scandinavian languages is definitely a plus.

The Icelandic alphabet in Latin-script

The Icelandic alphabet in Latin-script

Being a phonetic language, it’s 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 The letter “z” used to be in the alphabet but now is obsolete.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 Origin of the Icelandic Language

Icelanders are very proud of their language as it’s commonly perceived as the purest language in the world. The reason for that is the language hasn’t been influenced too much by other languages or modernization. The modern Icelanders can read the ancient Icelandic text without too much effort as the language is well-preserved over the last millennium.

From the 9th century, the settlement began in Iceland by the Vikings, who were in fact mostly Norwegians, in addition to a minority of Swedes and Irish. The Norwegian Vikings brought a dialect of Old Norse to the island isolated from the rest of the world. The dialect became the prototype of the Icelandic language we speak today.

Since the 12th century, the early settlers of Iceland found that the long, dark winter of Iceland was the best time for being creative, so they started to write. They created the famous Icelandic literature and Icelandic sagas including poems, stories, nature records, and detailed interesting memoirs. These were all written in Old Norse that Icelanders can still read and understand today as the language hasn’t changed too much. We could say that the “Viking language” is still here today!

An 18th-century manuscript in Icelandic that's referred to as SÁM 66

An 18th-century manuscript that was written in Iceland in 1765 and 1766

Why Icelandic?

It’s nice to know even just a few words or expressions when you plan to travel to another country. Although Icelanders speak English really well, saying “thank you” in their native tongue is for sure appreciated.  You will also be able to grasp the culture and connect with its people better than just being a tourist. More practically, it may help you in times of need.

For those who are contemplating on finding a second-foreign language to tackle, Icelandic is also an interesting option, although you might ask, from all the languages that are spoken among the relatively small population, why should you 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.

Reykjavk has become a popular tourism destination where culture is also a huge element of attraction

Icelandic people and tourists enjoying a sunny day in downtown Reykjavik

In Icelandic, the flow from a sentence sounds rich and thick, and syllables aren’t so distinctively discernable since they all seemed to be mixed together in a flow. But, once you hurdle over the phonetic barrier, 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 a quiver through the mouth, trilling to produce a slight, poetic vibration gliding between its adjacent vowels. It definitely doesn’t sound as brilliantly musical as the “r” in Italian, Spanish or Russian, nor as dramatic as the “r” in French or Scottish. You can still 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 so prosodic as it carries on. In the example below, you will hear the rhythm of Icelandic through the poem: The River in the Lava  / Áin í Hrauninu.

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.

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 have been received. Icelanders are intrigued by the increasing popularity of their native language, which they know is not an easy one to learn for foreigners.

The general interests towards this Nordic island nation have boomed since the volcanic eruption in 2010 on the volcano Eyjafjallajokull that has a tongue-twisting name. Since then, Iceland has welcomed millions of visitors each year. This is exceptional judging on such a small population. As a side effect stemmed from tourism, Iceland’s language and culture become the center of attention. Also, it might be simply because it’s a beautiful language once you come to master it.

Point to Exit to Iceland at Keflavik International Airport

Point to Exit to Iceland at Keflavik International Airport (Photo credit to Yanshu Li)

Is It True that Icelandic is Hard to Learn?

Icelandic is challenging. Its complex grammar rules have caused quite a headache among its learners. In order to be able to speak Icelandic fluently - without making too many grammar mistakes - you need to overcome the following hurdles:

Pronunciation Oddity

It’s inevitable to have an accent when you start to tackle a foreign language, though it’s important to learn to pronounce correctly, especially for Icelandic. An accent mark can change the pronunciation and the meaning of a word completely. For beginners, it's important to pay extra attention to the pronunciation nuances and make sure you start with a good foundation.

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

Vocabulary Sophistication

Icelanders are adamant in 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 according to its rules and rarely adopt foreign words. Icelandic is also famous for putting all kinds of words together to make a new word - no matter how long the new word would be. One extreme example that best proves this is 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. But, of course, this is a rare case. Most words are easy to deconstruct and not too hard to remember.

Grammar Complexity

The most difficult thing in learning a new language is to fully grasp its grammar and to use it proficiently. Icelandic belongs to the Indo-European language family, and its rules haven’t changed much since the beginning, which makes the grammar very complex. There are four cases in nouns, two in numbers, and there are three genders, and for most adjectives and some adverbs, there are three degrees of comparison. It does not end here because in Icelandic most adjectives have two types of inflection - strong and weak. There are also three persons in verbs, three moods, and two voices. And there are those auxiliary verbs that can be entered into several constructions to present the wanted tenses. Lastly, verbs have three nominal forms and two participles. These rules are exceptionally intertwined, driving language learners nuts.

Cultural Barrier

Iceland is a small society. For those who don’t speak the language, it’s challenging to grasp what is going on inside 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 makes a foreign person feel like an outsider constantly. Speaking the language is the only way to stay in the loop. We can, in fact, apply that saying from Las Vegas, “what happens in Iceland stays in Iceland.”

Tjörnin in Reykjavik city center

Being able to read Icelandic is essential to living a quality life in Iceland (Photo credit to Yanshu Li)

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 need to know, language-wise, for visitors.

Firstly we are going to cover how Icelanders structure location names since it’s one of the most important aspects to know for a tourist.

Like English, there are prefixes and suffixes in Icelandic as well. These letter groups can help identify the types of locations and where they are at. Let’s take the location names in Reykjavik as an example to explain.

The last three letters in “Reykjavik” means “bay.” You will see why they named the charming little town on the South Coast of Iceland “Vik” since it sits on an extensive bay area. So for Reykjavik, it means a smoking bay, because when the early settlers arrived, they saw the bay area was filled with geothermal power with steam going up.

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 that you can do river rafting along with its beautiful streams. Jökulsárlón (glacier river lake), the lake with floating blue icebergs.

Rafting Adventure on the White River near Gullfoss waterfall

Rafting Adventure on the White River near Gullfoss waterfall

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.

Dalur means valley. There are a lot of names in Iceland end with dalur, for example, Laugardalur in Reykjavik, and Reykjadalur near the town of Hveragerði.

Ey, and Eyja, both can 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.

Snowmobiling on Eyjafjallajokull

Snowmobiling on Eyjafjallajokull

Fjörður, or Fjord means a fjord. There are plenty of examples: Hafnarfjörður, Borgarfjörður, Westfjörður, and Seydisfjordur.

Foss means a waterfall. And this is must-know since there are so many stunning waterfalls in Iceland: Gullfoss, the Golden Waterfall; Skogafoss, the Forest Waterfall; Svartifoss, the Black Waterfall; Kirkjufoss, the Church Waterfall, and many more.

Seljalandsfoss waterfall

Seljalandsfoss 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.

Mountain peaks on Vatnajokull

Mountain peaks on Vatnajokull

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.

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.

The Blue Lagoon's Milky Blue Geothermal Water

The Blue Lagoon's Milky Blue Geothermal Water

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.

Iceland's winter makes a fascinating road trip

Iceland's winter makes a fascinating road trip

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.

Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon at Sunset

Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon at Sunset

Simple Icelandic Phrases For Travelers

Góðan daginn - Good day

Takk - Thanks

Takk fyrir - Thank you very much

Já - 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

These are very easy-to-learn phrases that could help you kick start a day in Iceland. To further your knowledge on some unique expressions, please read about the 12 weird Icelandic phrases and sayings.

Practical Icelandic Tips for Foreign Travelers to Iceland

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

Icelandic Online is a comprehensive platform catering to all levels of learners.

Íslenska Fyrir Alla (Icelandic For All) is for beginners and it’s kind of helpful if you want to learn some basic expressions.

If you prefer to learn a language by videos, Viltu læra íslensku (Do you want to learn Icelandic) is perfect for you. Its videos capture some truthful or cheerful moments in daily dialogues.

Mobile apps are also good options to learn a new language, although there are only several apps on the market. You can download an app named 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 in circulation

Vísir - an online newspaper in Iceland

Morgunblaðið - another popular newspaper in Iceland

35 place names in Iceland that are hard to read

35 place names in Iceland that are hard to read

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.

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.

The Icelandic language forms a strong sense of community living in the country

Being tough in dealing with the weather - the determined Icelanders are fighting hard in boosting Icelandic in the digital age

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.

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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