Icelandic is an ancient language that originates from the vicious Vikings that terrorized the majority of Europe for centuries. Modern Icelandic is close enough to the Old Norse that most Icelanders can read and understand. Yes, even most of the texts that were written almost a thousand years ago. Learning Icelandic is tough, but if you get the basics down, you should be able to be understood by the locals.
Iceland is a country where the language is about as mystical as the legends and folklore that are incredibly deeply rooted in the local culture. When you hear the Iceland language, it’s like being transported back to the time when you would embark on a dragon boat to put fear into the mainland Europeans.
The Iceland Language in Short
Have you ever seen the show “Vikings”? Did you know that the characters actually speak a (somewhat crude) version of Old Norse? If you ever hear the Iceland language being spoken, you will have heard the closest relative to Old Norse still in use today.
The Iceland language comes from the western dialect of the Viking language. It is part of the Germanic language group and is today very similar to the original Icelandic that was spoken when the island was first settled.
The History of the Icelandic National Language
As with most old, preserved languages, the Iceland language has barely been influenced over the centuries.
One of the few words that have been borrowed into the Iceland official language is the word for elephant, which is the same in Icelandic and Turkish. That word stuck because the Icelandic Vikings had no idea what this Turkish man was talking about, since elephants in Iceland are non-existent. So, they just nodded and agreed that this huge animal that allegedly exists is called “fil”.
The Iceland language was first put to paper in the 1100s when the Icelandic Sagas and Eddas were written down. Since then, there hasn't been much happening in terms of development. Most Icelanders today can read and understand most of the original, ancient texts without any major difficulties. The reference is that it’s the equivalent of reading original Shakespeare texts.
In modern times, the Iceland language underwent a sort of a purity renaissance when the Icelanders broke away from the Danish rule in the mid-1900s. This was around the same time as they could officially form the Icelandic flag and national identity, free from any other country’s influence.
Is the Iceland Language Hard?
No. In Iceland, even the kids are speaking Icelandic, so it must be an easy language to learn!
But all jokes aside: the Iceland language has been classed as one of the hardest languages to learn. This is mostly due to the lack of loan words and the common use of fusing words together.
So, once you’ve learned the individual words in the first place, you’re going to have to learn to hear when these words are put together to create new words. If you want to learn to speak it, you'll have to learn when the Iceland language requires you to fuse words together.
A hot tip is to start with reading, writing, and listening. Once you learn the basics in terms of Icelandic grammar and how the words look, the rest of the learning process will be quicker. You will also find a boatload of words that are changed and structured oddly in sentences. If you ask “why?” the answer will likely be that they’re one of the exceptions to the basic Icelandic grammar. One of many…
Many of the unique sounds in Icelandic are hard to both hear and pronounce. Now, the moment you get most of them down, you can start your journey towards Iceland language proficiency.
Just don’t expect it to be one of those languages you just “get” because you have a “knack for learning”. This is one of those languages that will come with massive amounts of practice, and you will still struggle from time to time.
Common Icelandic Words and Unique Letters
To get you started on your linguistic journey, we’ve compiled a list of the tough Icelandic letters and common phrases. Feel free to use them on your Icelandic trip. Let’s start with the odd letters and how to pronounce them:
æ like “I” in ice
ö like “u” in fur
Þ, þ like “th” in thin
Ð, ð like “th” in though
Double “L” (ll), like the “tl” in Atlas
Hv like “kv” most of the times
F becomes a “v” if it is in the middle of a word
There are many more letters in the Iceland language that don’t sound like they do in, for example, English. However, the above ones are the ones that are entirely unique and most likely to confuse new learners.
To move on to some common words of the Iceland language, the following are important if you want to deal with the basics and make your Icelandic hosts smile a little extra:
Ja = Yes, pronounced like “jaw” but with a softer “j”
Nei = No, pronounced like “neigh”
Hæ = Hi, pronounced almost like the English word
Bless (or bless-bless) = Goodbye, pronounced just like you would in English
Afsakið = Excuse me, pronounced “av-sock-ith” with the “a” like in “bath”
Fyrirgefðu = I’m sorry, pronounced ”fy-ri-gev-thu”
Takk = Thanks, pronounced like “tac” and can be used instead of “please” at the end of a sentence.
Other, Similar Languages
All Scandinavian languages are similar in one way or the other. If you put a Swede and a Norwegian in the same room, they will be able to communicate in their own respective languages without major difficulties.
In the same way, Iceland shares many basic similarities with both Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish. Contrary to popular belief, Finnish is a part of an entirely different language group. So, none of the Scandinavian countries are going to understand a Finnish person talking in his or her own language.
If you went back far enough in time, you would have some similarities to the other Germanic languages in mainland Europe. Since most languages on the mainland have developed alongside each other, there won’t be many similarities between Icelandic and any other European language today.
Icelandic Proficiency on Your Iceland Trip
Before you go on a trip to Iceland, you don’t have to be fluent or even have any significant proficiency in the Iceland language. Icelanders generally speak English very well and are not shy to talk to happy visitors on their island.
If you want to have some background on what some things in the country mean, and maybe make an Icelander extra happy, you should start with learning some of the useful words we listed above. If you are renting a car in Iceland, for example, it’s always nice to end the transaction with a polite “takk” or “bless-bless” as you are leaving the dealership.