The Icelandic Language - What you need to know



Icelandic is the language mainly spoken in Iceland and is said to be one of the hardest languages to start learning. I strongly agree with this statement.
There are roughly 360.000 people living in Iceland with only a few foreigners who do not speak it. However, some of them have willingly mastered it.

Where does the Icelandic language originate?

The Icelandic language is a Nordic language, which is a subgroup belonging to the Germanic languages. Most of the Germanic languages are dead and therefore not spoken anymore.

The settlers of Iceland were mostly Western Norwegians, so naturally, the language that came to prevail was Western Norwegian. Which also belongs to the Germanic languages. It is believed, that Celtics were a part of coming immigrants. That meant a few words were adapted into the Icelandic language.

It was not until the 14th century the two languages, Icelandic and Western Norwegian, could be told apart. The reason being changes in the Norwegian language. Icelanders resisted changing their language, which is why literature from the 12th century is considerably easy for modern Icelanders to read.

How difficult is it to learn Icelandic?

The Icelandic language can be pretty hard to nail unless you have a basic understanding of where it originates and how it works.

When you think you have mastered a grammar rule, a new one will pop up and you are back to square one. There are many different ways of altering each word. Each word has a certain gender, much like the German language, and each verb alters to the gender it's being used in.

Often, there are no rules to grammar, you simply have to memorize why it is like that, which makes it a bit more difficult.

An example of a male gender word "sófinn" (the couch/sofa). You often apply two n's when it is male and female words only one n is applied. An example of a female word could be "bjallan" (the bell).

The Icelandic alphabet

The Icelandic alphabet has 32 letters, 14 vowels, and 18 consonants. All of the regular vowels, A E I O U Y, have a partner, Á É Í Ó Ú Ý.

In the Icelandic alphabet, we do not have C, Q, W or Z. Iceland used to have many words containing the letter Z, however, in 1973 it was completely removed.

How does the name system work in Iceland?

It is not typical to have a family name in Iceland, like the ones you might have in the rest of the world. And marrying someone does not alter your name whatsoever.

An example: should Helga Gunnarsdóttir marry Jón Jónsson both their names are unchanged. They have a baby and name him Baldvin, automatically his last name will be Jónsson, as he is the son of Jón. Should they have a baby girl, her last name would automatically be Jónsdóttir. Daughter of Jón. Gender plays a big role in the Icelandic language and therefore also in the name system.

Icelandic is the language mainly spoken in Iceland and is said to be one of the hardest languages to start learning. I strongly agree with this statement.
There are roughly 360.000 people living in Iceland with only a few foreigners who do not speak it. However, some of them have willingly mastered it.

The Icelandic name system
Here is another example of how the name system works

Is the Icelandic language becoming extinct?

When you think about it, not even 400.000 people are able to speak this language, naturally, you would think it could become extinct. Icelandic is neither a digitalized language, which has major influences. English words are easily adaptable and can be used in the everyday life of an Icelandic person.

As an example, the word "podcast" was not made into an Icelandic word until recently, being "hlaðvarp". Another example of the word "tablet" has made its way into the Icelandic language as "spjaldtölva".

Since the nation is so small, the word gets spread pretty quickly when it comes to new words. It is very important to keep the language up to date so we do not lose it. Coming up with new words for the Icelandic language, means we get to strengthen it and avoid bringing English terms.

The Icelandic language has overcome a lot, though. Iceland was once ruled by Norway and later Denmark, but Iceland still managed to keep their language as their own.

Which language is most similar to Icelandic?

The most similar languages to the Icelandic would be Faroese and Norwegian.

Faroese is the language spoken in the Faroe Islands, located between Iceland and the UK. Much like the Icelandic language, even fewer people speak this. In speech, it is almost impossible for an Icelander to understand a Faroese and the other way around. But in writing, the languages are almost identical.

Even though Icelanders are taught Danish in school, Norwegian is mostly similar. However, it is much easier for an Icelandic person to understand all Nordic languages than they do ours.

Icelandic place names

While driving in Iceland you will encounter many very long and weird names of maybe streets or towns.

The most common streets in the downtown area ending with either vegur, stígur, or gata (road, path, and street) much like other streets around the world. An example: Skólavörðustígur, Frakkastígur, and Eiríksgata are streets leading up to Hallgrímskirkja.

While driving outside of Reykjavik you might encounter big words, such as Kirkjubæjarklaustur, Klofalækjarkjaftur, and one you might know, Eyjafjallajökull.

All these names are separate words put together. Eyja (island) fjalla (mountain) jökull (glacier) which is very commonly done in Icelandic place names.

The Famous Icelandic Eyjafjallajökull
Eyjafjallajökull