Common phrases & vocabulary when travelling in Iceland
Upon travelling to Iceland, you will notice a peculiar language written and spoken everywhere, that is the native tongue of Icelandic and most likely it will seem very foreign to you and you wont be able to comprehend a word. But, no sweat, as literally everybody in Iceland speak English almost fluently, as it is taught in school from an early age. However, if you would like to flatter the Icelanders and learn a few words and phrases in Icelandic, check out the list below which might become handy on your trip.Now, before compiling a list of the most common phrases in Icelandic, what is it about Iceland that is so special?
Why should you travel to Iceland?
Iceland is often referred to as the Land of Ice and Fire and is especially renowned for its stunning and diverse nature, as well as the natural phenomenon of Northern Lights and Midnight sun. Iceland has everything to offer and being situated on a volcanic hot spot there are numerous volcanos, craters, canyons and lava fields, as well as abundance of water in any shape and form including rivers, lagoons, hot springs, lakes, waterfalls and glaciers. Increasingly more tourist visit the country every year, for its stunning nature and are especially intrigued by the black sand beaches which are everywhere across the country and by the magntitude of geothermal waters such as the Blue Lagoon and hot springs such as Geysir. Recent volcanic eruption in Fagradalsfjall on Reykjanes Peninsula also has caused a lot of international attention. Other popular activities include whale watching, snowmobiling or ice walking on glaciers and riding an Icelandic ‘pony’. Besides, you can take a boat tour in Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon amongst floating icebergs or visit the Diamonds Beach which is covered with chunks of Icebergs that shine like diamonds against the black sand, both are truly an otherworldly experience, you really have to try to believe it.
When visiting Iceland a large part of getting to know the country is learning about its culture and explore the gastronomy and try out the traditional Icelandic dishes. Iceland has strong roots in tradition and is known for its literary treasures of Icelandic Sagas, its abundance of talented musicians such as Björk and Sigurrós and great Icelandic cuisine. There are numerous festivals such as the Airwaves music festival and the Food and Fun festival that seem to attract people from all around the globe. For more reasons, check out our other blogs including 14 reasons why you should travel to Iceland and Icelandic Bucket List Food you must try when travelling in Iceland. For more inspiration also, check out our tours and other activities you can try out.
Who are the Icelanders?
The Origin of the Icelandic Language
The Uniqueness of the Icelandic Language
Purification of Icelandic Language
Why has the Icelandic languages changed so little? All languages evolve due to outside influences, some more than other. Geographically, Iceland is fairly isolated, being an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. However, that is not to say Icelandic has not been impacted by other languages. For most of its existence until 1944, Iceland was under Danish rule and these countries are still very connected. Also, during the World War II, the US Army occupied Iceland and built their own base in Keflavik and a substantial military lingered in the country until 2006. Thus, needless to say it has impacted the language in some way. Still to this day it is mandatory to learn English and Danish in school. Many countries, including Iceland, turn towards linguistic purism in the attempt to eradicate some foreign words from the language. In 1780, the notion of purifying the Icelandic language started as some Icelandic students proposed the a policy directed at keeping the Icelandic language pure. As a result of that, some Icelanders worked towards purifying the language from the 18th to the 20th century. Today, the Icelandic government is focused on keeping the language pure and there are certain institutions that are dedicated to finding new words and phrases.
How are new words created in Icelandic?
Contrary to many countries, there are not many loan words in Icelandic language. How do Icelandic institutions go about finding new replacements for foreign words? Using various methods, Icelanders have substituted foreign words based on native roots. One such method is, calcuing, where words of native roots are combined into a compound word in order to imitate the compound word in another language. For instance, ‘rafmagn’ which is the Icelandic word for electricity, is formed by translating the Greek roots for ‘amber’ and ‘power’. Another method, is formal hybridity, in which word of native and foreign roots are combined. The third method is phonosemantic matching, in which both the root and the structure of the word can either be from a native or foreign language but the resulting words looks and sounds similar to its foreign counterpart. An example of that, is the the word ‘eyðni’ which stands for AIDS. Although, the words may look similar it derives from the verb ‘eyða’ which means to destroy. Another example is ‘tækni’ which stands for technology and derives from ‘tæki’ meaning tool combined with the suffix of -ni, but is also a phonosemantic match of the Danish word ‘teknik’ which has the same meaning. The last method is rejuvenation of old words with new meaning, such as ‘sími’ for telephone and ‘tölva’ for computer. The word sími originally meant old thread but was brought back to life to replace the loanword of telephone.
Icelandic Tongue Twisters
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The Alphabet and Phonetic of Icelandic
Prior to introducing some common Icelandic words and phrases, let’s start with the basics. The Icelandic Alphabet has 36 letters as can be seen below. What strikes foreigners as odd are certain Icelandic letters like the consonants Þ (a.k.a. the letter thorn) and Ð (a.k.a. the letter eth) which are no longer found in the modern English language, plus the additional vowels of Æ and Ö.
Aa Áá Bb Cc Dd Ðð Ee Éé Ff Gg Hh Ii Íí Jj Kk Ll Mm Nn Oo Óó Pp Qq Rr Ss Tt Uu Úú Vv Ww Xx Yy Ýý Þþ Ææ Zz Öö
The Icelandic phonetics differs mostly in terms of a few vowels and some consonants. Some of the vowels, like A, E, I, O, U and Y have an identical vowel written with a comma on top. Contrary to what many think, the comma is not used as accentuation but signifies a different vowel sound. The specific letters of Ö and Æ can be found in some other Nordic language, but the phonetics of the latter is completely different. As for the consonants, they are quite similar to the English language in pronunciation, except for a few letters like J which sounds like “y” in yoyo, R which is rolled similar to French and the special Icelandic characters of Þ and Ð mentioned before. What is also noticeably is that the consonants of C, Q, W and Z are not commonly used except for some loan words. The Icelandic tongue is a very phonetic language and when you learn how to pronounce some common words it gets easier. There are no silent letters and the emphasis is always on the first syllable.
How does Icelandic sound like?
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Common mistakes when pronouncing Icelandic
Some of the most common mistakes include placing the emphasis on the second syllable (instead of the first) and when pronouncing the letter J with a slightly dj sound (which is common for Americans) and the letter Þ as p, even though it looks similar it is a different letter. Also, there are some compound letters which sound different in Icelandic. For instance the compounds of au like in Laugavegur which is commonly pronounced incorrectly (like the icelandic “á”, as in house) but should be enunciated as the word soya. As for the compound letters of hv and ll, for that see the tables below.
Pronunciation in English
sounds like “a” in father
sounds like “ou” in house or “ow” in making vows
sounds like “e” in bed
sounds like “ye” in yesterday
I / Y
sounds like “i” in little
Í / Ý
sounds like “ee” in seeing
sounds like the French “eux” but bit shorter
sounds like “ooh” in pooh
sounds like “i” in the pronoun I
sounds like “un” in sun, or ‘ö” in German aufhören or “eu” sound like neuf in French
Pronunciation in English
sounds like “g” in golf, gate, gift etc. but it can also be softer like the German “ch” in mache
sounds like “y” in yesterday
Always rolled as in French
Always pronounced as the letter”s”, never as a the letter z
Ð / ð
sounds like “th” in weather
Þ / þ
sounds like “th” in thin
Pronunciation in English
sounds like “öj” like the oy sound in soy
Ei / Ey
sounds like “a” in tame and like “ay” in way
sounds like the hard sound of “kv”, but in certain dialects much softer with a gamma sound.
sounds like “dl” together
Common words and phrases in Icelandic
Now, lets look at some of the most common words and phrases in Icelandic when it comes to greeting and travelling. Since, Icelandic has kept and not accepted many loan words, many of the words stick out as they are very different from other languages. However, there are words in between that resemble other languages. For instance, greetings like halló and bæ are comparable to other languages, as are names for family members for father, mother, brother, sister which are faðir, móðir, bróðir and systir.
Common words and greetings
Halló / Hæ
hi / hah-low
Takk / Takk fyrir / Þakka þér
tah-k / tah-k fih-r-ih-r / thah-kah th-yeh-r
Yes / No
Já / Nei
y-ow / ney
My name is
Afsakið / Fyrirgefðu
af-sah-kith / fih-r-ih-r-gef-thu
You are welcome
Verði þér að góðu
veh-r-thih th-yeh-r ah-th go-thu
Bless / Bæ
bleh-s / bi
Nice to meet you
Gaman að kynnast þér
gham-ahn ah-th kin-ah-st th-yeh-r
How are you?
Hvernig hefur þú það?
kveh-r-nih-gh heh-f-ih-r th-uh th-ah-th
Good / Bad, thanks
Gott / slæmt, takk
goh-t / slime-tih
Common words when dining
Table for one, please
Borð fyrir einn, takk!
boh-r-th fih-r-ih-r a-dn tah-k
Could I get the menu, please?
Gæti ég vinsamlegast fengið matseðilinn?
gy-i-tih yeh-gh- fay-n-gh-ih mah-t-seth-ih-l-in
How much does it cost?
Hversu mikið kostar þetta?
kveh-r-suh mih-kith coh-stah-r theh-tah
Klósett / Salerni
k-low-seht / sah-l-eh-r-nih
How was the food?
Hvernig bragðaðist maturinn?
kveh-r-nih-gh b-r-ah-gh-tha-th-ih-st mah-t-uh-r-in
It was delicious / very bad / perfect
Hann var gómsætur / virkilega vondur / fullkominn
hah-n vah-r goh-m-si-tuh-r / vih-r-k-ih-leh-ghah voh-nd-uh-r
The receipt, thanks
The bill, please
What type of meat / fish is this?
Hvers konar kjöt / fiskur er þetta?
Kveh-r-sh khoh-nah-r ky-eu-d-tuh / fih-sh-sk-uh-r eh-r th-eh-thah
Lamb / beef / pork / chicken
lambakjöt / nautakjöt / svínakjöt / kjúklingur
lah-m-bah kyeu-duh / noh-yee-thah kyeu-duh / sv-ee-nah kyeu-duh / ky-ooh-k-lih-ghah kyeu-duh
Common words when travelling and on the road
Petrol / tank station
Bensín / bensínstöð
behn-sihn / behn-sihn-st-euh-th
Common words for the weather
How is the weather forecast?
Hvernig er veðurspáin?
kveh-r-nih-gh ehr veh-th-uhr sp-ah-oo-ihn
Sun / sunshine
Sól / sólskin
pronunced as ‘sole’ / ‘sole’ sk-ihn
It is raining
It is snowing
It is windy
Það er mikill vindur
thah-th ehr mih-kih-dl vih-n-duhr
Recommended tours in Iceland
Took get most out of the tour we recommend a private tour or that you book your own rental car, that way you save time and are able to explore more places.