Upon traveling to Iceland, you will notice a peculiar language written and spoken everywhere, that is the Icelandic language, and most likely it will seem very foreign to you and you won’t be able to comprehend a word. But, no sweat, as everybody in Iceland speaks English almost fluently. 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 intrigued by the black sand beaches which are everywhere across the country and by the magnitude 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 Top 16 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 Icelanders?
Icelanders are descendants of Vikings who came from the Nordic countries, primarily from Norway along with their enslaved Irish wives in the 9th and 10th Century. Prior to the arrival of the Vikings, the country was inhabited by Irish monks, known as ‘the Papar’. However, they seem to have given up on the rough terrain and left the island without a trace.
There is some evidence of Irish influence that can be found across the country, especially in relation to the naming of locations. For instance, Patreksfjörður was named after Saint Patrick who was the patron saint of Ireland. Also, the Vikings referred to the Irish as the Westmen, thus Vestmannaeyjar, which literally translates as ‘the Westman Islands’ has a direct correlation to them.
The Origin of the Icelandic Language
Icelandic is the official language spoken in Iceland and a descendant of Old Norse like any other Nordic language it belongs to the sub-group of West Germanic languages stemming from the family of Indo-European languages. It is closely related to Norwegian and Faroese, but its roots can be traced all the way back to the ancient Nordic language spoken within Scandinavia between 200 and 800 AD. During the Viking Age, these languages split into East and West and developed into Danish and Swedish in the East and Faroese, Norwegian, and much later Icelandic in the West.
The Uniqueness of the Icelandic Language
Despite having a small population of 360.000 people, Icelanders have their own language, which is, without doubt, a language that is most similar to the Viking Language or Old Norse. Due to confinement from complete isolation and hardly any outside influence, the language was kept pure and didn’t change very much. In fact, Icelanders can still read the Icelandic Sagas, a literary treasure written in Old Norse dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries, without much difficulty.
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. 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
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.
What does Icelandic sound like?
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 slight 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 that sound different in Icelandic. For instance, the compounds of au like in Laugavegur are 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.
|Vowels||Pronunciation in English|
|A||sounds like “a” in father|
|Á||sounds like “ou” in house or “ow” in making vows|
|E||sounds like “e” in bed|
|É||sounds like “ye” in yesterday|
|I / Y||sounds like “i” in little|
|Í / Ý||sounds like “ee” in seeing|
|U||sounds like the French “eux” but bit shorter|
|Ú||sounds like “ooh” in pooh|
|Æ||sounds like “i” in the pronoun I|
|Ö||sounds like “un” in sun, or ‘ö” in German aufhören or “eu” sound like neuf in French|
|Consonants||Pronunciation in English|
|G||sounds like “g” in golf, gate, gift etc. but it can also be softer like the German “ch” in mache|
|J||sounds like “y” in yesterday|
|R||Always rolled as in French|
|S||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|
|Combound letters||Pronunciation in English|
|Au||sounds like “öj” like the oy sound in soy|
|Ei / Ey||sounds like “a” in tame and like “ay” in way|
|Hv||sounds like the hard sound of “kv”, but in certain dialects much softer with a gamma sound.|
|ll||sounds like “dl” together|
Common words and phrases in Icelandic
Now, let’s look at some of the most common words and phrases in Icelandic when it comes to greeting and traveling. 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 the name for family members for father, mother, brother, and sister which are faðir, móðir, bróðir, and systir.
Common words and greetings
|Hello||Halló / Hæ||hi / hah-low|
|Thank you!||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|
|Good morning||Góðan daginn||go-thah-n die-in|
|Good evening||Gott kvöld||goh-t kv-eu-ld|
|My name is||Ég heiti||ye-gh hey-t-ih|
|Excuse me||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|
|Goodbye||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 out
|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|
|Where is?||Hvar er?||kva-r- eh-r|
|Toilet||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||Kvittunina, takk||kvih-tt-ih-n-uh-nah tah-k|
|The bill, please||Reikninginn, takk||reyh-kh-nih-gh-in tha-k|
|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|
|Nice weather||Gott veður||goh-t veh-thuh-r|
|Sun / sunshine||Sól / sólskin||pronunced as ‘sole’ / ‘sole’ sk-ihn|
|It is raining||Það rignir||thah-th rih-gnih-r|
|It is snowing||Það snjóar||thah-th sn-yoh-ah-r|
|It is windy||Það er mikill vindur||thah-th ehr mih-kih-dl vih-n-duhr|