In a world dominated by English, many people consider the language of Shakespeare to be the global lingua franca. And while most Icelanders speak English very well, it’s not our mother tongue. On our tiny island, we keep alive a modern Icelandic language that is almost identical to the Icelandic sagas. Can you believe they were written a thousand years ago? Iceland’s geographic isolation means our native tongue is virtually unchanged from the time of the Vikings.
Not so long ago, Icelandic was basically an unknown language for anyone living outside the Scandinavian region. Then, it went directly into the spotlight. The Icelandic language is considered one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn, and we blame Eyjafjallajökull volcano for that. During its eruption in 2010, it not only caused many problems for the country’s inhabitants and travelers but also for journalists from around the world. They were unable to pronounce the name correctly. For many, it was a nearly impossible tongue twister!
Consequently, interest in the Icelandic language slowly increased. And now, we are left with this undeserved bad reputation. But is it really difficult to learn? What does it look like? How does it sound? If you are curious about it, then I invite you to continue reading!
The Icelandic Language – Background History
Iceland was an uninhabited island thousands of years ago. There were not original or native people living here. Therefore, we are the descendants of those who were brave enough to fight against the inclement weather and established a new home here. Our language is a descendant as well. The Icelandic language dates back to the Viking age. It comes directly from Old Norse, the language that the Vikings used to speak. We share a common branch with other Scandinavian tongues, such as Norwegian, Swedish, Danish or Faroese. But our circumstances provided our language with a unique trace lineage other languages lack.
Iceland is a remote country. Nowadays you can catch a plane and land directly in Keflavik. Centuries ago it wasn’t that easy. The Atlantic Ocean is wild, and it’s difficult for sailors to tame. Whoever landed on this soil would live a very isolated life. When the settlement was complete, colonists would barely have contact with other countries, other languages, and dialects. As a result, Icelandic barely evolved. It has changed very little since the era of the Vikings. As a result of this, modern speakers of Icelandic can effortlessly read the original sagas and Eddas that were written about 800 years ago. Isn’t that just incredible? If you ever wonder what a Viking would sound like, Icelandic could be a similar approximation.
The Icelandic Language – Is it Difficult?
I think it is impossible to answer this question unequivocally. I am a language lover myself, so I am aware that difficulty doesn’t only rely on the language itself but depends on your mother tongue and skills as well. If you speak Spanish, the chances of learning Italian or Portuguese easily and quickly are high. The same applies to Icelandic. If you are already familiar with any Germanic language, you will notice patterns, similar vocabulary and sometimes even the same phonetics.
Maybe the reason why people think Icelandic is very complicated is because it is a bit unknown. Most people never have heard of Icelandic or listened to a single word of the language in their entire life. This lack of awareness is often mistaken for difficulty.
When it comes to grammar, there is nothing too weird. Icelandic nouns are declined and have three main categories: feminine, masculine, and neutral. It’s just like German. We can also find declension systems in languages such as Russian, Polish, Finnish, Hungarian and many Slavic languages. Nouns in English don’t have a gender, but globally it’s actually fairly common and not that strange.
Icelandic vocabulary may initially be problematic, due to the length of some words. But if we think about it, they are very logical. This is because a long word usually consists of a few short ones that fully describe the object. I mentioned the Eyjafjallajökull volcano previously. It can be a bit daunting at first, but let’s break it down into more manageable, bite-sized pieces. This word is made up of three parts: eyja (island) + fjalla (mountain) + jökull (glacier). So Eyjafjallajökull is simply the “island mountain glacier”. The word “föðurlandsvinur” comes from föðurland (“fatherland”) + vinur (“friend”), and the combination of these two words means “patriot”. Cool, right?
The Icelandic Language – What Does it Sound Like?
As an Icelandic speaker myself, it is hard for me to tell what the real sound of the language is. It sounds normal to me. But usually, foreign people tell me it sounds powerful, strong and Germanic. I think it is better to hear it so you can get an idea of what it sounds like. Here is an interview with Björk speaking Icelandic, her mother tongue. It might help you hear the phonetics better.
Here is a rough guide for how to pronounce some usual Icelandic sounds.
a >> as in father
e >> as in air
i, y, j >> as in middle
u >> “Eux” as in the French word “deux”
ö >> as in the “u” in murder
æ >> As the sound in “eye”
ð >> like the “th” in “the”
þ >> like the “th” in thing
Here some useful phrases in Icelandic:
- Could you speak slowly, please? / Viltu tala hægar
- How would you say… / Hvernig segir maður…?
- How much? / Hvað kostar þetta?
- Where is… / Hvar er…?
- Sorry, excuse me / Afsakið, Fyrirgefðu
- Thank you / Takk
- My pleasure / Mín er ánægjan
- Of course / Auðvitað
The Icelandic Language – Jaeja
Now I want you to forget everything you’ve read up until this paragraph. Forget about difficulties, grammar rules, and vocabulary. Ignore those who discourage you from learning such a lovely language. I’m going to give you everything that you need to be an advanced Icelandic speaker. The all-purpose word for every single situation you may encounter. The magic word is: jæja. Yep, that’s it. Congratulations on reaching a C2 level in Icelandic. That wasn’t too traumatic, was it?
Jæja is probably Iceland’s favorite word. It is an interjection that literally means “well” but the truth is it can be way more than that:
Jæja can be a question or a statement. Really, it can be whatever you want it to be.
Jæja? = what’s up?
Jæja!= Ok fine.
Forget love; Jæja is all you need. You will be able to strike up a conversation just by using this word. Anyone will understand you. It’s one of the most common words in Icelandic, and it is used by 350,000 native speakers. You can now be one of them!
The Icelandic Language
Now you have no excuse. Icelandic learning should be based mainly on listening and repeating, just like most languages: You will end up recognizing its sounds. It is a great way to get in contact with Icelanders and understand our culture. Good luck!