Icelandic language

Icelandic (/sˈlændɪk/ (listen); Icelandic: íslenska pronounced [ˈ̥ɛn.ska] (listen)) is a North Germanic language spoken by about 314,000 people, the vast majority of whom live in Iceland, where it is the national language.[1] Due to being a West Scandinavian language, it is most closely related to Faroese, western Norwegian dialects, and the extinct language, Norn.

Native toIceland
Native speakers
314,000 (2015)[1]
Early forms
Latin (Icelandic alphabet)
Icelandic Braille
Official status
Official language in
 Nordic Council
Regulated byÁrni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies[lower-alpha 1]
Language codes
ISO 639-1is
ISO 639-2ice (B)
isl (T)
ISO 639-3isl
Iceland, where Icelandic is the language of the majority

The language is more conservative than most other Germanic languages. While most of them have greatly reduced levels of inflection (particularly noun declension), Icelandic retains a four-case synthetic grammar (comparable to German, though considerably more conservative and synthetic) and is distinguished by a wide assortment of irregular declensions. Icelandic vocabulary is also deeply conservative, with the country's language regulator maintaining an active policy of coining terms based on older Icelandic words rather than directly taking in loanwords from other languages. Since the written language has not changed much, Icelandic speakers can read classic Old Norse literature created in the 10th through 13th centuries (such as the Eddas and sagas) with relative ease.

Icelandic is closely related to Faroese; the written forms of the two languages are very similar, but their spoken forms are not mutually intelligible.[3] It is not mutually intelligible with the continental Scandinavian languages (Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish) and is more distinct from the most widely spoken Germanic languages, English and German.

Aside from the 300,000 Icelandic speakers in Iceland, Icelandic is spoken by about 8,000 people in Denmark,[4] 5,000 people in the United States,[5] and more than 1,400 people in Canada,[6] notably in the region known as New Iceland in Manitoba which was settled by Icelanders beginning in the 1880s.

The state-funded Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies serves as a centre for preserving the medieval Icelandic manuscripts and studying the language and its literature. The Icelandic Language Council, comprising representatives of universities, the arts, journalists, teachers, and the Ministry of Culture, Science and Education, advises the authorities on language policy. Since 1995, on 16 November each year, the birthday of 19th-century poet Jónas Hallgrímsson is celebrated as Icelandic Language Day.[7][8]


A page from the Landnámabók, an early Icelandic manuscript.

The oldest preserved texts in Icelandic were written around 1100 AD. Many of the texts are based on poetry and laws traditionally preserved orally. The most famous of the texts, which were written in Iceland from the 12th century onward, are the sagas of Icelanders, which encompass the historical works and the Poetic Edda.

The language of the sagas is Old Icelandic, a western dialect of Old Norse. The Dano-Norwegian, then later Danish rule of Iceland from 1536 to 1918 had little effect on the evolution of Icelandic (in contrast to the Norwegian language), which remained in daily use among the general population. Though more archaic than the other living Germanic languages, Icelandic changed markedly in pronunciation from the 12th to the 16th century, especially in vowels (in particular, á, æ, au, and y/ý).

The modern Icelandic alphabet has developed from a standard established in the 19th century, primarily by the Danish linguist Rasmus Rask. It is based strongly on an orthography laid out in the early 12th century by a document referred to as the First Grammatical Treatise by an anonymous author, who has later been referred to as the First Grammarian. The later Rasmus Rask standard was a re-creation of the old treatise, with some changes to fit concurrent Germanic conventions, such as the exclusive use of k rather than c. Various archaic features, as the letter ð, had not been used much in later centuries. Rask's standard constituted a major change in practice. Later 20th-century changes include the use of é instead of je and the replacement of z with s in 1973.[9]

Apart from the addition of new vocabulary, written Icelandic has not changed substantially since the 11th century, when the first texts were written on vellum.[10] Modern speakers can understand the original sagas and Eddas which were written about eight hundred years ago. The sagas are usually read with updated modern spelling and footnotes, but otherwise are intact (as with recent English editions of Shakespeare's works). With some effort, many Icelanders can also understand the original manuscripts.

According to an act passed by the Parliament in 2011, Icelandic is "the national language of the Icelandic people and the official language in Iceland"; moreover, "[p]ublic authorities shall ensure that its use is possible in all areas of Icelandic society".[11]

Iceland is a member of the Nordic Council, a forum for co-operation between the Nordic countries, but the council uses only Danish, Norwegian and Swedish as its working languages (although the council does publish material in Icelandic).[12] Under the Nordic Language Convention, since 1987 Icelandic citizens have had the right to use Icelandic when interacting with official bodies in other Nordic countries, without becoming liable for any interpretation or translation costs. The convention covers visits to hospitals, job centres, the police and social security offices.[13][14] It does not have much effect since it is not very well known, and because those Icelanders not proficient in the other Scandinavian languages often have a sufficient grasp of English to communicate with institutions in that language (although there is evidence that the general English skills of Icelanders have been somewhat overestimated).[15] The Nordic countries have committed to providing services in various languages to each other's citizens, but this does not amount to any absolute rights being granted, except as regards criminal and court matters.[16][17]


Icelandic has very minor dialectal differences phonetically. The language has both monophthongs and diphthongs, and consonants can be voiced or unvoiced.

Voice plays a primary role in the differentiation of most consonants including the nasals but excluding the plosives. The plosives b, d, and g are voiceless and differ from p, t, and k only by their lack of aspiration. Preaspiration occurs before geminate (long or double consonants) p, t, and k. It does not occur before geminate b, d, or g. Pre-aspirated tt is analogous etymologically and phonetically to German and Dutch cht (compare Icelandic nótt, dóttir with the German Nacht, Tochter and the Dutch nacht, dochter).


Consonant phones
Labial Coronal Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal ()m ()n (ɲ̊)(ɲ) (ŋ̊)(ŋ)
Stop p t ()(c) k
Continuant sibilant s
non-sibilant fv θ(ð) (ç)j (x)(ɣ) h
Lateral ()l
Rhotic ()r
  • /n̥ n tʰ t/ are laminal denti-alveolar, /s/ is apical alveolar,[18][19] /θ ð/ are alveolar non-sibilant fricatives;[19][20] the former is laminal,[19][20] while the latter is usually apical.[19][20]
  • The voiceless continuants /f s θ ç x h/ are always constrictive [f θ̠ ç x h], but the voiced continuants /v ð j ɣ/ are not very constrictive and are usually pronounced closer to approximants [ʋ ð̠˕ j ɰ] than fricatives [v ð̠ ʝ ɣ].
  • The rhotic consonants may either be trills [ r] or taps [ɾ̥ ɾ], depending on the speaker.
  • A phonetic analysis reveals that the voiceless lateral approximant [l̥] is, in practice, usually realised with considerable friction, especially word-finally or syllable-finally, i. e., essentially as a voiceless alveolar lateral fricative [ɬ].[21]

Scholten (2000, p. 22) includes three extra phones: [ʔ l̥ˠ lˠ].

Word-final voiced consonants are devoiced pre-pausally, so that dag ('day (acc.)') is pronounced as [ˈtaːx] and dagur ('day (nom.)') is pronounced [ˈtaːɣʏr̥].[22]

Many competing analyses have been proposed for Icelandic phonemes. The problems stem from complex but regular alternations and mergers among the above phones in various positions.


Front Back
plain round
Close i   u
Near-close ɪʏ  
Open-mid ɛœ ɔ
Open a
Mid eiœi ou
Open ai au


Photograph taken from page 176 of Colloquial Icelandic

Icelandic retains many grammatical features of other ancient Germanic languages, and resembles Old Norwegian before much of its fusional inflection was lost. Modern Icelandic is still a heavily inflected language with four cases: nominative, accusative, dative and genitive. Icelandic nouns can have one of three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine or neuter. There are two main declension paradigms for each gender: strong and weak nouns, and these are further divided into subclasses of nouns, based primarily on the genitive singular and nominative plural endings of a particular noun. For example, within the strong masculine nouns, there is a subclass (class 1) that declines with -s (hests) in the genitive singular and -ar (hestar) in the nominative plural. However, there is another subclass (class 3) of strong masculine nouns that always declines with -ar (hlutar) in the genitive singular and -ir (hlutir) in the nominative plural. Additionally, Icelandic permits a quirky subject, that is, certain verbs have subjects in an oblique case (i.e. other than the nominative).

Nouns, adjectives and pronouns are declined in the four cases and for number in the singular and plural.

Verbs are conjugated for tense, mood, person, number and voice. There are three voices: active, passive and middle (or medial), but it may be debated whether the middle voice is a voice or simply an independent class of verbs of its own, as every middle-voice verb has an active-voice ancestor, but sometimes with drastically different meaning, and the middle-voice verbs form a conjugation group of their own. Examples are koma ("come") vs. komast ("get there"), drepa ("kill") vs. drepast ("perish ignominiously") and taka ("take") vs. takast ("manage to"). In each of these examples, the meaning has been so altered, that one can hardly see them as the same verb in different voices. Verbs have up to ten tenses, but Icelandic, like English, forms most of them with auxiliary verbs. There are three or four main groups of weak verbs in Icelandic, depending on whether one takes a historical or a formalistic view: -a, -i, and -ur, referring to the endings that these verbs take when conjugated in the first person singular present. Almost all Icelandic verbs have the ending -a in the infinitive, some with á, two with u (munu, skulu) one with o (þvo: "wash") and one with e (the Danish borrowing ske which is probably withdrawing its presence). Many transitive verbs (i.e. they require an object), can take a reflexive pronoun instead. The case of the pronoun depends on the case that the verb governs. As for further classification of verbs, Icelandic behaves much like other Germanic languages, with a main division between weak verbs and strong, and the strong verbs, of which there are about 150 to 200, are divided into six classes plus reduplicative verbs. They still make up some of the most frequently used verbs. (Að vera, "to be", is the example par excellence, having two subjunctives and two imperatives in addition to being made up of different stems.) There is also a class of auxiliary verbs, called the -ri verbs (4 or 5, depending who is counting) and then the oddity að valda ("to cause"), called the only totally irregular verb in Icelandic although every form of it is caused by common and regular sound changes.

The basic word order in Icelandic is subject–verb–object. However, as words are heavily inflected, the word order is fairly flexible, and every combination may occur in poetry; SVO, SOV, VSO, VOS, OSV and OVS are all allowed for metrical purposes. However, as with most Germanic languages, Icelandic usually complies with the V2 word order restriction, so the conjugated verb in Icelandic usually appears as the second element in the clause, preceded by the word or phrase being emphasised. For example:

  • Ég veit það ekki. (I know it not.)
  • Ekki veit ég það. (Not know I it. )
  • Það veit ég ekki. (It know I not.)
  • Ég fór til Bretlands þegar ég var eins árs. (I went to Britain when I was one year old.)
  • Til Bretlands fór ég þegar ég var eins árs. (To Britain went I, when I was one year old.)
  • Þegar ég var eins árs fór ég til Bretlands. (When I was one year old, went I to Britain.)

In the above examples, the conjugated verbs veit and fór are always the second element in their respective clauses, see verb-second word order.

A distinction between formal and informal address (T–V distinction) had existed in Icelandic from the 17th century, but use of the formal variant weakened in the 1950s and rapidly disappeared.[23] It no longer exists in regular speech, but may occasionally be found in pre-written speeches addressed to the bishop and members of parliament.[23]


A simple family tree showing the Icelandic patronymic naming system.
Eyjafjallajökull, one of the smaller ice caps of Iceland, situated to the north of Skógar and to the west of Mýrdalsjökull, is Icelandic for "glacier of Eyjafjöll", in turn "glacier of island mountain".

Early Icelandic vocabulary was largely Old Norse.[24] The introduction of Christianity to Iceland in the 11th century[25] brought with it a need to describe new religious concepts. The majority of new words were taken from other Scandinavian languages; kirkja ("church"), for example. Numerous other languages have influenced Icelandic: French brought many words related to the court and knightship; words in the semantic field of trade and commerce have been borrowed from Low German because of trade connections. In the late 18th century, language purism began to gain noticeable ground in Iceland and since the early 19th century it has been the linguistic policy of the country (see linguistic purism in Icelandic).[26] Nowadays, it is common practice to coin new compound words from Icelandic derivatives.

Icelandic personal names are patronymic (and sometimes matronymic) in that they reflect the immediate father or mother of the child and not the historic family lineage. This system, which was formerly used throughout the Nordic area and beyond, differs from most Western systems of family name. In most Icelandic families, the ancient tradition of patronymics is still in use; i.e. a person uses their father's name (usually) or mother's name (increasingly in recent years) in the genitive form followed by the morpheme -son ("son") or -dóttir ("daughter") in lieu of family names.[27]

In 2019, changes were announced to the laws governing names. Icelanders who are officially registered with non-binary gender will be permitted to use the suffix -bur ("child of") instead of -son or -dóttir.[28]

Cognates with English

As Icelandic shares its ancestry with English and both are Germanic languages, there are many cognate words in both languages; each have the same or a similar meaning and are derived from a common root. The possessive, though not the plural, of a noun is often signified with the ending -s, as in English. Phonological and orthographical changes in each of the languages will have changed spelling and pronunciation. A few examples are given below.

English wordIcelandic wordSpoken comparison

Language policy

A core theme of Icelandic language ideologies is grammatical, orthographic and lexical purism for Icelandic. This is evident in general language discourses, in polls, and in other investigations into Icelandic language attitudes.[29] The general consensus on Icelandic language policy has come to mean that language policy and language ideology discourse are not predominantly state or elite driven; but rather, remain the concern of lay people and the general public.[30] The Icelandic speech community is perceived to have a protectionist language culture;[31] however, this is deep-rooted ideologically primarily in relation to the forms of the language, while Icelanders in general seem to be more “pragmatic” as to domains of language use.[32]

Linguistic purism

During the 19th century, a movement was started by writers and other educated people of the country to rid the language of foreign words as much as possible and to create a new vocabulary and adapt the Icelandic language to the evolution of new concepts, thus avoiding the use of borrowed neologisms as are found in many other languages.[33] Many old words which had fallen into disuse were recycled and given new senses in the modern language, and neologisms were created from Old Norse roots. For example, the word rafmagn ("electricity"), literally means "amber power", calquing the derivation of the Greek root "electr-" from Greek elektron ("amber").[34] Similarly, the word sími ("telephone") originally meant "cord", and tölva ("computer") is a portmanteau of tala ("digit; number") and völva ("seeress; prophetess").

Writing system

The Icelandic alphabet is notable for its retention of two old letters that no longer exist in the English alphabet: Þ, þ (þorn, modern English "thorn") and Ð, ð (, anglicised as "eth" or "edh"), representing the voiceless and voiced "th" sounds (as in English thin and this), respectively. The complete Icelandic alphabet is:

Majuscule forms (also called uppercase or capital letters)
Minuscule forms (also called lowercase or small letters)

The letters with diacritics, such as á and ö, are for the most part treated as separate letters and not variants of their derivative vowels. The letter é officially replaced je in 1929, although it had been used in early manuscripts (until the 14th century) and again periodically from the 18th century.[35] The letter z was formerly in the Icelandic alphabet, but it was officially removed in 1973.

See also


  1. In an advisory capacity.


  1. Icelandic language at Ethnologue (19th ed., 2016)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian (24 May 2022). "Older Runic". Glottolog. Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Archived from the original on 13 November 2022. Retrieved 13 November 2022.
  3. Barbour, Stephen; Carmichael, Cathie (2000). Language and Nationalism in Europe. OUP Oxford. p. 106. ISBN 978-0-19-158407-7.
  4. "StatBank Denmark".
  5. "Icelandic". MLA Language Map Data Center. Modern Language Association. Retrieved 17 April 2010. Based on 2000 US census data.
  6. Government of Canada, Statistics Canada (8 May 2013). "2011 National Household Survey: Data tables – Detailed Mother Tongue (158), Generation Status (4), Knowledge of Official Languages (5), Number of Non-Official Languages Spoken (5), Age Groups (10) and Sex (3) for the Population in Private Households of Canada, Provinces and Territories, 2011 National Household Survey".
  7. "Icelandic: At Once Ancient And Modern" (PDF). Icelandic Ministry of Education, Science and Culture. 2001. Retrieved 27 April 2007.
  8. "Menntamálaráðuneyti" [Ministry of Education]. Retrieved 27 April 2007.
  9. "Auglýsing um afnám Z" [Advertising on the Elimination of Z]. 3 April 2000. Archived from the original on 29 October 2012. Retrieved 17 June 2010.
  10. Sanders, Ruth (2010). German: Biography of a Language. Oxford University Press. p. 209. Overall, written Icelandic has changed little since the eleventh century Icelandic sagas, or historical epics; only the addition of significant numbers of vocabulary items in modern times makes it likely that a saga author would have difficulty understanding the news in today's [Icelandic newspapers].
  11. "Act [No 61/2011] on the status of the Icelandic language and Icelandic sign language" (PDF). Ministry of Education, Science and Culture. p. 1. Retrieved 15 November 2013. Article 1; National language – official language; Icelandic is the national language of the Icelandic people and the official language in Iceland. Article 2; The Icelandic language The national language is the common language of the Icelandic general public. Public authorities shall ensure that its use is possible in all areas of Icelandic society. All persons residing in Iceland must be given the opportunity to learn Icelandic and to use it for their general participation in Icelandic society, as further provided in leges speciales.
  12. "Norden". Retrieved 27 April 2007.
  13. "Nordic Language Convention". Archived from the original on 29 June 2007. Retrieved 27 April 2007.
  14. "Nordic Language Convention". Archived from the original on 28 April 2009. Retrieved 27 April 2007.
  15. Robert Berman. "The English Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency of Icelandic students, and how to improve it". Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. English is often described as being almost a second language in Iceland, as opposed to a foreign language like German or Chinese. Certainly in terms of Icelandic students' Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS), English does indeed seem to be a second language. However, in terms of many Icelandic students' Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP)—the language skills required for success in school—evidence will be presented suggesting that there may be a large number of students who have substantial trouble utilizing these skills.
  16. Language Convention not working properly Archived 2009-04-28 at the Wayback Machine, Nordic news, March 3, 2007. Retrieved on April 25, 2007.
  17. Helge Niska, "Community interpreting in Sweden: A short presentation", International Federation of Translators, 2004. Retrieved on April 25, 2007. Archived 2009-03-27 at the Wayback Machine
  18. Kress (1982:23–24) "It's never voiced, as s in sausen, and it's pronounced by pressing the tip of the tongue against the alveolar ridge, close to the upper teeth – somewhat below the place of articulation of the German sch. The difference is that German sch is labialized, while Icelandic s is not. It's a pre-alveolar, coronal, voiceless spirant."
  19. Pétursson (1971:?), cited in Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996:145)
  20. Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996:144–145)
  21. Liberman, Mark. "A little Icelandic phonetics". Language Log. University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved 1 April 2012.
  22. Árnason 2011: 107, 237
  23. "Þéranir á meðal vor". Morgunblaðið. 29 October 1999.
  24. Brown, Edward Keith; Ogilvie, Sarah (2010). Concise encyclopedia of languages of the world. Elsevier. p. 781. ISBN 9780080877754. OCLC 944400471.
  25. Forbes, Charles Stuart (1860). Iceland: Its Volcanoes, Geysers, And Glaciers. p. 61. ISBN 978-1298551429.
  26. Hulst, Harry van der (2008). Word Prosodic Systems in the Languages of Europe. Mouton de Gruyter. p. 377. ISBN 978-1282193666. OCLC 741344348.
  27. Hilmarsson-Dunn, Amanda & Kristinsson, Ari Páll. 2010. The Language Situation in Iceland. In: Current Issues in Language Planning. 11. Pp. 207‒276
  28. Kyzer, Larissa (22 June 2019). "Icelandic names will no longer be gendered". Iceland Review.
  29. Kristinsson, Ari Páll. 2018. National language policy and planning in Iceland – aims and institutional activities. In G. Stickel (ed.): National language institutions and national languages. Budapest: Research Institute for Linguistics, Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Pp. 243-249.
  30. Kristinsson, Ari Páll. 2013. Evolving language ideologies and media practices in Iceland. In Ulrich Ammon, Jeroen Darquennes, Sue Wright (eds.): Sociolinguistica. International Yearbook of European Sociolinguistics. 27. Berlín/Boston: De Gruyter. Pp. 54–68.
  31. Hilmarsson-Dunn, Amanda & Kristinsson, Ari Páll. 2010. The Language Situation in Iceland. In: Current Issues in Language Planning. 11. Pp. 207‒276.
  32. Kristinsson, Ari Páll. 2014. Ideologies in Iceland: The protection of language forms. In: Anna Kristina Hultgren, Frans Gregersen, Jacob Thøgersen (eds.): English in Nordic Universities: Ideologies and Practices. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. Pp. 165-177.
  33. Brydon, Anne (1992). The eye of the guest : Icelandic nationalist discourse and the whaling issue. National Library of Canada = Bibliothèque nationale du Canada. p. 52. ISBN 0315747854. OCLC 29911689.
  34. "ἤλεκτρον - Wiktionary". Retrieved 11 March 2018.
  35. "Hvenær var bókstafurinn 'é' tekinn upp í íslensku í stað 'je' og af hverju er 'je' enn notað í ýmsum orðum?" (in Icelandic). 12 November 2001. Retrieved 20 June 2007.


  • Árnason, Kristján; Sigrún Helgadóttir (1991). "Terminology and Icelandic Language Policy". Behovet och nyttan av terminologiskt arbete på 90-talet. Nordterm 5. Nordterm-symposium. pp. 7–21.
  • Árnason, Kristján (2011), The Phonology of Icelandic and Faroese, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-922931-4
  • Halldórsson, Halldór (1979). "Icelandic Purism and its History". Word. 30: 76–86.
  • Hilmarsson-Dunn, Amanda; Kristinsson, Ari Páll (2010). "The Language Situation in Iceland". Current Issues in Language Planning. 11 (3): 207‒276. doi:10.1080/14664208.2010.538008. S2CID 144856348.
  • Kress, Bruno (1982), Isländische Grammatik, VEB Verlag Enzyklopädie Leipzig
  • Kvaran, Guðrún; Höskuldur Þráinsson; Kristján Árnason; et al. (2005). Íslensk tunga I–III. Reykjavík: Almenna bókafélagið. ISBN 9979-2-1900-9. OCLC 71365446.
  • Ladefoged, Peter; Maddieson, Ian (1996). The Sounds of the World's Languages. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 978-0-631-19815-4.
  • Orešnik, Janez; Magnús Pétursson (1977). "Quantity in Modern Icelandic". Arkiv för Nordisk Filologi. 92: 155–71.
  • Pétursson, Magnus (1971), "Étude de la réalisation des consonnes islandaises þ, ð, s, dans la prononciation d'un sujet islandais à partir de la radiocinématographie" [Study on the realisation of the Icelandic consonants þ, ð, s, in the pronunciation of an Icelandic subject from radiocinematography], Phonetica, 33 (4): 203–216, doi:10.1159/000259344, S2CID 145316121
  • Rögnvaldsson, Eiríkur (1993). Íslensk hljóðkerfisfræði [Icelandic phonology]. Reykjavík: Málvísindastofnun Háskóla Íslands. ISBN 9979-853-14-X.
  • Scholten, Daniel (2000). Einführung in die isländische Grammatik. Munich: Philyra Verlag. ISBN 3-935267-00-2. OCLC 76178278.
  • Vikør, Lars S. (1993). The Nordic Languages. Their Status and Interrelations. Oslo: Novus Press. pp. 55–59, 168–169, 209–214.

Further reading

  • Icelandic: Grammar, Text and Glossary (1945; 2000) by Stefán Einarsson. Johns Hopkins University Press, ISBN 9780801863578.


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