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Icelandic language

Native to Iceland
Native speakers
330,000  (2013)[1]
Latin (Icelandic alphabet)
Icelandic Braille
Official status
Official language in
Regulated by Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies in an advisory capacity
Language codes
ISO 639-1 is
ISO 639-2 ice (B)
isl (T)
ISO 639-3 isl
Glottolog icel1247[2]
Linguasphere 52-AAA-aa

Icelandic (   ) is a North Germanic language, the language of Iceland. It is an Indo-European language belonging to the North Germanic or Nordic branch of the Germanic languages. Historically, it was the westernmost of the Indo-European languages prior to the colonisation of the Americas. Icelandic, Faroese, Norn, and Western Norwegian formerly constituted West Nordic; Danish, Eastern Norwegian and Swedish constituted East Nordic. Modern Norwegian Bokmål is influenced by both groups, leading the Nordic languages to be divided into mainland Scandinavian languages and Insular Nordic (including Icelandic).

Most Western European languages have greatly reduced levels of inflection, particularly noun declension. In contrast, Icelandic retains a four-case synthetic grammar comparable to, but considerably more conservative and synthetic than German. By virtue of its being in the Germanic family, which as a whole reduced the Indo-European case system, it is inappropriate to compare the grammar of Icelandic to that of the more conservative Baltic, Slavic, and Indic languages of the Indo-European family, many of which retain six or more cases, except to note that Icelandic utilises a wide assortment of irregular declensions. Icelandic also possesses many instances of oblique cases without any governing word, as does Latin. For example, many of the various Latin ablatives have a corresponding Icelandic dative. The conservatism of the Icelandic language and its resultant near-isomorphism to Old Norse (which is equivalently termed Old Icelandic by linguists) means that modern Icelanders can easily read the Eddas, sagas, and other classic Old Norse literary works created in the tenth through thirteenth centuries.

The vast majority of Icelandic speakers—about 320,000—live in Iceland. There are over 8,000 speakers of Icelandic living in Denmark,[3] of whom approximately 3,000 are students.[4] The language is also spoken by some 5,000 people in the US[5] and by over 1,400 people in Canada,[6] with the largest group living in Manitoba, notably Gimli (Gimli being an Old Norse word for 'heaven'). While 97% of the population of Iceland consider Icelandic their mother tongue,[7] the language is in decline in some communities outside Iceland, particularly in Canada. Icelandic speakers outside Iceland represent recent emigration in almost all cases except Gimli, which was settled from the 1880s onwards.

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 November 16 each year, the birthday of 19th-century poet Jónas Hallgrímsson is celebrated as Icelandic Language Day.[7][8]


  • History 1
  • Legal status and recognition 2
  • Phonology 3
    • Consonants 3.1
    • Vowels 3.2
  • Grammar 4
  • Vocabulary 5
    • Linguistic purism 5.1
  • Writing system 6
  • Cognates with English 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • Bibliography 10
  • Further reading 11
  • External links 12
    • Dictionaries 12.1


A page from the Landnámabók

The oldest preserved texts in Icelandic were written around 1100 AD. Much 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 Icelandic Sagas. They comprise the historical works and the eddaic poems.

The language of the sagas is Old Icelandic, a western dialect of Old Norse. Danish rule of Iceland from 1380 to 1918 had little effect on the evolution of Icelandic, 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 ultimately based heavily on an orthography laid out in the early 12th century by a mysterious 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 removal of z from the alphabet 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 committed to 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 intact (as with modern English readers of Shakespeare). With some effort, many Icelanders can also understand the original manuscripts.

Legal status and recognition

According to an act (61/2011) passed by parliament in 2011, Icelandic is "the official language in Iceland".[11]

Iceland is a member of the Nordic Council, a forum for co-operation between the Nordic countries, which nevertheless uses only Danish, Norwegian and Swedish as its working languages (although the Council does publish material in Icelandic).[12] Under the Nordic Language Convention, Icelandic citizens have since 1987 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] but remains inconsequential since it is not very well known and because many Icelanders not proficient in the Scandinavian languages 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] and prefer to use it in those settings. The Nordic countries have committed themselves 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 f v 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 often closer to approximants [ʋ ð̠˕ j ɰ] than fricatives [v ð̠ ʝ ɣ].
  • A phonetic analysis reveals that the voiceless lateral approximant [l̥] is, in practice, usually realized 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].

A large number of 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 ɪ ʏ  
Open-mid ɛ œ ɔ
Open a
Mid eiøi ou
Open ai au


Photograph taken from page 206 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, which are furthermore divided in sub-classes of nouns, based primarily on the genitive singular and nominative plural ending of a particular noun. For example, within the masculine nouns that have a strong declension, there is a sub-class (class 1) that declines with an -s (Hests) in the genitive singular and -ar (Hestar) in the nominative plural. However there is another sub-class (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, which is a phenomenon whereby certain verbs specify that their subjects are to be in a case other than the nominative.

Nouns, adjectives and pronouns are declined in the four cases, and for number in the singular and plural. T-V distinction ("þérun") in modern Icelandic seems on the verge of extinction, yet can still be found, especially in structured official address and traditional phrases.

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 (because every middle-voice verb has an active ancestor but concomitant are sometimes drastic changes in meaning, and the fact that the middle-voice verbs form a conjugation group of their own). Examples might be koma (come) vs. komast (get there), drepa (kill) vs. drepast (perish ignominiously) and taka (take) vs. takast (manage to). In every case mentioned the meaning has been so altered, that one can hardly see them as the same verb in different voices. They have up to ten tenses, but Icelandic, like English, forms most of these with auxiliary verbs. There are three or four main groups of weak verbs in Icelandic, depending on whether one takes a historical or formalistic view.: -a, -i, and -ur, referring to the endings that these verbs take when conjugated in the first person singular present. Some Icelandic infinitives end with the -ja suffix, 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). For many verbs that require an object, a reflexive pronoun can be used 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 class of strong verbs, few as they may be (ca. 150-200) is divided into six plus reduplicative verbs. They still make up some of the most frequently used verbs. (Að vera, to be is the example par excellence, possessing two subjunctives and two imperatives in addition to being made up of different stems.) There is also a class of auxiliary verbs, a class called the -ri verbs (4-5 depending who is counting) and then the oddity að valda (to cause), called the only totally irregular verb in Icelandic, although each and 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, i.e. SVO, SOV, VSO, VOS, OSV and OVS are all allowed for metrical purposes. However, as in German the conjugated verb in Icelandic usually appears second in the clause, preceded by the word or phrase being emphasised. For example:

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

In the above examples, the conjugated verbs veit and fór are always the second element in their respective clauses.


A simple family tree showing the Icelandic patronymic naming system.

Early Icelandic vocabulary was largely Old Norse. The introduction of Christianity to Iceland in the 11th century 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 had their influence on 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). 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 family name systems.

Linguistic purism

During the 18th 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, and thus not having to resort to borrowed neologisms as in many other languages. Many old words that 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 international root "electr-" from Greek elektron ("amber"). Similarly, the word sími ("telephone") originally meant "cord", and tölva ("computer") is a portmanteau of tala ("digit; number") and völva ("seeress").

Writing system

The Icelandic alphabet is notable for its retention of two old letters which no longer exist in the English alphabet: Þ,þ (þorn, modern English "thorn") and Ð,ð (eð, 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)
a á b d ð e é f g h i í j k l m n o ó p r s t u ú v x y ý þ æ ö

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,.[22] The letter z, which had been a part of the Icelandic alphabet for a long time but was no longer distinguished from s in pronunciation, was officially abolished in 1973.

Cognates with English

As Icelandic shares its ancestry with English, 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. But a few examples are given below.

English word Icelandic word Spoken comparison
apple epli About this sound   
book bók    
high/hair hár About this sound   
house hús    
mother móðir    
night nótt    
stone steinn    
that það    
word orð    

See also


  1. ^ 97% of a population of 325,000 + 15,000 native Icelandic speakers outside Iceland
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Icelandic". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ Statbank Danish statistics
  4. ^ Official Iceland website
  5. ^ "MLA Language Map Data Center: Icelandic".   Based on 2000 US census data.
  6. ^ Canadian census 2011
  7. ^ a b "Icelandic: At Once Ancient And Modern" (PDF). Icelandic Ministry of Education, Science and Culture. 2001. Retrieved 2007-04-27. 
  8. ^ "Menntamálaráðuneyti". Retrieved 2007-04-27. 
  9. ^ "Auglýsing um afnám Z". 2000-04-03. Retrieved 2010-06-17. 
  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. 
  12. ^ "Norden". Retrieved 2007-04-27. 
  13. ^ "Nordic Language Convention". Archived from the original on 2007-06-29. Retrieved 2007-04-27. 
  14. ^ "Nordic Language Convention". Retrieved 2007-04-27. 
  15. ^ Robert Berman. "The English Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency of Icelandic students, and how to improve it". 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, 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.
  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. ^ a b c d Pétursson (1971:?), cited in Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996:145)
  20. ^ a b c Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996:144–145)
  21. ^ Liberman, Mark. "A little Icelandic phonetics". Language Log. University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved 1 April 2012. 
  22. ^ (Icelandic) Hvenær var bókstafurinn 'é' tekinn upp í íslensku í stað 'je' og af hverju er 'je' enn notað í ýmsum orðum? (retrieved on 2007-06-20)


  • Árnason, Kristján; Sigrún Helgadóttir (1991). "Behovet och nyttan av terminologiskt arbete på 90-talet. Nordterm 5. Nordterm-symposium". pp. 7–21. 
  • Halldórsson, Halldór (1979). "Icelandic Purism and its History". Word 30: 76–86. 
  • 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.  
  • 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", Phonetica 33: 203–216,  
  • Rögnvaldsson, Eiríkur (1993). Íslensk hljóðkerfisfræði. Reykjavík: Málvísindastofnun Háskóla Íslands.  
  • Scholten, Daniel (2000). Einführung in die isländische Grammatik. Munich: Philyra Verlag.  
  • 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.

External links

  • The Icelandic Language, an overview of the language from the Icelandic Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
  • BBC Languages - Icelandic, with audio samples
  • Icelandic: at once ancient and modern, a 16-page pamphlet with an overview of the language from the Icelandic Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, 2001.
  • Icelandic Grammar
  • Icelandic language at Language Museum
  • Icelandic language at Omniglot
  • Icelandic Swadesh list of basic vocabulary words (from Wiktionary's Swadesh-list appendix)
    • Íslensk málstöð (The Icelandic Language Institute)
    • (Icelandic) Lexicographical Institute of Háskóli Íslands / Orðabók Háskóla Íslands
    • (English) Icelandic Online a free beginner's and intermediate course in Icelandic from the University of Iceland
  • An Icelandic minigrammar
  • (Icelandic) Iðunn - Poetry society
    • (Icelandic) Bragfræði og Háttatal
  • (Icelandic) Daily spoken Icelandic - a little help
  • (Icelandic) Mannamál, Some tricky points of daily spoken Icelandic
  • Mimir - Online Icelandic grammar notebook
  • Thorn and eth: how to get them right
  • Verbix - an online Icelandic verb conjugator
  • Icelandic verb conjugations
  • Icelandic declensions (BÍN - Beygingarlýsing íslensks nútímamáls)
  • WikiLang Icelandic page (Basic grammar info)


  • Icelandic-English Dictionary / Íslensk-ensk orðabók Sverrir Hólmarsson, Christopher Sanders, John Tucker. Searchable dictionary from the University of Wisconsin–Madison Libraries
  • Icelandic - English Dictionary: from Webster's Rosetta Edition.
  • Collection of Icelandic bilingual dictionaries
  • Old Icelandic-English Dictionary by Richard Cleasby and Gudbrand Vigfusson
  • Icelandic dictionary
  • Icelandic Online Dictionary and Readings from University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
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