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10 Things You Didn´t Know About the Icelandic Language

Picture of Camille Buckley
Updated: 14 June 2017
This North Germanic language spoken by the 330,000 native speakers is notoriously difficult to grasp and rather strange sounding. However, Icelandic and some of the intricacies discussed here are a source of national pride, and Icelanders take great care in ensuring that it sustains itself though younger generations speak Icelandic with many loan words from English.
Courtesy of the author

Scandinavian Root Language

Icelandic is the root of modern Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and Faroese. When settlers arrived in Iceland in the 9th century from Norway speaking Old Norse, they preserved the language while it evolved in the other countries into what we know today as the distinct modern Scandinavian languages.

Old Norse

Those who can read modern Icelandic should also be able to read the manuscripts written in Old Norse between the 10th and the 13th centuries such as the Eddas and Sagas.

Originally an Oral Language

The use of Latin letters was introduced in the 12th century by monks, at which point, Sagas and Eddas were written down. Previously, they had been part of an oral-storytelling tradition.

Icelandic Naming Committee

Iceland has a naming committee. If a parent wants to give their child a name that has never been used before, they must first have permission from the naming committee to make sure that it fits into Icelandic grammar rules for inflections.

Courtesy of the author

Gluggaveður

There are many words and phrases that exist in Icelandic that don’t exist in English. Gluggaveður, for example, means ‘window weather’ and describes when the weather looks warm and inviting from inside. Once outside, you realize it is cold and windy.

You can Speak on the Inhale

It is very common to hear a sentence being spoken on the inhale instead of taking a pause in speaking.

32 Letters in the Alphabet

There are 32 letters in the Icelandic alphabet: the English alphabet plus the letters á, æ, ð, é, í, ó, ö, þ, ú, and ý, and minus the letters c, q, w, and z.

Typical Icelandic tongue-twister street name
Typical Icelandic tongue-twister street name | © worldislandinfo.com/Flickr

Icelandic Movie Titles

Icelanders can get very creative when translating foreign movie titles into Icelandic. For example, Lethal Weapon (1987) is Tveir á toppnum (Two at the Top) or Eyes Wide Shut (1999) which is Haltu mér, slepptu mér (Hold Me, Let Me Go).

Up to 16 Noun Inflections

An inflected language, Icelandic has modifying words to express different things like the inclusion of an article, gender, voice, case, number, and aspect. The word for horse, for example, is hestur, but it can also appear as hest, hestinn, hesti, hestinum, hests, hestsins, hestar, hesta, hestum, hesta, hestarnir, hestana, hestunum, hestanna depending on the context.

Constantly Growing

Instead of borrowing foreign words for things like computer and telephone, a new word usually taken from an outdated word is repurposed. The word for ‘computer,’ for example, is tölva which literally means ‘number oracle’ and is borrowed from a word used in the Sagas.