Iceland Survival Guide: How to learn Icelandic (or at least try!)
On a clear day I can see Eyjafjallajökull when I go riding. You know the volcano. The one no one can pronounce. Actually one of the little joys of my day is making tourists say it. I’m mean like that. Much like anything it’s not so hard if you know how (ey-yeah-fytl-la-jook-utl or at least that’s my non-phonemic phonetic approximation). I’m am doing my best to learn Icelandic. With just a book, some apps and re-runs of Trapped or listening to Icelandic hip-hop (they enunciate more clearly but then they use a lot of slang) it’s pretty hard, and I don’t get a huge amount of speaking practice as a) I deal with a lot of tourists, and b) Icelanders are not all that patient with Icelandic language learners (those that are: takk fyrir, það er mjög gott fyrir mig!). Numbers 1-4 change depending on the gender of the thing you’re talking about, there are 6 million (well ok maybe eight) versions of a word depending on which of the four cases it takes and how it’s used and sometimes I want to cry. But I no longer hyperventilate quite so much when I answer the phone which is good and sometimes people even reply in Icelandic instead of the “Oh god what are those sounds coming out of your mouth? Are you in pain? Let’s just speak English and then my ears might stop bleeding.” I get sometimes. But anyway – here’s a bit of what I learned so far.
Pronunciation in Icelandic
Much like Irish the relationship between pronunciation and spelling is distant at best, at least to the learner, here are some common ones:
- D/ð dropped from the old English alphabet eth is pronounced like the ‘th’ in ‘the’
- P/þ dropped from the old English alphabet thorn/þorn (pronounced thot) is pronounced like the ‘th’ in ‘both’ but with more air
- Æ/æ like ‘eye’
- ll a really difficult sound that I am slowly trying to master this is like ‘tl’ but with a flattened tongue and a lispy click of the tongue
- r roll your r’s like a Scottish person
- ´ the accent makes the sound longer like in Irish so vík is pronounced veek
- hv is more like ‘kv’
- y is like ‘i’
- j is like ‘ye’
- x like ‘ch’ in Irish like ‘loch’ for the older pronunciation or ‘ks’ for the younger folk
Basic Icelandic phrases
- Hello – Halló
- Good day/morning – Góðan daginn
- Good evening – Gott kvöld
- Goodnight – Góða nótt
This gets a bit complicated as the phrase changes whether you’re speaking to a man or woman or depending on how formal you are but if all else fails stick with hi/hæ
- Please – this doesn’t exist, which is very uncomfortable for an Irish person. Saying “Einn bjór, takk” (“one beer please”) is the closest you can get to it, and also signals you out as a foreigner apparently.
- Thank you (very much) – Takk (fyrir)
- You’re welcome – Það var ekkert
- How are you? – Hvað segir þú (gott)? (literally “what do you say (is good)?”)
- I’m fine but/and you? – Allt fínt, en þú? or I’m good and you? – Allt gott, en þú?
- Yes – Já
- No – Nei
- And – Og
- I don’t speak Icelandic – Ég tala ekki íslensku
- My name is… – Ég heiti…
- Where are you from? – Hvaðan ertu?
- I’m from … – Ég er frá …
Random Icelandic words I love
eldhús – kitchen, literally fire house. From the excellent Every Single Word in Icelandic Instagram account. Icelandic has a lot of compound nouns so cooker is eldavél (fire machine), volcano is eldfjall (fire mountain).
gluggaveður – window weather, weather that looks lovely and warm but when you go outside it’s actually kinda crap and cold.
fiskiskip – fishing boat, I know fish don’t skip onto boats and if they did fishing would be a lot easier but hey this is the picture I have in my head.
marglytta – jellyfish, literally sea glitter. The Irish is smugairle róin which means ‘seal’s snot’. I think this says a lot about of respective cultural personalities.
gluggatjöld – curtains, literally window tent.
þvottabjorn – racoon, literally washing bear. Aww!
If at all in doubt stick an -ur at the end of words to make them sound more Icelandic, this always works (maybe, … sometimes).
How to learn Icelandic yourself
Of course none of this is any good to you if you can’t pronounce it. IHeartReykjavík has a great section on Icelandic with sound. If you’re interested in learning more I would recommend the following books Colloquial Icelandic, Complete Icelandic and Learning Icelandic. There’s also a free online course by the University of Iceland, though my one gripe is that they expect you to figure out the grammar they present rather than explaining it and there’s also loads of free vocabulary courses on Memrise (but some have mistakes in them).
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