As far as most visitors are concerned, there are two important points to know about Icelandic: (a) it’s one of the world’s most difficult languages to master, and (b) almost everyone in Iceland speaks superb English. So unless you’re here for the long haul, there’s not much reason to even try. I contented myself with the ability to semi-correctly pronounce Icelandic: a steep enough task even with 91 days to practice.
Pencils out? Advil ready? Good, let’s get started.
Strange Icelandic Letters!
Þ/þ (Thorn) – Sounds like a “th”. In Icelandic, Thor the hammer-weilding Norse God is written Þór. Þing (assembly) is pronounced “thing”.
Ð/ð (Eth) – Also sounds like a “th”, but with the tongue further back on the teeth (say “father” as opposed to “this”). Anyway, it’s probably close enough for non-native speakers to get away with always pronouncing ð and þ the same way. One big difference is that ð never appears at the beginning of a word.
Æ/æ (Ash) – Sounds like the “ai” in “my”. This one is less strange, but don’t ask me to put it in handwriting. It will come out as a circle-ish scribble regardless of how I concentrate.
Other pronunciation notes: “ll” is spoken like “tl”. So Þingvellir is pronounced “thing-vet-lir”. “J” is pronounced with a “y” sound, so jökull is “yo-kutl”. “Kill me” would be pronounced “Kitl-me”. But I think you would understand. You would see the pleading in my eyes.
Long Icelandic Words!
Icelandic is a Germanic language and, like others of its ilk, mashes nouns together to produce mega-words of terrifying length. Kirkjubæjarklaustur. Eyjafjallajökull. They’re pronounceable, though, if you think of them in their parts… Church (Kirkju) – Farm (bæjar) – Cloister (klaustur). Church-farm-cloister: Kirkjubæjarklaustur! Island (Eyja) – Mountain (fjalla) – Glacier (jökull)… Island-Mountain-Glacier: Eyjafjallajökull!
Ridiculous Archaic Grammar!
Like other Scandinavian languages, Icelandic has its roots in Old Norse. But unlike its siblings, Icelandic has stubbornly refused to modernize, retaining much of the Viking-era grammar. It’s a bit like if we still wrote and spoke Ye Olde English. And while this means that the average Icelander can enjoy the Viking Sagas in their original prose, it’s a nightmare for anyone trying to learn. The grammar is bizarre, with a mind-boggling number of declensions, conjugations, tenses, genders, voices and suffixes. Have you ever heard of a linguistic phenomenon called the quirky subject? I hadn’t until having researched Icelandic for ten minutes. And that just happened to be the point I forever abandoned the notion of learning the language.
This doesn’t really belong to the language category, but it’s another Icelandic curiosity that begs mentioning. Unlike elsewhere in the Western world, Icelanders take their last names from their father, instead of from their family lineage. The son of Þór will have the last name Þórsson, while that of Þór’s daughter will be Þórsdottir. So brother and sister would have different last names, and both would differ from those of their parents. A family of four with four different surnames! Because of this, Icelanders go by their first names for almost everything, even in phone books. If you have a friend, teacher, or neighbor named Kári Þórsson, you will always refer to him as Kári… unless you need to differentiate him from another Kári.
Iceland is among the most feminist countries on earth, and it’s a growing trend for children to take their surnames from their mothers instead of their fathers. As someone with absolutely no say or stake in the matter, I am firmly against this. It’s not that I’m a traditionalist or woman-hater or something. It’s certainly more gender equitable, and makes a lot of sense. But isn’t all this confusing enough? Does the Icelandic naming convention really need an additional twist?