Blessuð! If one of your goals in life is to learn Icelandic, I may help you with it. 😉
Icelandic is fascinating: a language in our real, four-dimensional world with a foot in legend. ✨
Born of Viking runaways, marauders who colonized the unfavourable enclave with British slaves and Irish kidnapped women, resisting the onslaughts of little ice ages, famines and epidemics, embracing Christianity without abandoning wood sprites and monsters. 👹
The land where Icelandic is spoken, Iceland, is a quintessential biocultural landscape, that is, space equally shaped by natural and human forces. 🇮🇸
Lunar sceneries, prairies with sheep, rugged coastlines wounding the waters, with a few sparse fishermen villages here and there. The true battle between fire and ice takes place in this secluded island since the beginning of the world. 🧊🔥
Could their language be uncool? Hardly: it’s as cool as a language can be. 😎 Learning Icelandic is continually crossing the border between reality and sagas, the nordic Middle Ages and the present.
But besides its beauty, speaking Icelandic makes it possible to you to move there, work from home for Icelandic companies, get employed as a summer guide in a local tour operator, be hired as a water polo coach in Kópavogur, read thousand-year-old texts and enjoy nowadays’ noir novels. 📚
In other words, there are plenty of reasons for learning Icelandic: the journey is a juicy one, but alas, not void of peril. 🤔
When I fell prey to its fascination, I had no idea where to start. There were a few resources, online and offline, but little guidance. I had plenty of questions gurgling in my head:
Where to begin? Can one learn Icelandic without moving for three years to Reykjavik? Is it sound to start from medieval Icelandic to get a better understanding of modern Icelandic? Is my B2 German of any help? Should I go for method A or B? 🤔
I’m writing below what I have learned on the way so that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I hope you’ll find it useful.
And now, let’s allow Icelandic to introduce itself.
Learn Icelandic: Where is it spoken?
Surprisingly, first and foremost, in Iceland 😜, which is here:
It is though used in other places too: in Denmark, where a few thousand students go every year; in Scotland and England, where just as many Icelanders dock to live, for a time or forever. 🇬🇧
The Faroe Islands, an archipelago where the local language is halfway between Icelandic and the other Scandinavian sister languages, is also a piece of land where you can hear Icelandic: Faroese accepts loanwords quite openly, unlike their brethren further north, but in general, the cultural affinity between the two countries is broad. 🇫🇴
Iceland’s 1100 Years: History of a Marginal Society, by Gunnar Karlsson: one of the best book of Icelandic history ever written. It is not the paperback you’d bring to the beach to chill, but it is as rigorous and detailed as it can be for us laypeople.
It is also common in the USA and Canada whereby, over the last two hundred years, sizable groups of immigrants have found a new home: in particular, in Nova Scotia and Manitoba, their descendants are linguistically and culturally active, with close ties with the mother country. 🍁
Learn Icelandic: How does this language look like?
I don’t want to turn this guide into a treatise, but just to give you an idea, Icelandic has 24 consonants and 12 vowels. Some are typically Icelandic:
- Eth (ð, Ð),
- thorn (þ, Þ).
If you see a Nordic-looking text somewhere, it’s Icelandic. Or… it could be Anglo-Saxon, which is the father of contemporary English: a deeply fascinating language, though the chances to bump into it are limited.
Icelanders customarily address each other by their first name: even the phone directory lists people by their first name. Icelandic surnames end in -son and -dóttir: this may sound familiar, right? It was once common to all Scandinavian languages, preserved today just in Iceland.
How Iceland Changed the World, by Egill Bjarnason: a fantastic account of the history of Iceland. Like all history written by a journalist, it’s maybe less rigorous but more enjoyable. This you can read under the sun umbrella. 🏖️
Fun fact: the Parliament of Nova Scotia (Canada) allows the descendants of Icelandic immigrants, who settled at the end of the 19th century, to keep their patronymics. How does it work?
If your name is Thor and you have two children, a boy named Atli and a girl named Katrin, their full names will be:
- Atli Thorsson 👱♂️
- Katrin Thorsdóttir 👱♀️
Moreover, just like in further south, in Iceland they are acquainted with recycling grandpas’ names: that’s why the Ragnar Magnusson and Magnus Ragnarsson are repeated every other generation.
Would you like to know what would be your name in Icelandic? Have a look here >> Your Icelandic Name
Icelandic has three genders, like German: masculine, feminine and neuter; numbers are two: singular and plural. And, ouch, four cases: nominative, accusative, dative and genitive; no big deal either, for Finnish has fifteen of them. 😨
The grammatical gender depends on the ending of the word: words are mostly masculine and the limited exceptions aren’t an issue.
The stress falls on the first syllable of the word, though in compound words (again, similarly to German), stress may also be on the second or third syllable. Endings aren’t stressed, however long they may be. ✔️
Now, instead of boring the life out of you with strong and weak declensions, subjunctives and so on, let’s jump on to something more entertaining.
North: The new Nordic cuisine of Iceland: I recommend this book for two reasons. The first is that it is beautifully crafted: pictures are gorgeous, recipes quintessential, the paper is lustfully glossy.
The second is that dining out in Iceland is quite expensive for the average Briton, so I suggest you try stuff up there but then explore the full array of Icelandic food from home.
Basic phrases in Icelandic
Góðan daginn = Good morning / good day
Takk fyrir = Thanks a lot
Þakk fyrir samt = Thank you anyway
Hvað heitir þú? = What’s your name?
Hvað segið þér? = What are you saying?
Viltu endurtaka það = Please, repeat
Ég heiti Fabio = My name is Fabio
Hvaðan ert þú? = Where are you from?
Ég er frá Spáni = I am from España
Flott = Good
Eruð þér búinn? = Are you ready?
Mér þótti þið fljótir = I thought you were fast
Ég veit ekki = I don’t know
Eruð þér reiður við mig? = Are you mad at me?
Kjáninn þinn = What an idiot you are
Hvaða vitleysa = What a BS
En sá hiti! = It’s so warm!
En það veður! = What a weather!
Jæja, hvað finnst þér? = Well, what do you think about it?
Gleðileg jól = Merry Christmas
Eg óska þér þess hins = I wish you the same
Blessaður = Goodbye
Learn Icelandic: tools to begin
With time and dedication, you can truly learn Icelandic. Pimsleur is a good starting point:
#1 Pimsleur Conversational Icelandic is simply marvellous. It’s an audio course, from A to Z, but an interactive one. I love it.
It offers sixteen lessons for a total of eight hours in which you are taught Icelandic in a fantastic way: a speaker guides you through in English, he puts forth conversations in Icelandic then proceeds to cut them into pieces which you first analyse then you take part in them yourself; eventually, you check whether you are correct or not. ✔️
The recordings are fantastic, allowing you to acquire proper pronunciation and prosody.
On top of it, catering to the busy learner, with Pimsleur you can take advantage of commuting hours, walks with the dog and groceries: a pair of headphones and you’re good to go. 🎧
Oral Icelandic isn’t difficult, though there are a few phonemes alien to the English speakers. Once completed Pimsleur Conversational Icelandic, you can begin using methods offering written and oral Icelandic at the same time. This is a good one:
#2 Colloquial Icelandic: I find it a very advisable tool to use at the beginning of your Icelandic learning journey. 🇮🇸
Besides, if you have already tried a 100% audio course in the past, like Pimsleur, and found them not fitting your learning approach, you may want to start right from Colloquial Icelandic.
Beware, as the very title says, it’s informal language: if you intend to work with authorities, you better add some extra material, like this one:
#3 Beginner’s Icelandic by Hippocrene: also wildly recommendable.
If you prefer a formal approach to the language, i.e. your main intention at the moment is to use Icelandic at a professional level, then I’ll start from here and move Colloquial Icelandic to a later stage. 👔
If you work well, with these three self-teaching tools you are going to have a well-organized plan for the next eight-nine months: don’t rush, as haste is a sworn enemy of the language learner.
Hippocrene Icelandic-English English-Icelandic: the only dictionary worth the name. Thank goodness it is terrific.
For the sake of completeness, I shall mention also this course offered by the University of Reykjavík: Icelandic Online is an educational portal freemium. I have browsed it extensively and I’ve also met people who participated in its development: undoubtedly, there’s good stuff here.
The trouble is that the amount of free material is now much less than it used to. 😔 Nowadays, there are two MOOC-like courses available, two-month-long each, expanding the content offered in their free, limited version.
- There is a human tutor clarifying doubts and correcting some homework;
- you can access the portal anytime, anywhere, being everything online.
- Each course has a price tag of about 300 pounds;
- there is no conversation;
- you must enrol two or three months before the course;
- you only have two levels: A1 and A1/A2.
➡️ What I’d do if I were you: first of all, rummage in the free section. Do you find it useful? Then consider paying and take the real courses. Do you find it interesting but no sparks of love? Well, keep working elsewhere.
Let’s go ahead.
Once achieved a basic level, albeit fragile, you can entertain yourself with a few bilingual books, such as:
#4 Am I small? Er ég lítil?: Children’s Picture Book English-Icelandic is valid. Despite being focused on children, the artwork is beautiful and you’re given the first building blocks of the Icelandic language here. It’s short and simple, but well, when you are below a B1, I can’t recommend Arnaldur Indriðason.
#5 Icelandic Language: Texts in Icelandic, by Baldur Hilmarsson, it’s a bilingual English-Icelandic booklet, one I liked and profited from. It’s a step up, in terms of length and complexity of the language, compared to the previous booklet.
#6 Visir: a tabloid. News here is crummy, but as in all tabloids, written skillfully. It also helps to familiarize oneself with the journalistic genre, dictionary at hand.
#7 Viltu Laera Íslensku: the website layout is horrible, but the video and texts of the twenty-something lessons are legit. To put to test what you have learned it’s an excellent idea.
Eight points to begin learning Icelandic
#1 Learn Icelandic on your own
It is always my first option.
It enables you to proceed at your own pace, not being slowed by apathetic classmates, absorb the kind of ability you seek the way you prefer and, on top of that, save a substantial amount of money. 💪💰
As it happens though with minority languages, whether you want it or not, you often have no choice but to learn Icelandic by yourself.
Why? Because Icelandic courses are very, very few and so are teachers. That’s part of the reason Iceland’s authorities have been trying to develop one of the most sophisticated self-teaching tools: the demand is booming and they can’t keep up with it.
Ages ago, Citylit offered Icelandic courses in the heart of London. As far as I know, they are long gone. Other courses in any other city of the UK or Ireland, uhm, I am not aware of any. 🤨
If you’re deeply in love with the Icelandic language and Nordic culture broadly, you can enrol in the Icelandic BA at the University College London: you will certainly become an expert, but geez, I don’t know for how many of us is an option. A year of tuition burdens you to the tune of 9,250 GBP, multiply that for four years, add the cost of living in, well, London… and there you have it. 😔
In other words, if what you are after is to learn Icelandic without turning your life upside down and drowning in debt, you better keep doing it on your own: I mean, I adore cheesecake but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to purchase the whole cheesecake factory. 🍰
The Little Book of Tourists in Iceland: A funny account of how autochthonous see allochthonous. For such a small country, Iceland receives an INSANE amount of tourists. I gave it to more than a birthday boy and they have always been appreciated.
#2 Don’t get lost in so much stuff all over the Internet
No kidding. Normally, minority languages lack dictionaries, methods, grammar books… all that serves the purpose of learning is missing. 🔍
Icelandic is a pleasant exception: for a language spoken by less than 400.000 earthlings, material abounds.
Since its inception, Iceland boasts a cultural specific weight substantially above its dimension: the issue is that much of the language stuff available on the web is either outdated or overly scholarly.
Not the kind of tool you would use if you’re only interested in becoming conversational in Icelandic. 😒
Should you have found something useful, either online or offline, please comment below. I’m all for improving my language skills.
#3 Amazon is the ally Icelandic was looking for
If you’re like me, you have thought about resorting to online Icelandic bookshops shipping abroad. 📬
Don’t even try: prices are mind-bending. Let me tell you one of the last things I saw with my own eyes.
A friend wanted to purchase 50 Shades of Grey in Icelandic: the cheapest bookshop she reached was asking 55 GBP for it. Fifty-five pounds for a book that in here it’s worth 5 GBP (in English, granted).
If you rather look for books in any store of your city, wherever you live, as soon as you mention Icelandic the shopkeeper silently dials the asylum number. 🏥
A third option would be to purchase books and CDs in Iceland as soon as you get up there. Plenty of them at a reasonable price, you would assume. Well, not necessarily. 😒
Plenty of books printed in Europe and the USA about Icelandic and Iceland never reach the island. If they do, prices up there become way higher than here. Why?
I am not sure, but I presume shipment and taxes account for the reason, together with demand: many believe it’s impossible to find books about the Icelandic language out of Iceland, a presumption one would destroy with a mere one-minute search on Amazon.
#4 Acquire a proper pronunciation
Native speakers of major languages are accustomed to foreign accents: Germans, Spanish, French; Icelanders, hmmm, not so much. Few foreigners are living up there, only a fraction of them learn the language less and, generally, they are located in the capital. Icelanders simply lack the opportunity to develop an ear for foreignness. 👂
Moreover, Icelandic is a monolithic language: dialects or varieties, there are next to nought.
Thus, a heavy British accent is better understood by an Italian than an Icelander. Is that a big issue? Not really: if any, it pushes you to improve your oral production even faster. ⏩
#5 Recordings are paramount
The language is Germanic, but as soon as you begin learning Icelandic, you’ll realize it’s no German. 🇩🇪
German has a relaxing regularity: said in a troglodyte way, you speak it the way you write it. Prosody is also fairly easy to catch.
In Icelandic, both pronunciation and prosody are challenging: it does have a certain “regularity”, but chances are you have never been exposed to Icelandic in life, whereas you may have heard German a million times; then, certain phonemes are unfamiliar to an English speaker, and you have to budget some time to get acquainted with them.
So, no worries: this is no Chinese; but recordings matter, no doubt. 📼
#6 Get on intimate terms with declensions
If you’ve studied Latin or Greek, you’re one step ahead. Otherwise, no problem: declensions are still a feature of human languages, we aren’t talking about ithkuil.
When in doubt, as a friend told me, there is a rule to acquit yourself well: declensions affect the last part of the word, so pronounce the first part loud and clear and mumble the second. Feign confidence and everything will be fine. 👍
#7 Season your conversations with many Jæja
Just like right, well or you know, jæja is one of the most common pet words. Use it and you will acquire a distinctive native touch 😉
#8 Resist the temptation to use English
When practising Icelandic, do not resort to English unless your life is in serious danger.
Icelanders speak English all too well: they could all get a C2 Proficiency in no time. It was 1999, when Danish stepped down from the top, becoming only the second most studied foreign language, after English.
The Little Book of Icelandic: one of Alda Sigmundsdóttir’s funny books, in this case, about the love of Icelanders for their language. , esta vez sobre la afición de los islandeses por su lengua. Poliglotas sí, pero también con gran aprecio para el islandés.
If you give in to the comfort of speaking English, there is no turning back. Only in remote villages you’ll find people with little fluency in your mother tongue.
You have to learn well the sentence “Afsakið, ég skil ekki ensku“, I’m sorry, I don’t understand English, and use it ruthlessly, when “threatened” by Icelanders. 😹
I hope you liked this post about learning Icelandic. In here, I bequeathed all I know to begin with this mesmerizing nordic language.
If you have made it up to this point, congratulations!:
- In a world riddled with ADHD, you seem immune to it. 👏
- You believe there is more to life than Netflix.
- Whether you move to Iceland or stay home in West Midlands, you know learning Icelandic can be a terrific experience. 🇮🇸
🙏 Please share with those who love Skyr, Halldór Laxness and the language spoken in the northern frontier of the earth 🙏
Sjáumst síðar 😉
Hey, just a second! If you liked this post, some interesting stuff is about to come:
🌋 Icelandic Language: How to Learn it and Why (coming soon)
🐑 Study Icelandic: How to Do it and Some good Reasons (coming soon)
Your personal Scandinavist,