15 things to know about Icelandic
Earlier this week, it was Iceland’s annual Icelandic Language Day, or Dagur íslenskrar tungu, a day in which a tiny island nation celebrates a language spoken by fewer than 400,000 people in the world. In the spirit of that day, here are 15 random facts about the Icelandic language.
1. Icelandic contains some neat-looking letters.
There are 32 letters in the Icelandic alphabet. It’s 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.
2. Icelandic hasn’t changed much over thousands of years.
Icelanders like to brag that they can still read their old Sagas from the 12th century. But, although it is certainly easier to read Grettir’s Saga in Old Norse than it is to read Beowulf in Old English, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the experience is akin to reading a newspaper.
3. Non-Icelanders can’t pronounce the word Eyjafjallajökull.
As you may have noticed when Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010, the Icelandic language is a mouthful. Despite their best attempts, reporters all over the world butchered the name of the volcano. Icelanders thought it was hilarious.
4. The longest Icelandic word is 64 letters long.
If you think Eyjafjallajökull is mouthful, try vaðlaheiðarvegavinnuverkfærageymsluskúraútidyralyklakippuhringur. At 64 letters, it is typically considered the longest Icelandic word. It means something along the lines of ‘a keychain ring containing the key to a storage shed used by road workers in a place called Vaðlaheiði’.
5. Icelanders can’t pronounce words beginning with the letter v.
Icelanders might laugh at how foreigners pronounce their words, but a lot of them have trouble pronouncing simple English words beginning with the letter v. So they’ll say things like, “Icelanders are wery good at English,” which is interesting considering that the letter v exists in their alphabet, but the letter w does not.
6. Icelanders love their language.
Icelanders have fought long and hard to keep their language pure. As they struggled for independence in the 19th century, they began replacing Danish loanwords with new words derived from existing Old Norse roots. Although they achieved their independence in 1944, their strong nationalistic sentiments didn’t die down. Twenty years later, they established an official committee that is, among other things, tasked with promoting the creation and use of Icelandic words for new concepts, such as mobile phone and iPad, which might have otherwise entered the language in the form of loanwords.
7. Icelanders are great at recycling words.
Icelanders make new words through the combination of existing words or roots. The Icelandic word for astronaut is geimfari (the combination of Icelandic words for space and traveler). The word for television is sjónvarp (sight + band). The word for telephone is sími (thread), and the word for mobile telephone is farsimi (travel + telephone). The word for computer is tölva (digits + seer), and the word for iPad is spjaldtölva (pad + computer). And you get the point…
8. Some Icelandic words fail.
Despite attempts to create new Icelandic words for everything, loanwords sometimes persist. For instance, the word spergilkál (asparagus + cabbage) was created for broccoli, but Icelanders tend to use brokkólí, and the word bjúgaldin (sausage + fruit) was created for banana, but Icelanders use banani.
9. Icelanders speak on the inhale.
Technically, when Icelanders speak on the inhale, they are making something called an ingressive sound. They tend to do it with the word já (yes).
10. Icelandic nouns have up to 16 unique forms.
Icelandic is considered a highly inflected language. A noun, which can be masculine, feminine, or neuter, typically has an indefinite and a definitive form, which each have a singular and a plural form, which each decline in the nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive cases. In other words, nouns have up to 16 unique forms. So, for example, the Icelandic word hæstiréttur (supreme court) can appear as follows: hæstiréttur, hæstirétturinn, hæstarétt, hæstaréttinn, hæstarétti, hæstaréttinum, hæstaréttar, hæstaréttarins, hæsturéttir, hæsturéttirnir, hæsturétti, hæsturéttina, hæsturéttum, hæsturéttunum, hæsturétta, and hæsturéttanna. And things only escalate for verbs and adjectives, which can take on hundreds of unique forms. At 227 forms, the Icelandic word sannsögull (truthful) is considered one of the most complicated ones. Let’s just leave it at that.
11. If you’re going to learn one Icelandic word, let it be jæja.
Icelanders use the word jæja all the time, and it doesn’t change forms, grammatically-speaking. It means ‘well’, ‘okay, so…’, or ‘alright, shall we go’.
12. Icelanders can get a bit ‘creative’ when it comes to translating film titles.
Some American films have some rather strange titles in Icelandic. Lethal Weapon is Tveir á toppnum (Two at the top), Look Who’s Talking is Pottormur í pabbaleit (A rugrat looking for a dad), and North by Northwest is Þriðji maðurinn ósýnilegi (The invisible third man), to name a few.
13. Icelanders say please in a roundabout way.
Although Icelanders have a way of asking for something politely, there’s no really great word for please. Perhaps that’s why some Icelanders use the word plís, which is just the English word please spelled according to Icelandic convention.
14. In Iceland, you can’t name your kid Cesil or Raymond.
Icelanders have to choose names from a list of pre-approved names or send an application for a never-before-used name to the Icelandic Naming Committee, which will only approve it if it abides by the rules of orthography and grammar. Although it doesn’t happen often, the committee can also reject a name based on the fact that it might cause its bearer embarrassment. The name Satanía was rejected on that ground.
15. It’s possible to learn Icelandic in a week.
It’s possible to learn Icelandic in a week if you happen to be a savant like Daniel Tammet, who can incidentally recite Pi to 22,500 decimal places. Otherwise, not so much.
Anna Andersen is an editor living in Austin, Texas. She was born and raised in the United States, but spent the bulk of her twenties living in Reykjavik, Iceland. She is Icelandic in the sense that her parents are Icelandic and she has dual citizenship. She spoke only Icelandic until she started preschool and discovered that nobody could understand her. From that point on, although her parents continued to speak to her in Icelandic, she thought it was more practical to speak English. Today, people think she sounds a little bit like a foreigner when she speaks either one of her native languages. Such is life!