Brushing Up on Our Icelandic - a Phonological Perspective
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Brushing Up on Our Icelandic - a Phonological Perspective

Icelandic, though older and more Norse than the other Germanic languages, is actually not so different, and the variations of sound that divide Icelandic from Norwegian, German, or English can be investigated using simple tools from phonology.

In this discussion we shall offer some linguistic insight to help the reader with Icelandic. Many people have been showing off their vast wisdom for languages by proposing that Icelandic is one of the most difficult languages to learn. Nonsense. For one, no language is more difficult than the other to learn, depending on one's perspective. The Germanic-dominated internet, whose lingua franca is arguably still English, will of course be rife with proposals that Chinese languages are the most difficult; Chinese has nothing to do with Germanic. Icelandic, found just below Chinese on many "hardest" lists, however, does have something to do with English. With a little guidance, an astute student of language can see that the differences between Icelandic and other Germanic languages are the results of some very simple sound alternations that we can investigate using tools from phonology. As in all of our articles, our discussion will concern sound. We operate under the assumption that, regardless of relationships, the learner of any new language will have to live with a new set of spelling rules.

We can investigate as easily as with a look at the basic greetings read by miss Natalia on Expertvillage’s Icelandic video ( We will spare the reader a full IPA transcription of entire words, and stick to a hopefully clear American-English characterization, but we will observe the custom of all this writer’s articles, in which individual sounds are marked in IPA (i.e., “you” begins with /j/, the consonant sound of “y” in English).

As we’ll see by the examples, the genes of Old Norse make Icelandic and modern Norwegian (bokmål) share a lot of behaviors.

IS: Góðan daginn! EN: Good day! NO, SV: God dag! DE: Guten Tag!

The way góðan daginn is pronounced is “go-than d-eye-in.” Now, that daginn should be familiar. Not only is it the word for English day, which varies therefrom only in the main vowel, but also exhibits behavior from Norwegian: when /g/ is amongst front vowels, it gets softened (lenition) to /j/, as in Norwegian vegen, “the road,” pronounced “v-eye-in.”

IS: Góða kvöldið! NO: God kveld! EN: Good afternoon!

Notice that the /ø/ in kvöldið is simply the lip-rounded version of /e/ in kveld. Simple but related vowel alternations are to be found all over cognate words in Germanic languages.

This one, then, should be pretty self-explanatory:

IS: Góða nótt! NO: God natt!

Now let's look at something longer:

IS: Hvernig hefurðu það? NO: Hvordan har du det? EN: How do you have it? (How's it going?)

This one can still be broken down into familiar constituents. As regards hefurðu, that is the verb “to have” with “you” stuck to the end of it. “Hefur” should sound and look awfully similar to English “have” –remember that /f/ and /v/ are the same sound, being unvoiced and voiced, respectively. Further, Icelandic has simply hardened (fortition) the /h/ sound of hvernig and hvordan into /k/, so it sounds like "kveer-nee."

The reader is probably wondering about ð and þ. The first is just a voiced th like in brother, and its IPA symbol, /ð/, speaks right to the Icelandic alphabet. þ, or thorn, goes all the way back to futhark (fuþark), the old Nordic rune alphabet. It’s the same as English th as in breath. These two symbols are the voiced and unvoiced versions of each other.

Here's another good one:

Ég hef það fínt. En þú? SV Jag har det bra. Och du?

That's pronounced "yeh hef thath feent. En thu?"  The /j/ at the beginning of "Ég" should be familiar from Swedish /jag/ and Norwegian /jai/. Also, does this þú (the ðu in hefurðu) remind us of the English of a certain Bard? It should. For an exploration of thou, see our article on French "ou." If still lost about það or det, consider that German also uses das in this situation, which means both "that" and "it." When we consider það as cognate to "that," it should be clearer. So we should have put together by now that the phrase in English is "I have it good. And you?"

As we can now see, the languages are not so different. Icelandic is regarded as kind of the Cadillac of Germanic languages because so few of us speak it, because it's so unique phonetically and phonologically, and because it's so darn old --imagine if today we still spoke Mittelhochdeutsch or Eald Anglisc. It's like a rosetta stone for the older Germanic languages, indispensible at the beginning of formal linguistic studies by such as Jakob Grimm. However, that strangeness and oldness is to our advantage, and should enrich our understanding of European languages.

See also:

Related keywords: hemispheric localism
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