A lesson in the Icelandic language
1,000 years, 350,000 speakers, and 50 words for snow. The Icelandic language is something else.
Only 350,000 people speak Icelandic, which is among the world’s oldest languages. Listening to it is like traveling through time—due to the nation’s geographic isolation and conscious preservation it has hardly changed for a thousand years. Preserved ancient texts can be read by today’s schoolchildren.
- In Iceland, creating new words for technological innovation is a national pastime, especially since the 19th century. Usually they are based on existing ones.
- The word for telephone is sími, from an ancient word for long thread.
- The word for computer is tölva – a fusion of tala (number) and völva (prophetess).
- The word for helicopter is þyrla, from a verb meaning twirl.
- Icelandic has three additional letters: Æ/æ (sometimes written as “ae”) is pronounced like the “i” in tide. Ð/ð (sometimes written as “d”) is pronounced like the “th” in there. Þ/þ (sometimes written as “th”) is pronounced like the “th” in think.
- Of course, Icelanders have selected their favorite word in a national referendum: Ljósmóðir (mother of light) is the Icelandic word for midwife.
- Icelandic contains approximately 50 words for snow. These include skæðadrífa, kafaldsmyglingur, él, snjóhraglandi and hundslappadrífa. For some reason, the most popular one is snjór.
- Be sure to address Icelanders by their first name, even if they’re a music icon (Björk) or the world’s first female President (Vigdís). In fact, our phone book is listed alphabetically by first names.
- Iceland has a government-run committee that decides which names are appropriate for giving to newborns.
A little Icelandic small talk
A guide to pronunciation is given in parenthesis.
Hello – Halló (ha-loh)
Hi – Hæ (hai)
Good morning/afternoon – Góðan daginn (goh-than dai-yin)
Good evening – Gott kvöld (goht-kvohld)
Good night – Góða nótt (goh-tha noht)
Goodbye – Bless (blehss)
Bye – Bæ (bai)
See you later – Sjáumst (syaumst)
Thank you very much – Takk fyrir (tahk fe-reer)
You’re welcome – Það var ekkert (thah vahr ehk-kert)
Yes – Já (yau)
No – Nei (nay)
Maybe – Kannski (kahn-skee)
Okay – Allt í lagi (allt ee lai-yi)
I love you – Ég elska þig (yeh elska thih)
My name is – Ég heiti (yeh hay-ti)
One hot dog with everything please – Eina með öllu, takk (ay-na meth oddlu takk)
Where can I find... – Hvar finn ég... (kvahr finn yeh…)
I don’t speak Icelandic – Ég tala ekki íslensku (yeh tah-la eh-ki ees-lensku)
In 2010, a volcanic eruption in Iceland resulted in large ash clouds that caused enormous disruption to air travel across Europe for a week. The Eyjafjallajökull volcano hit global headlines, and caused headaches for news reporters fumbling to pronounce it correctly (or inventing new ways to avoid saying its 16-letter name). The pronunciation isn't so hard - listen at 2:15 for how to break it down and say it. Note that it's a compound name: eyja means island, fjalla means mountain, and jökull means glacier.
Read more about the language online at Visit Iceland.
Intrigued, and feel like doing some further study? Maybe start here: Icelandic Online.
You can also learn a little Icelandic on board our flights.