Guide to the Icelandic Language: 20 Basic Phrases for Travelers

If you want to visit Iceland, it would be handy to know at least the some basic phrases and sounds spoken in the country. Most Icelanders speak multiple languages in addition to their official tongue, and the literacy rate in this country reaches 100 percent. Around 97 percent of Icelanders speak their mother language, Icelandic.

In this article, we will bring you closer to the Icelandic language, as well as its structure and history.

What Language Do People Speak in Iceland?

Before you start teaching yourself how to speak the language, let’s answer a couple of crucial questions: what is the language in Iceland and where did it come from?

The Iceland official language is Icelandic, an Indo-European language from the sub-group of North Germanic languages. Icelandic is closely related to Faroese and Norwegian, with slight traces of Celtic influence that dates back to ancient Icelandic literature.

The Icelandic native language hasn’t been influenced much by other cultures and languages. As a result of keeping its origins, the language has changed very little from the time the country was settled in the ninth century. It used to be very similar to Norwegian until the 14th century when the Norwegian language started to change under the influence of its surrounding countries and their languages, Swedish and Danish.

Iceland has refused to change its language, which is why Icelandic school children today can easily understand any text from the 12th century. Language purism is very important in Iceland, and they rarely adopt foreign words for modern terms. Instead, they invent new words, combine the words they already have to come up with new terms, or give old words new meanings. 

Keeping their mother tongue free of foreign influence is a well-preserved tradition in this country.

The History Of Iceland’s Language

For anyone wondering what is spoken in Iceland and why there aren’t several languages in the country, it will be interesting to learn about the linguistic homogeneity in this unique land.

The official Iceland language, Icelandic, is an insular one, which means foreign influences haven’t changed its structure. The language had hardly changed at all since the 9th and 10th centuries when the land’s first settlers arrived.

What is the language of Iceland’s biggest influence? During the 18th century, a strong Danish influence threatened the integrity of the Icelandic language and Danish became a minority language in Iceland under the Danish rule. However, Icelanders continued to use Icelandic for literary purposes and managed to find a way past the influence. They kept the origins of their mother tongue, and as a result, today’s Icelandic speakers understand old scripts that date back to the 12th and 13th centuries.

Other Languages: What Languages are Spoken in Iceland?

Many visitors wonder what other languages are spoken in Iceland, aside from their native Icelandic language, and if there is more than one version of Icelandic. While there are some minor regional differences, there aren’t distinct dialects. Iceland is a small country and nearly all Icelanders speak their mother language in the same form.

However, all those who wonder if people in Iceland speak English will be happy to know that a majority of Icelanders are multilingual. Most residents can speak fluent English, but other languages as well, such as German, Danish, French and Spanish. In Icelandic schools, all students must learn English and another Scandinavian language in addition to their mother tongue.

Other languages spoken in Iceland include Polish, Lithuanian, Thai, Filipino, and Portuguese.

The Icelandic Alphabet and Pronunciation

While you don’t necessarily need to learn the Icelandic language if you’re planning on visiting this scenic country, getting familiar with the Icelandic alphabet and pronunciation can give you a leg up on your upcoming adventure. With 32 letters, including some unique characters like Ð (Eth), Þ (Thorn), and Æ (Ae), the Icelandic alphabet offers a fascinating glimpse into Iceland’s linguistic past. 

Here are some noteworthy Icelandic letters and their pronunciation to help you get started:

Á á [au̯] pronounced ‘ow’ as in cow

Ð ð [ɛð̠] pronounced ‘th’ as in ‘the’

É é [jɛ] pronounced as yeah

F f [ɛfː] pronounced as a regular ‘f’ as in Finland

I i [ɪ] pronounced as the letter ‘i’ in win

Í í [i] pronounced as ‘ee’ as in ‘we’

J j [jɔð̠] pronounced as a ‘y’ like in ‘year’

O o [ɔ] pronounced as an ‘o’ like ‘four’

Ó ó [ou̯] pronounced as ‘oh’

R r [ɛr] always rolled

Ú ú [u] pronounced ‘ou’ as in you

X x [ɛxs] pronounced as a hard ‘khs’ as in Bach

Y y [ʏfsɪlɔn ɪ] see i

Ý ý [ʏfsɪlɔn i] see í

Þ þ [θ̠ɔrn̥] pronounced ‘th’ as in thing

Æ æ [ai̯] pronounced ‘eye’ 

Ö ö [œ] pronounced ‘e’ as in end

20 Basic Icelandic Phrases for Travelers

Ready to learn how to speak Icelandic? Start out with these basic Icelandic phrases! Whether you’re wandering the streets of Reykjavik or trekking through the rugged landscapes of Iceland’s countryside, these 20 basic Icelandic words and phrases will help you navigate daily interactions and immerse yourself in the local culture. 

  1. Hello – Halló – Pronounced: HAHT-loh
  2. Good morning – Góðan dag – Pronounced: GOH-than dahg
  3. Good evening – Gott kvöld – Pronounced: GOHT kvehld
  4. Goodbye – Bless – Pronounced: bles
  5. Please – Vinsamlegast – Pronounced: VEEN-sahm-leh-gahst
  6. Thank you – Takk – Pronounced: tahk
  7. Yes – Já – Pronounced: yow (like ‘yell’ without the ‘ell’)
  8. No – Nei – Pronounced: nay
  9. Excuse me – Afsakið – Pronounced: AHF-sah-keeth
  10.  I’m sorry – Fyrirgefðu – Pronounced: FEER-ir-geh-fthu
  11.  Where is…? – Hvar er…? – Pronounced: kvar ehr
  12.  How much is this? – Hvað kostar þetta? – Pronounced: kvath kostar thet-tah
  13.  Do you speak English? – Talar þú ensku? – Pronounced: TAH-lahr thoo EHN-skoo
  14.  I don’t understand – Ég skil ekki – Pronounced: yehg skil EH-kee
  15.  Can you help me? – Getur þú hjálpað mér? – Pronounced: geh-tuhr thoo HYOWL-path mayr
  16.  What time is it? – Hvað er klukkan? – Pronounced: kvath ehr KLH-kuh-n
  17.  I would like… – Ég ætla að… – Pronounced: yehg AYT-lah ath
  18.  Where is the bathroom? – Hvar er klósettið? – Pronounced: kvar ehr KLOW-seht-eeth
  19.  Cheers! – Skál! – Pronounced: skowl
  20.  Can I have the bill, please? – Get ég fá reikninginn, vinsamlegast? – Pronounced: geh-t yeg fow REY-knih-ihn, VEEN-sahm-leh-gahst?

Bonus: Reykjavik. Pronounced: RAY-kyah-vik.

Is Icelandic a Language That’s Hard to Learn?

If you’re traveling to Iceland in the near future, you may also be wondering: can Icelandic be learned quickly? Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to that. The speed at which you learn a new language depends on several factors, such as the amount of time you dedicate to learning, the language’s difficulty, and more. However, the general consensus is that Icelandic is a relatively challenging language to learn, classified by the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) as a category IV language, meaning it requires at least 1100 hours or 44 weeks of study to achieve fluency.

What Language is Iceland’s Most Similar to?

While Iceland has managed to preserve its unique cultural and linguistic heritage by remaining mostly isolated from external influences, the Icelandic language shares a deep connection with Faroese and Norwegian, both of which can be traced back to their common roots in Old Norse. Although these languages are geographically separated, they share some similarities, particularly in their complex grammar structures.

Fun Facts About Iceland Language

Icelandic Became The Official National Language In 2011

Although Icelanders have used their native language throughout the entire history of the country, Icelandic didn’t become the official language of Iceland until 2011. The same year, Icelandic Sign Language became the official language of Iceland’s deaf community.

Speaking Icelandic Is Like Travelling Through Time

The Icelandic language has changed astonishingly little over time, and Icelanders have made great efforts to keep the same dialect spoken for centuries. It remains the closest relative to ancient Faroese. Speaking Icelandic is the closest to time travel you can get as a tourist anywhere in the world.

A Computer Is Called A Witch Of Numbers In Iceland

Icelandic linguists aim to maintain the original structure of their mother language when developing a modern vocabulary. As times change and centuries go by, topics of conversation change drastically and the need for new words and terms emerge. 

Icelanders have been facing two options when it comes to new, modern terms – to adopt foreign words, or to create their own. They’ve decided to get creative and develop new terms.

The word “computer” didn’t exist in the Iceland language in the Middle Ages, so linguists created a new term – tölva.

The new word consists of two words: tala (number) and völva (a witch or a fortune-teller)- which makes the literal translation of the word computer in Icelandic as the witch of numbers!

Now that you’ve learned about the language of Iceland, getting ready for a unique time-traveling adventure is all that’s left for you to do. 

Contact us for more information about getting around this beautiful island, and browse our collection of Iceland camper rentals today! We also recommend exploring our comprehensive Iceland travel guide.

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