Icelandic Phrases You Should Know
Icelandic is a notoriously difficult language for foreigners to learn. Like many other things in Iceland, the country’s isolation has meant that the language has remained uninfluenced by outside sources and therefore unchanged for decades. Pronunciation can take practice and the alphabet contains letters that don’t appear in the English alphabet, which is why you may stumble over place names across the country.
English is taught from a young age in Iceland, meaning there will rarely be any huge barrier to understanding when visiting. However, as it is such a huge part of Icelandic culture, learning a few key phrases will never go amiss. Let’s take a look at some basics when it comes to speaking Icelandic.
Pronouncing Icelandic Phrases
It’s useful to take an overview of key differences in pronunciation between English and Icelandic. As a Germanic language, Icelandic shares common elements with Scandinavian languages, such as Norwegian, Dutch, or German. As a result, some knowledge of these languages might help when tackling Icelandic phrases.
First of all, let’s take a look at the letters in Icelandic that do not exist in the English alphabet. These letters are Þ (þ), pronounced “thorn”, and Ð (ð), pronounced in modern English as “eth” or “edh”.
Thorn (Þ) is pronounced as a voiceless fricative “th”, like the first sound in the English word “thin”. Eth (Ð) is a voiced fricative, as in the starting sound in English words like “there”. These two letters
appear frequently in the Icelandic language so it’s great to understand what they represent.
Other consonants can also be tricky to pronounce for English speakers. In other languages, these often remain similar, while Icelandic is sometimes completely different to what you’d expect. See below for some of the most notable different consonant pronunciations.
|F||Beginning of word / Between vowels - “f”
Before l - “n” or “b”
|G||Beginning of word - “g”
Between vowels / End of word - soft throaty “g”
|J||Beginning of word - “y”
Otherwise aspirated before “y” sound
|pp, tt, kk||All aspirated (small puff of air)|
Vowels in Germanic languages like Icelandic work a little differently than in English. There is generally less variation in how the same vowel is pronounced than in English, making it a little less complicated. Here is how each vowel is pronounced in Icelandic.
|É, é||Short "yeah"|
|U||like German "für"|
|ei / ey||cave|
Common Greeting Phrases
As mentioned, greeting people will often happen in English when you are visiting Iceland as a tourist. It’s always nice to try your hand (or tongue) at some native phrases when talking to locals. Here are a few things to drop into conversation to impress your conversation partners!
Good morning / Good afternoon
The most common greeting heard in Iceland is “Góðan daginn”, translating to “good day” in English. This phrase is pronounced “go-than-n die-in” and is a polite and friendly way to greet people around Iceland.
You can also say “Hæ” or “Halló”, which are not dissimilar from English “hi” and “hello” respectively.
To bid farewell to your Icelandic acquaintances, you can say “bless”. This simply means bye or goodbye, which can be repeated twice to be “bless bless”.
There isn’t actually any way to simply say please in Icelandic. Tone and conditional verbs are typically used in questions to denote politeness rather than using a specific word to denote “please”.
To thank people around Iceland, you can just simply say “takk”, pronounced as “tah-k”, which is commonly said across Scandinavian languages. For a more formal alternative, “Þakka þér” is used,
pronounced “thah-kah th-yeh-r”.
To apologise in Icelandic, the less formal option is “afsakið” (af-sah-kith). If you need to interrupt people or push past them, this can also be the equivalent of “excuse me”.
Yes / No
Simple but vital words to know in any language - “Já” for yes and “nei” for no.
Now you know how to be polite in Iceland, you might be after some important phrases for travelling around Iceland. These can be useful if there is ever a language barrier between you and locals or if you want to be a little more adventurous!
If you’re travelling around Iceland or you want to find a specific landmark in the local area, it’s always useful to be able to ask where it is. Asking for directions is never something to be embarrassed about, so here’s how! “Hvar er…” is the phrase you’ll need, pronounced “kva-r e-r”, followed by the name of the location or facility you need.
I don’t understand
It might also be a good idea to be able to communicate your lack of understanding of what someone else is saying, in which case you can use “Ég skil ekki”.
This is an important Icelandic phrase. If you’re in need of quick assistance, “hjálp” gets your message across quickly. “Eldur” meaning fire and “hættu” meaning stop can also both be useful words in an emergency.
When drinking to something or getting a drink with friends or family, you may wish to ‘cheers’ your group. To do so in Icelandic, you can say “Skál”.
Another unique part of the Icelandic language is our names. Icelandic names are distinctive, both in spelling and in formation, and may be easier to pronounce when you understand what they really mean. To form an Icelandic surname, it is traditional to take the name of your father and add a suffix of either “son” for a boy or “daughter” for a girl. For example, if a boy is born to a couple named Magnus and Anna, this boy’s surname would be “Magnusson”. If this same couple bore a daughter, her surname would be “Magnusdottir”, “dottir” meaning daughter in Icelandic.
While in other countries surnames change upon marriage to a man, women in Iceland typically keep their original surname even after being joined in marriage. This patronymic system means that people are rarely known by surnames, and Icelanders are often even listed in phonebooks by firstname.
Now you’re ready to take Iceland by storm knowing you have all the linguistic tools at your disposal. To prepare even more, learn some of the most interesting facts about Iceland in our blog. Use your
newfound phrases wherever you are in Iceland in one of our fantastic Icelandic hotels.