, though both Germanic
languages, couldn't have developed more differently. While English went through a wrenching change that threw the writing system, pronunciation, and grammar into chaos (witness the dramatic changes between Old English
and Middle English
), Icelandic has been extremely isolated for the duration of its development. The writing system
was standardized in about the twelfth century, and hasn't really changed much since then. While English grammar jumped from extremely inflectional
to extremely analytical
, Icelandic grammar has changed so little that medieval texts and modern novels exhibit little difference. The language has also been very resistant to foreign borrowings (witness tölva
, 'number prophetess', for computer).
While many elements of the language are static, pronunciation has changed since the days of the sagas. This means that Icelandic spelling is generally phonetic, but like German there are some idiosyncracies. Nonetheless, it is a beautiful and efficient expression of the intricacies of Icelandic pronunciation, some of which can be extremely foreign to English ears.
These are clear, unadultered vowel sounds. English tends to glide everything, so try to ensure that you pronounce the vowel and the vowel only. With vowels, what you see is usually what you get. The only circumstance under which a vowel might change quality is during elision. English pronunciations are American unless otherwise noted.
- A a - father, hot (American), bar (British)
- E e - feather, bed
- É é - yes yellow
- I i - sin, winner
- Í í - feed, plead
- O o - song, coffee, law
- U u - Not present in English, the short ü of German, as in Mütter. The u of French, as in tu. Make a short i sound as in win and round your lips as much as possible.
- Ú ú - soon, choose
- Y y - Same as I i
- Ý ý - Same as Í í
- Ö ö - sir, furl
Two vowel sounds smooshed together. Most have direct equivalents to English, so this isn't a new concept. You'll notice that some of the accented characters above represented monophthongs, while some here represent diphthongs. This is because of the gradual compromise of the original spelling system, which used accented characters for pure sounds and other special characters for blended sounds.
- Á á - house, wow
- Ó ó - note, loan (depending on your dialect, it's a blending of the long 'o' sound and the long 'u'. Think of the drawled way in which a Southerner pronounces a long 'o' and you'll have it)
- Æ æ - I, sigh
- AU au - Not present in English, a blending of 'ö' and 'u'. Try saying 'bay' with your lips rounded.
- EI ei - case, reign (this is the one time when its OK to say the English long 'a' like it's usually pronounced. In most other languages you'll be scolded for making it a diphthong)
- EY ey - Same as EI ei
The Icelandic vowel system for monophthongs can be arranged as follows in terms of quality:
Front Central Back
High (close) í ú
High mid i u
Low mid e ö o
Low (open) a
There is also a distinction between tense
vowels (Breið sérhljóð
, 'the broad vowels') and lax
vowels (Grönn sérhljóð
, 'the thin vowels'). Tense vowels are pronounced with the vocal chords held tense, while lax vowels (surprise) are pronounced with the vocal chords held lax. Diphthongs are universally tense.
High í ú i u
High mid ei ó au e ö
Low æ á a o
There is less consistancy among consonants than vowels, although still nowhere near the dizzying levels of complexity and irregularity possesed by English.
Icelandic makes an important distinction between single and double consonants. Example words are given, and for certain consonants that have divergent pronunciations, the actual pronunciation is included. These pronunciations only cover consonants when present by themselves, the changes in pronunciation when doubled are covered farther below.
- B b - Word initial it is an English b similar to bet: borð (table). Within a word it sounds more like an English p, but unaspirated as in French: rabba (to chat).
- D d - Word initial it is an English d: dagur (day). Within a word it is an unaspirated English t: raddar (voice). It is always hard, never soft or slurred as in shudder of sold.
- Ð ð - A voiced spirant directly parallel to the hard th of English as in the or bathe: staður (place). It is usually slightly softer in Icelandic. Before k it becomes unvoiced as in thin or Kenneth: maðkur (maggot).(
- F f - Word initial and before t, k, or s it is the same as finger or lift: flug (flight), oft (often). Otherwise it is pronounced like v: hafa (to have). At the end of a word and between vowels fl, fn, and sometimes fð are pronounced as if the f was an unaspirated p. Before consonants the f becomes a v.
- G g - Very flexible.
- Word initial before back and central vowels (a, á, u, ú, ö, o, ó) it is an unaspirated English g as in gate: gaman (fun)
- Word initial before front vowels (e, i, í, y, ý, æ, ei, ey) it is an English gy sound (it would be expressed gj in Icelandic spelling): getur/gjetur (can you..)
- Preceeded by a consonant it is an unaspirated English k. Depending on what vowel follows it, it may be paired with an English y sound. To illustrate the difference between the front and back vowel articulations bjargi (the singular dative of 'rock') is pronounced byahr-kyih, whereas bjarga (the plural accusative of 'rock') is pronounced byahr-kah.
- Between vowels it usually follows the rules of 1 and 2, but if the vowel following it is an ending a or u, it becomes a voiced spirant. There is no equivalent to this in English, and no real way of describing it. It is equivalent to sagen in German: dagur (day). Before i or j it becomes an English y sound: segja (to say).
- Before s or t, it is always a voiceless spirant as in loch: sagt (said)
- H h - Word initial it is exactly like an English h: hann (he) The combination hv is equivalent to the formal pronunciation of what and whale (which is different from the pronunciation of wait and wail): hvar (where). In colloquial speech this sometimes becomes an English kv sound.
- J j - An English y sound: já (yes)
- K k - Similarly to g, k is equivalent to an English k before back vowels and equivalent to an English ky before front vowels.
- L l - An English l as in leave. Not as hollow as the l of kill. læra (to learn)
- M m - An English m sound: maður (man)
- N n - An English n sound: nóg (enough)
- P p - Word initial an English p: Páll (Paul) Loses its aspiration within a word (like a French p): kaupa (to buy). When before an s, t, or k it becomes an f: skips (of ships).
- R r - The Icelandic r is trilled, as in Spanish rr: Reykjavík (Icelandic capital city). This includes within words, although in rapid speech it may be reduced to a tongue-flap as in Spanish r. In inflectional endings it is always a tongue-flap: maður (man)
- S s - An English s sound as in sing or this: saman (together). It is never voiced as in his.
- T t - An English t sound as in tall or bat: tala (to speak). Never slurred as in butter.
- V v - An English v sound: vegur (way)
- X x - Similar to an English x sound, but the initial k is replaced with a voiceless spirant as in loch: lax (law)
- Z z - Not used among many writers and variably included in the orthography, it can be used to represent the assimilation of certain consonants in modern speech into an s sound. Never voiced as in zoo.
- Þ þ - A soft English th sound as in thick: þetta (this)
Unlike English, Icelandic makes an important distinctions between lengths of vowels and consonants. Vowels can either have single or double length, and likewise for consonants. In this case 'length' has nothing to do with vowel quality as it does in English, but rather indicates how long the vowel is held. A long vowel is intoned for two times as long as a short vowel. It's as if two of the vowels were said in a row. Finnish employes a similar system (though the languages aren't related). These changes in length can make a literal change in the word or its inflection, so they cannot be ignored. Vowel length is not directly marked in written Icelandic and has nothing to do with accents. It can be deduced from the presence of doubled consonants and consonant clusters.
All Icelandic vowels are long if they are followed by a single consonant or no consonant at all. They will also be long if followed by a consonant cluster beginning with p, t, k, or s and ending with j, r, or v. Otherwise, if more one consonant follows the vowel, it is short.
Lengthened consonants are consistantly indicated by doubling the consonant. Just like vowels, they are held for two times as long as a normal consonant, as if the consonant was being repeated twice. A long vowel can never preface a long consonant. Certain combinations have special features:
- PP pp - Has a preaspiration, for which English has no equivalent. It is a small breath of air before the consonant, like a very clipped h.
- TT tt - Preaspirated.
- KK kk - Preaspirated.
- LL ll - Pronounced like the end of the word pedal, a slurred blending of d and l.
- NN nn - When preceeded by diphthongs or ý, and followed by a vowel, r, or in final position, nn is pronounced as dn. The nn of inflected definite articles does not follow this rule.
The stress of an Icelandic word almost always falls on the first syllable. The only exception to this is in words with modifying prefixes attatched. These are fairly rare, so its safe to stick with the first syllable for the majority of Icelandic words.
In rapid colloquial speech, unstressed vowels at the end of words are often elided into initial vowels in the next words. Since the stress falls on the first syllable of each word, the initial vowel of the next word is stronger than the ending of the previous word.
Stefán Einarsson, Icelandic. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1945
Neijmann, Daisy L., Colloquial Icelandic. London: Routledge, 2001
Thanks to Vrioniavas for corrections!