THIS ARTICLE IS A WORK IN PROGRESS
Icelandic (íslenska [ˈiːs(t)lɛnska]) is the language spoken in Iceland by 330 thousand people (and by a few thousands in Denmark, USA and Canada (mainly Manitoba)) and it belongs to the Northern Germanic language family. It is an insular language, meaning it does not belong to the continental Scandinavian languages group (Danish, Norwegian and Swedish) meaning it remained Isolated for many centuries and, thus, retained many features of Old Norse that disappeared from the continental Scandinavian languages throughout the centuries (they became more simple).
It was brought to Iceland by Vikings settlers who spoke a western dialect of Old Norse in the 8th century and, due to its aforementioned geographical location, it remained isolated and received little influence from other languages throughout the centuries. Icelandic and Old Norse differ mostly in the spoken aspect but some changes in the grammar did occur (Old Norse had dual pronouns and Icelandic doesn't, for example). Icelandic has more vowels than Old Norse and some minor changes happened in the grammar. One could argue that if an Icelander traveled back in time to the Viking age or if a Viking were to travel to present-day Iceland and speak to an Icelander, they would have very little difficulty communicating with each other, though that's a moot subject because there are little to no historical written documents in Old Norse for comparison.
Because Icelandic is such a small language, the resources to learn it are very limited. If one wants to learn it, it is advised to learn another Scandinavian language before transitioning to Icelandic. Icelandic grammar is much more complicated than that of Norwegian, Swedish and Danish but the catch is that most grammar features that exist in Icelandic also exist in the continental languages in a more dumbed down manner.
Icelandic phonology can be a bit difficult depending on your first language. It is mostly phonetic and letters like þ and ð can pose difficulties. Unlike Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, Icelandic is not a tonal language and Iceland is a country that has literally no regional dialects.
Icelandic Grammar is overall very irregular. Verbs are very irregular and conjugate in two tense (past and present) and two moods (indicative and subjunctive). Nouns have three genders (masculine, feminine and neuter), four cases (nominative, accusative, dative and genitive) and their inflection is often irregular. There is no indefinite article (though words like "some" and "few" can be used as such) and, as in all Scandinavian languages, the definite article is an ending put at the end of the word (orð = (a) word, orðið = the word).
Icelandic vocabulary is very pure. It has very few loanwords from Latin, Germanic/Low German, Greek or French.
Verb conjugation in Icelandic is mostly unpredictable and random. Verbs are divided in 4 groups: -ar, -ir and -ur verbs (the fourth group being for the ones that don't fall in the previous three ones). All verbs (except for a handful of exceptions) in their infinitive forms end in -a, thus it's impossible to tell just by looking at the verb's infinitive form if it is a -ar, -ir or -ur verb.
A -ar verb (like að tala = to speak) is a verb that when conjugated in the singular third person present tense (he speaks) takes the ending -ar. So að tala > to speak > hann talar > he speaks. There are many verbs that fall in this category. Examples are að nota (to use), að borða (to eat), að kasta (to throw) and að trufla (to bother).
A -ir verb (like að reyna= to try) is a verb that when conjugated in the singular third person present tense (he tries) takes the ending -ir. So að reyna > to try > hann reynir > he tries. There are many verbs that fall in this category. Examples are að senda (to send), að samþykkja (to consent), að heimsækja (to visit) and að heyra (to hear).
-Ar and -ir verbs behave fairly regularly and, once you identify they are -ar/-ir verbs, the conjugation of the present and past tense and the formation of the past participle become pretty predictable.
A -ur verb (like að verða = to become) is a verb that when conjugated in the singular third person present tense (he becomes) takes the ending -ur. So að verða > to become > hann verður > he becomes. There are many verbs that fall in this category. Examples are að selja (to sell), að velja (to choose), að skjóta (to shoot) and að aka (to drive).
-Ur verbs are the most unpredictable ones. They come with vowel shifts and sometimes the past tense bears little to no resemblance to the present tense. Examples:
- að verða > to become
- við verðum > we become
- við urðum > we became (ver- suddenly becomes ur-)
And, in more extreme cases:
- að valda > to cause
- við völdum > we cause
- við ollum > we caused (val- suddenly becomes oll-)
The fourth group is the exception group. Verbs like að vera, að sjá, að bera and að muna (there are others) have all their own conjugation patterns and the only way is to memorize them. Mostly ruleless.
Icelandic verbs also come with a thing called mediopassive voice (miðmynd) which exists in most (transitive) verbs. It has five uses and is characterized by the ending -st:
- Reflexivity—The middle voice form of a verb may be used in lieu of a reflexive pronoun, for example: Þór klæðir sig ⇒ Þór klæðist (‘Þór gets dressed’)
- Reciprocity—Here the middle voice is used to mean ‘each other’, for example: Þór talar við Stefán og Stefán talar við Þór ⇒ Þór og Stefán talast við (‘Þór and Stefán talk to each other’)
- An alternative meaning—As previously mentioned, some middle voice verbs carry different meanings than their counterparts. Examples include koma (‘to come’) becoming komast (‘to get there’) and gera (‘to do’) becoming gerast (‘to happen’)
- The passive—In certain situations, the middle voice may express an idea for which English would use the passive. For example, the phrase, Bíllinn sést ekki, translates as ‘The car cannot be seen’. Most often the middle voice is used in this context when there is no direct reference to any grammatical person.
- In reported speech—When the subject of reported speech is the same of that reporting, the middle voice may be used. For example, Hann sagðist ekki lesa bókina, translates to, 'He said (that) he didn't read the book'. Note three special features of this construction: 1) the use of the infinitive 'lesa' in the subordinate clause; 2) the placement of 'ekki'; and 3) the lack of the complementizer 'að', corresponding to English 'that'.
Nouns in Icelandic inflect in four cases: Nominative, Accusative, Dative and Genitive and can be either masculine, feminine or neuter gendered. It is worth memorizing their abbreviations for when you're using BÍN:
- Nominative = Nefnifall = Nf.
- Accusative = Þolfall = Þf.
- Dative = Þágufall = Þgf.
- Genitive = Eignarfall = Ef.
There are a few patterns you can learn and keep in mind in order to be able to guess the gender of a noun but don't count on them 100%. Pattern-based guesswork is possible but you'll have to simply memorize the genders 99% of the time. The patterns described below are NOT absolute, meaning there are exceptions everywhere in this language.
Neuter Nouns/Hvorugkynsnafnorð: Inflection of neuter nouns in Icelandic is the easiest and most predictable one. The nouns land, hjarta, lyf and klaustur summarize pretty well all the possible stem endings and their patterns.
Feminine Nouns/Kvenkynsnafnorð: Inflection of feminine nouns in Icelandic is a bit more diverse but the patterns are mostly predictable. If the noun ends in an -a, it declines like stelpa . If it ends in a consonant, it declines like frétt (though there are feminine nouns whose the plural form -ir becomes -ar like in kinn and vél and, in some cases, -ur like in hönd and bók) and if it ends in -un or -ing it declines regularly and predictably like hugsun and spurning, respectively. Feminine nouns ending in -ur decline like brúður. Some feminine nouns like saga and vika have an additional -n- in the plural genitive forms.
Masculine nouns/Karlkynsnafnorð: These are a nightmare, are often unpredictable and are the most difficult ones.
Noted regular patterns:
- þræll (masculine nouns ending in -ll are regular)
- notandi (masculine nouns ending in -ndi are regular)
- brandari (masculine nouns ending in -i are regular)
- köttur(masculine nouns ending in -ur can have all kinds of possible combinations)
- (and others)
Unlike verbs and nouns, Icelandic adjectives are very regular.
How to learn Icelandic
Naturally, the most effective way to learn Icelandic is to study it in Iceland. However, that is often not possible so you're left with what you can make do on the Internet. The thing is that Icelandic is too big of a task to tackle without previous knowledge over other Germanic languages (preferably the Northern Germanic ones). If you want to learn Icelandic and you don't speak any other Germanic language, Icelandic will prove to be a dauntingly intimidating task. Here's what you can do if that's your case:
- Learn written Norwegian, Swedish or Danish (preferably Norwegian Nynorsk). You should NOT learn how to speak these languages because Icelandic pronunciation is very different. You have to learn how to read and write one of these languages and then you'll be able transition more painlessly to Icelandic. The grammar of these languages is fairly simple (especially if you already know German or Dutch) and shouldn't take more than 3 months of study to get a good grasp of grammar and functional vocabulary.
- Once you have achieved a certain degree of fluency in one of these languages, you can begin getting acquainted with the irregularities of Icelandic. Go here, click Exercises and spend a few days identifying and memorizing patterns. It is very important to master the declination aspect of Icelandic before doing anything else. Attempting to chat in Icelandic or studying a text without having a solid foundation on the patterns will make your life very difficult. Forget everything else and focus on learning the patterns for nouns and conjugation for verbs using that website.
- Once the patterns for nouns, verbs and adjectives are down, you should start working on your vocabulary and general grammar. This is the trickish part. As it was said above, the grammar of the continental Scandinavian languages are pretty much simplified versions of that of Icelandic grammar. You'll have to learn where these differences lie and how different they are. Having an Icelandic friend with which to chat will greatly help you. There isn't icelandic reading material for beginners (maybe Krakkafréttir below) on the internet so you're left with your own resourcefulness and creativity.
|Complete Icelandic||Highly recommended beginner guide. Much friendlier than the other guides.|
|ISLEX||You look for an Icelandic word and it translates its meaning to Danish, Swedish, Norwegian BM/NN, Faroese and, in some cases, even Finnish. Entries include a button to hear the pronunciation of the word and, in most entries, there are example phrases wherein the words are used.|
|Wiktionary||It can be useful for checking meaning, conjugations and declensions for nouns and adjectives.|
|BÍN||This is by far the website you're going to use the most. It can decline all verbs and adjectives and can conjugate any verb. Just type a word and fiddle with it. No English-language version.|
|Icelandic Online Dictionary||Select "Entire entry" to search after an English word and "Headword Only" to search for an Icelandic word.|
Icelandic Online is a great resource courtesy of Háskóli Íslands with courses going from complete beginner all the way to C1 level.
101 Languages - Has resources and guides for 52 languages.
Krakkafréttir offers video news content for children with transcriptions and an Icelander reading them.
Íslenzka for memorizing the patterns.
Wordreference Forums for when you have questions about the language.
Sublearning - learn languages from movie subtitles. Flash cards of movie lines in 62 languages.
Icelandic Subtitles for Movies change the filter to Icelandic that is located below the search field.
I will make available here the Icelandic thriller book Mýrin written by Arnaldur Indriðason together with its English translation (that goes by the names "Jar City" and "Tainted Blood").
>When a lonely old man is found dead in his Reykjavík flat, the only clues are a cryptic note left by the killer and a photograph of a young girl's grave. Inspector Erlendur discovers that many years ago the victim was accused, but not convicted, of an unsolved crime, a rape. Did the old man's past come back to haunt him? As Erlendur reopens this very cold case, he follows a trail of unusual forensic evidence, uncovering secrets that are much larger than the murder of one old man.
These books are aimed for people who are at an intermediary level in Icelandic. You can study Icelandic through them in any way you choose. I suggest you attempt to read one page in Icelandic trying to absorb as much as you can and then checking to see if you understood everything by reading that same amount of paragraphs from the English translation.
Post in the comments if the links go 404.
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Post in the comments if the links go 404.