Icelandic is reputed to be a difficult language to learn, and grammatically it is indeed a beast. Every noun can be one of 3 genders, but nouns also change depending how they’re used in the sentence, with 4 main usages (subject, direct object, indirect object, possessive). But that’s not all, nouns can also be singular or plural, so you end up with 3x4x2 = 24 potential ways to say each and every noun (there can be some overlaps, but you still need to know when and for which words they apply).
But there must be a pattern then, so once you know a noun’s gender and context, then you’ll know its form right? No, silly! There’s only a pattern for some of the so-called “weak” nouns, while strong ones blaze their own path. So take all of the above and at least double it.
Then let’s talk about adjectives, which have all the charm of nouns, with their own declension pattern according to the gender and position of the noun they modify (but with unique declension of their own), but additionally depend on whether definite vs indefinite case was used for the noun they apply to, yielding 24 x 2 = 48 grammatical possibilities. Thankfully adjectives do follow a regular pattern however.
But we still haven’t talked about verbs or pronouns yet (a full matrix of tenses and declensions), prepositions which selectively override certain rules depending on which preposition is used, and of course numerous “exceptions” to all of the above.
OK so you get the point: as a beginner, your odds of completing a grammatically correct sentence in Icelandic are basically zilch.
But now for the good news: Old English and Icelandic share a common root, and a surprising number Icelandic words and phrases carry clear parallels in English to this day. In other words, from a vocab perspective if you’re an English speaker learning Icelandic (as for example Old English scholars sometimes do), you already have a huge head start. And this part is really fun: it’s like being a sleuth in a detective story, all these clues that are right under your nose, you only need to discover them!
To start, most English words containing “sh” have direct Icelandic equivalents using “sk”. The English words shine, shoot, ship, shall, dish, wash, and even shit are in Icelandic respectively skína, skot, skip, skal, disk, vaska, and skít (I’m taking forms of these nouns that are most similar to English equivalents – remember the preamble about how nouns change). You can even still see the “sk to sh” transition in English words like “school” where you still have the k sound but it is spelled with h (Icelandic: skóla).
Another common tendency is “w” and “y” many times are “v” and “j” in Icelandic (the Icelandic “j” is pronounced “ee”, exactly like English letter “y”). Sometimes the “j” even stays the same. So water, wine, waffle, way, will, yule, and July are in Icelandic vatn, vín, vöfflu, væj, vill, jól, and júlí.
Yet another easy win: English words with “wh” often have Icelandic equivalents using “hv” (pronounced like “kv” though). What, where, when, and white, are respectively hvað, hvar, hvenar, and hvít.
Going a level deeper, many English constructs actually have clear parallels in Icelandic. Prepending a word with “a” to negate its meaning, like “atypical” has a clear analog in Icelandic where “ó” is prepended to many words for similar effect. The suffix “less” to mean without, as in “witless” meaning without wit, follows a similar pattern in Icelandic using the suffix “laus” (so now you can easily guess what “vitlaus” means). And certain select cases of possessive for certain nouns (though not all) in Icelandic will take an “s” at the end, much like in English you’d add “’s” to form the possessive as in “that man’s hat”.
Finally, coming back to the grammar story, some of the machinations of Icelandic grammar may seem a bit less Machiavellian when you think about Old English. Distinctions like “who” versus “whom”, or “where” vs “whence”, or “thou” vs “thee” and “shall” vs “shalt”, these types of distinctions have largely fallen by the wayside in English, but you’ve probably still heard them and likely even understand them if you’re a native speaker. In Icelandic these distinctions are still used, so you can think of Icelandic as kind of a formal and old-fashioned way of speaking, which can maybe make it seem less foreign, perhaps even charming and poetic.
For example in modern English we’ve largely abandoned “shall” and lumped it in with “will”, but Icelandic still maintains the distinction, where “skal” is what you’re going to actually do, while “vill” is what you want. “Will” still retains this secondary meaning of desire in English when you talk about the “will” to survive or “God willing” or “willing something into existence” – in Icelandic, that is still its primary meaning.
And grammatically, you may recall the distinction of “I shall” versus “thou shalt” – well in Icelandic, those constructions are still there: “ég skal” versus “þú skalt”. Or the difference between possessive pronouns “thy” versus “thine” depending on where it is used – Icelandic retains those kinds of distinctions.
I’ll close out this post with a (by no means exhaustive) sampling of words and phrases that are still similar in Icelandic and English. Sometimes the nuance may have shifted a bit in English, but the relationship is still clearly there when you look for it.
|Icelandic||Definition||Similar English Word||Comment/Explanation|
|tengda||related||tangled||think of "don't get tangled up with those people"|
|smita||infect||smitten||being smitten is like being infected with love, or "love-struck" (struck being a form of stricken, again a disease-related term)|
|kasta||throw||cast||cast your lot, let he who is free of sin cast the first stone|
|borð||table||board||think of the board of wood that a table is made from|
|borða||to eat||board||in the phrase "room and board", board means food. Incidentally, bed in Icelandic is "rúm", so when I hear "room and board" I sometimes loosely think of "bed and breakfast"|
|vaxa||grow||wax||a waxing moon, or waxing eloquent about something|
|sól||sun||solar||I assume both languages got this from Latin|
|tungu||tongue||tongue||notice how English retains the second "u" even though it's no longer pronounced|
|grín||comedy||grin||comedies make you smile, right?|
|skapa||create||shape||to give shape to your thoughts is a way of formulating or creating|
|skóla||school||school||the h is there in English but still sounds like a k, with a c thrown in to try and mediate the discrepancy|
|redda||to correct or fix||right||think of "righting" a wrong|
|vitlaus||crazy||witless||without your wits about you|
|fræ||seed||fry||Maybe not actually related, but I do wonder about the American phrase "small fry" meaning a young person|
|unglingur||someone who is young||youngling|
|kynnast||to acquaint or know someone||kin, ken||first of kin, that's beyond my ken, kinship|
|dóttir||daughter||daughter||English has a silent h before the t, while Icelandic actually pronounces an h before the t even though it is not written|
|grafa||dig||grave||I think of the digging required to make a grave|
|loft||air||aloft, loft, lofty||These English words all have something to do with air, airspace, or airiness|
|jól||Christmas||yule||yule tide, the old yule log, we all know yule as a poetic word for christmas|
|skot||shot||shot||as in the shot heard round the world|
|fastur||stuck, tied, bound||fasten||the phrase hold fast is sometimes used in English|
|feld||hide (animal skin), pelt||felt|
|vill||want to||will||will still sometimes means want in English, as in your will to survive|
|sára||to hurt||sore||don't be sore about it|
|dæla||pump||dole||doling out rations is distributing or pumping out a product. people also sometimes say útdæla which clearly carries over to how we pair "out" with "dole"|
|langa||want||long||I long for the days...|
|heppni||luck||happen, happenstance||we just happened to meet, it was pure happenstance|
|skort||shortage||short||these efforts fell short of expectations|
|trúa||believe||true||interestingly, American slang has somewhat returned to the original meaning with the phrase "true dat" meaning I agree|
|spara||save||spare||spare me one would you?|
|dula||rag||doily||this one's dubious, doily sorta sounds French to me, but anyway perhaps coincidentally these words sound a bit similar|
|í sundur||apart, piecemeal||asunder|
|vörður||a guard||ward||ward off disease, a warden|
|eftirsótt||wanted||sought-after||I think it is so interesting how English has maintained this particular word pairing. Why don't we simply say "this item is highly sought?". It's a holdover from Old English/Icelandic that "sought" gets paired with "after"|
|hlátur||laughter||laughter||interesting how the "h" is still there in English, like a vestigial organ|
|bíða||wait||bide||biding your time|
|sauma||sew||seam||seams are the result of sewing|
|bera||carry||bear||bearing gifts, bearing a heavy load|