Icelandic English Similarities

2022-05-14 culture language language culture

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)
hund dog hound
þú ("thoo") you thou
taka take take
gleypa swallow gulp
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
stinga sting sting
gras grass grass
geysir geyser geyser
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
sama same same
undir under under
yfir over over
rass ass ass
hár hair hair
vitlaus crazy witless without your wits about you
hálfviti dumb half-wit
hjart heart heart
hoppa hop hop
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
móðir mom mother
faðir dad father
son son son
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
orð word word
grafa dig grave I think of the digging required to make a grave
ber berry berry
mjólk milk milk
illa unwell ill
sjaldan rarely seldom
sjóða boil seethe
svín pig swine
kassa box case
brjóst breast breast
fingur finger finger
hönd hand hand
loft air aloft, loft, lofty These English words all have something to do with air, airspace, or airiness
glaður glad glad
blár blue blue
rauð red red
súr sour sour
sætt sweet sweet
bitur bitter bitter
salt salt salt
rauð red red
blá blue blue
græn green green
brún brown brown
djúpt deep deep
kalt cold cold
heitt hot hot
jól Christmas yule yule tide, the old yule log, we all know yule as a poetic word for christmas
tíma time time
skína shine shine
skot shot shot as in the shot heard round the world
skip boat ship
skó shoe shoe
skal shall shall
disk dish dish
vaska wash wash
skít shit shit
halda hold hold
fastur stuck, tied, bound fasten the phrase hold fast is sometimes used in English
feld hide (animal skin), pelt felt
vín wine wine
vill want to will will still sometimes means want in English, as in your will to survive
hvað what what
hvar where where
hvenar when when
hvít white white
hníf knife knife
hvalur whale whale
fyrst first first
varlega careful warily
sára to hurt sore don't be sore about it
rannsaka investigate, search ransack
klukka clock clock
krukka jar crock
varlega carefully warily
kofi hut, cabin cove
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"
staðfastur steadfast steadfast
langa want long I long for the days...
sjaldan seldom seldom
höggva chop, lop hack
rotna rot rot
skemmast rot scum
heppni luck happen, happenstance we just happened to meet, it was pure happenstance
flaska bottle flask
fisk fish fish
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
lyst desire lust
spara save spare spare me one would you?
bólga swelling bulge
hungur hunger hunger
dula rag doily this one's dubious, doily sorta sounds French to me, but anyway perhaps coincidentally these words sound a bit similar
grimmur cruel grim
dimmur dark dim
í sundur apart, piecemeal asunder
vörður a guard ward ward off disease, a warden
telja count tally
dvelja stay dwell
lítill small little
dal valley dale
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
kljúfa split cleave, cloven
bjóða invite, request bid
átt should ought
geisp yawn gasp
bíða wait bide biding your time
blóm flower bloom
sauma sew seam seams are the result of sewing
hindrun obstacle hinder, hindrance
klippa cut, trim clip
gestur guest guest
bera carry bear bearing gifts, bearing a heavy load