Icelandic English Similarities

2022-05-14 culture language language culture

The hard part

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 (or even how it 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 vanishingly slim.

The fun part

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.

Similarly, the letter “ð” in an Icelandic word often will change to “d” or “th” in its English equivalent, while “þ” often changes to “th” as well (In Icelandic, ð sounds like th as in then, while þ sounds like th as in think). For example borð and þó become board and though.

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, hvenær, 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 words that carried into English

Icelandic Definition Similar English Word Comment/Explanation
átt should ought
ber berry berry
bera carry bear bearing gifts, bearing a heavy load
bíða wait bide biding your time
bitur bitter bitter
bjóða invite, request bid
blá blue blue
blóm flower bloom
bólga swelling bulge
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 I speculate the phrase "room and board" could be directly related to the phrase "bed and breakfast"
brjóst breast breast
brún brown brown
dæla pump dole, deal 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"
dal valley dale
dimmur dark dim
disk dish dish
djúp deep deep
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
dula rag doily this one's dubious, doily sorta sounds French to me, but anyway perhaps coincidentally these words sound a bit similar
dvelja stay dwell
dýr expensive dear he paid a dear price, he'll pay dearly
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"
faðir dad father
fanginn trapped, jailed, ensnared fangled these new fangled inventions are too much trouble
fastur stuck, tied, bound fasten the phrase "hold fast" is also sometimes used in English
feld hide (animal skin), pelt felt
fella topple fell to fell a tree
fingur finger finger
fisk fish fish
flaska bottle flask
forfeður forefathers forefathers
fræ seed fry The American phrase "small fry" meaning a young person, and in English a baby fish is also called a "fry"
fyrst first first
geisp yawn gasp
gestur guest guest
geysir geyser geyser
glaður glad glad
gleypa swallow gulp
græn green green
grafa dig grave I think of the digging required to make a grave
gras grass grass
grimmur cruel grim
grín comedy grin comedies make you smile, right?
grund ground ground as in earth
halda hold hold
hálfviti dumb half-wit
hár hair hair
harð hard hard hard meaning brittle, not as in difficult which would be erfitt
heitt hot hot
heppni luck happen, happenstance we just happened to meet, it was pure happenstance
hindrun obstacle hinder, hindrance
hjart heart heart
hlátur laughter laughter interesting how the "h" is still there in English, like a vestigial organ
hníf knife knife
höggva chop, lop hack
hönd hand hand
hoppa hop hop
hreinsa to clean rinse
hring ring ring
hund dog hound
hungur hunger hunger
hvað what what
hvalur whale whale
hvar where where
hvenær when when
hvít white white
í sundur apart, piecemeal asunder
illa unwell ill
jól Christmas yule yule tide, the old yule log, we all know yule as a poetic word for christmas
kalt cold cold
kassa box case
kasta throw cast cast your lot, let he who is free of sin cast the first stone
klippa cut, trim clip
kljúfa split cleave, cloven
klukka clock clock
kofi hut, cabin cove
krukka jar crock
cow cow
kynnast to acquaint or know someone kin, ken first of kin, that's beyond my ken, kinship
langa want long I long for the days...
líkt similar like, alike like minded people
lítill small little
loft air aloft, loft, lofty These English words all have something to do with air, airspace, or airiness
lyst desire lust
mjólk milk milk
móðir mom mother
orð word word
rannsaka investigate, search ransack
rass ass ass
rata navigate route route your way through traffic
rauð red red
redda to correct or fix right think of "righting" a wrong
rotna rot rot
saddur full (as in not hungry) sated
sætt sweet sweet
salt salt salt
sama same same
sára to hurt sore don't be sore about it
sauma sew seam seams are the result of sewing
sjaldan rarely seldom
sjaldan seldom seldom
sjóða boil seethe
skaða harm scathe a scathing critique, he escaped unscathed
skal shall shall
skapa create shape to give shape to your thoughts is a way of formulating or creating
skemmast rot scum
skína shine shine
skip boat ship
skít shit shit
skó shoe shoe
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
skort shortage short these efforts fell short of expectations
skot shot shot as in the shot heard round the world
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)
sól sun solar I assume both languages got this from Latin
son son son
spara save spare spare me one would you?
staðfastur steadfast steadfast
standa upp stand up stand up
starta to start start to start, as in starting a car
stinga sting sting
strá straw straw as in hay, which incidentally is "hey"
strokka to stroke stroke
súr sour sour
svín pig swine
taka take take
telja count tally
tengda related tangled think of "don't get tangled up with those people"
tíma time time
timbur timber timber
troða trample trod trodden
trúa believe true interestingly, American slang has somewhat returned to the original meaning with the phrase "true dat" meaning I agree
tungu tongue tongue notice how English retains the second "u" even though it's no longer pronounced
undir under under
unglingur someone who is young youngling
vantar lacking want in want of
varlega carefully warily
vaska wash wash
vaxa grow wax a waxing moon, or waxing eloquent about something
vel well well as in you've done well
vill want to will will still sometimes means want in English, as in your will to survive
vín wine wine
vitlaus crazy witless without your wits about you
vörður a guard ward ward off disease, a warden
yfir over over
þín ("theen") yours thine
þó though though
þótti thought thought
þú ("thoo") you thou