Icelandic Language - Íslenskt tungumál

By David Johnson   [Questions or comments?  Send e-mail to david@inlus.org]

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    Lesson 1

    The Alphabet

    The Icelandic Alphabet and the Sounds Letters and Letter Combinations Make

    There are 32 letters in the Icelandic alphabet.  You will notice there is no C, Q, W or Z. You will also notice some letters appear to have twins, like A and Á. They are separate letters and create different sounds; therefore, you must pay careful attention to accent signs and differences in shape. There are also several letters that look nothing like our letters like Þ, Æ, ð and ö.  And note that several of these unique letters appear at the end of the alphabet, even though they look like they could be related to other letters higher up the list.  Thus, the dictionary orders words in this alpha order and several of those unique letters are found at the end of the dictionary.

    Below are all the letters in the Icelandic alphabet in both uppercase (Capital) and lowercase along with three English words that illustrates the sound that letter makes. This is followed by a chart showing common double vowel and double consonant combinations that together always make unique sounds. There are few silent letters in Icelandic words -- each letter typically making its assigned sound within a word.

    A a Flat, rat, cat
    Á á Wow, plow, cow
    B b Puff, part, pint
    D d Try, test, tooth
    Ð ð The, them, then
    E e End, ever, any
    É é Yeah!, yesterday, yearning
    F f Fish, fast, fry
    G g Green, gold, gone
    H h Hill, house, history
    I i Live, with, wisdom
    Í í Easter, eve, easy
    J j Yes, year, Yeti
    K k Can, crumb, card
    L l Light, little, lark
    M m Mouse, mark, mat
    N n Noise, nice, knot
    O o Four, pour, bore
    Ó ó Oh, sew, grow
    P p Pint, pepper, practice
    R r Rust, rain, right
    S s Stay, supply, send
    T t Tick, tock, time
    U u Under, upper, ultra
    Ú ú You, use, Utah
    V v Viking, village, void
    X x Cast, crisp, compost
    Y y Issue, ink, impulse
    Ý ý Wheel, elongate, eels
    Þ þ Thistle, thing, throw
    Æ æ Ice, eyes, I’m
    Ö ö Echo, end, estimate
    au Toy, joy, boy
    ei or eý Stay, eight, Avery
    hv Sounds like kv – like the word kvetch
    ll Sounds like a “tl” – a flat tongue with a soft click through the side of tongue
    pp Sounds like a soft “b” -- Samba,

    Typing Icelandic Characters

    Computer software allows you to toggle between and English and Icelandic keyboard.   But if you want to stay with an English keyboard and learn these codes, you can quickly type Icelandic characters using these codes.   For example, the Á character is types by holding the ALT key down while typing in the four digit code of 0193.

    Á ALT-0193 á ALT-0225
    Æ ALT-0198 æ ALT-0230
    É ALT-0201 é ALT-0233
    Í ALT-0205 í ALT-0237
    Ð ALT-0208 ð ALT-0240
    Ó ALT-0211 ó ALT-0243
    Ö ALT-0214 ö ALT-0246
    Ú ALT-0218 ú ALT-0250
    Ý ALT-0221 ý ALT-0253
    Þ ALT-0222 þ ALT-0254

    External Websites To Hear These Letters Spoken

    On YouTube, you can find a series of short videos that go through various sections of the Icelandic alphabet.  I recommend those titled starting with the words “Icelandic Pronunciation.”   Below is a link to one video series going through the letters of the alphabet and is taught by an American teacher.

    Video Series Link

    Lesson 2

    Nouns - Gender

    Icelandic Nouns and Their Assigned Grammatical Gender

    In English, a noun is a noun is a noun.  It’s simply the word category we give to persons, places or things.   And in English, our nouns are generally stable, meaning they don’t change or get spelled differently based on how we use them in a sentence.   But in Icelandic, words (nouns here in particular) take on one of three genders – masculine, feminine or neuter.   These grammatical genders of words shouldn’t necessarily be linked to genders in nature.   For example, hestur is the Icelandic word for horse and is always a masculine word as noted below in SET 2, and that masculine word is used whether the horse being described is itself is male or female.  Although some words that are masculine do refer to men and some words that are feminine refer to women, this is not a gender word assignment rule you should depend on or think about too much.

    Why is the gender of an Icelandic word important?   In Icelandic, as nouns are used in sentences, they “decline” into various forms and take on different spellings depending on how they are used.   The rules for how a noun declines depends on the gender of the noun.   A subsequent lesson will expose you to the basics of noun declension.   This guide simply aims to help you learn which of the three gender categories Icelandic words fall into.  The following table presents some nouns in their base form (nominative, singular form) to help you begin to recognize and categorize nouns into their assigned grammatical gender:

    Banki (a bank) Peysa (a sweater) Auga (an eye)
    Kennari (a teacher) Gata (a street) Eyra (an ear)
    Pabbi (a father) Mamma (a mother) Hjarta (a heart)
    Sími (a telephone) Tölva (a computer)
    Gluggi (a window) Kísa (a cat)
    Maður (a man) Kona (a woman)

    What do you notice about the nouns in each set above?   Masculine nouns in SET 1 all have an “-i” ending and feminine words in SET 3 have an “-a” ending.   Those are generally reliable ways to spot and categorize nouns – but only a general rule.   Neuter words are harder to recognize.  Fortunately, there are few neuter nouns that belong in SET 5.  SET 5 words also demonstrates that just because a word has an “a” at the end of it does not automatically mean it is grammatically feminine.  But generally, it is true that words ending with “-a” are feminine.

    Dagur (a day) Borg (a city) Ár (a year)
    Fiskur (a fish) Rós (a rose) Kort (a map)
    Hestur (a horse) Mynd (a picture) Hús (a house)
    Hundur (a dog) Ferð (a trip) Epli (an apple)
    Diskur (a dish) Gjöf (a gift) Bréf (a letter)
    Ostur (cheese) Þjóð (a nation/country) Barn (a child)
    Peningur (money) Mjólk (milk) Kaffi (coffee)

    What do you notice about these words?  Masculine nouns in SET 2 all have a “-ur” ending.   But what is consistent about the Feminine nouns in SET 4?   Don’t they all have very different endings?   Yes – in fact what is consistent with nouns in this set is that they don’t have any ending at all.   They are just Feminine nouns existing in their raw, base form.

    Then what about the Neuter nouns in SET 6?   Don’t some of them end with an “-i” and shouldn’t they  belong with the Masculine SET 1 nouns?   Don’t some of the others in SET 6 appear to not have any ending and perhaps belong in Feminine SET 4 nouns?   This is where it becomes a mental and memorization exercise to a degree.   All Neuter nouns in SET 6 do not have endings and are the base word itself, just like Feminine SET 4 nouns – but they’re assigned Neuter and not Feminine grammatical gender.

    When looking up a word in an Iceland to English dictionary, you will likely see the gender assignment of that word immediately following its listing.   A small italicized m, f or n indicates the gender of that word.  Here is a link to an excellent on-line Icelandic dictionary (Orðabók – word book) from the University of Wisconsin in Madison:  http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/cgi-bin/IcelOnline/IcelOnline.TEId-idx?type=simple&size=First+100&rgn=lemma&q1=s%EDmi&submit=Search

    Building your vocabulary of nouns is important so that when it comes time to build sentences, you have something to work with.   https://www.language-flashcards.com/free-icelandic-flashcards/ provides flashcard style learning with words categorized into common topic areas.   See how quickly your vocabulary can expand.   Refer to Lesson 1 to improve your pronunciation.

    In coming lessons, knowing the gender of the word is the first step to understanding how to manipulate the word into its proper form for how you want to use it in a sentence.

    Lesson 3

    Nouns - Definitive

    Icelandic Nouns in the Definitive Form

    What do we mean by definitive?    In English, we could say “I saw a boat” or “They went to a school.”   We generally use the word “a” before the noun (boat and school in these examples) to indicate the boat could be any boat or the school any school – not definitive.   See the English translations in Lesson #2 on noun gender and note that they are mostly translated with an “a” in front of them, reminding us that the Icelandic noun really means “a” something, not “the” something.  But not all English translations there are preceded by an “a.”   Note for example if we are talking in English about milk in general, we don’t likely say “a milk,” we simply say “milk.”   So, rules in both English and rules in Icelandic have exceptions.   What we are attempting to understand in these very basic INLUS Lessons is the general rule, not exceptions.

    In Icelandic, there is no general use of a word like “a” prior to the noun.  Icelandic nouns alone and in their base form automatically imply it is not definitive.   For example, the Icelandic masculine noun lampi by itself means a lamp – any lamp.   In English we would say “She has a lamp.”   We wouldn’t say, “She has lamp” as they do in Icelandic (with some declension at play – for later!)

    If that describes nouns in a non-definitive form, how do we in English make a noun more definite?   In English, we often precede the noun with the word “the.”   “I saw the boat” or “They went to the school” – more definitive than just any boat or any school.   And in the context of the conversation you'd probably get even more details about the boat or the school, but you’d be speaking about something definite rather than just any person, place or thing.

    Like there being no “a” before a general noun, Icelandic does not add an additional word like “the” in front of the noun to make it clear the noun is definitive.   Icelandic adds various endings to the noun to indicate it’s evolving from just a basic, non-definitive noun into a definitive noun, or a definitive article as it’s grammatically sometime called.   The Icelandic definitive noun remains a single word, with the added ending on the noun signaling it’s now definitively “the boat” or “the school.”

    Finally, the way a noun transitions from a general, non-precise subject to a definitive, specific subject is dependent on the gender of the noun.   An understanding of noun gender from Lesson #2 is important from this point forward.  The ending that shifts a general noun to a particular noun varies based on the gender of the noun so no one ending does it all.   Below are sets of masculine, feminine and neuter nouns –- some the same in Lesson #2, some new nouns being introduced -- that illustrate these endings that shift the noun to a particular form.

    banki (a bank) — to bankinn (the bank) peysa (a sweater) — to peysan (the sweater) auga (an eye) — to augað (the eye)
    kennari (a teacher) — to kennarinn (the teacher) gata (a street) — to gatan (the street) eyra (an ear) — to eyrað (the ear)
    skóli (a school) — to sKólinn (the school) klukka (a clock) — to klukkan (the clock) hjarta (a heart) — to hjartað (the heart)
    dagur (a day) — to dagurinn (the day) borg (a city) — to borgin (the city) Ár (a year) — to árið (the year)
    skápur (a cupboard) — to skápurinn (the cupboard) rós (a rose) — to rosin (the rose) kort (a map) — to kortið (the map)
    steinn (a stone) — to steinninn (the stone) mynd (a picture) — myndin (the picture) rúm (a bed) — to rumið (the bed)

    As you build your vocabular of nouns, be sure to pay attention to the gender of the noun and practice shifting the noun from a general noun to a specific, particular noun (aka particular article).

    Lesson 4

    Pronouns - A Brief Introduction 

    Icelandic Pronouns and Starting to Build Phrases and Sentences

    Pronouns are a basic building block of sentences, particularly when people are involved.  In English, we are familiar with pronouns like “I,” “you,” “him,” “her,” “it,” “we,” and “they.”   Both English and Icelandic pronouns are classified as 1st person (the “I/we” perspective), 2nd person (the “you” perspective) and 3rd person (the “he/she/they/it” perspective).

    Pronouns must be memorized.    They add to your ability to build rudimentary sentences.  At this point, let's introduce a simple Icelandic verb so we can utilize these pronouns in short phrases.   So, let’s begin using the verb concept of “to be” (to exist if you will).   In English we say, “I am…,” “You are…,” “He is…,” “She is…,” “We are…,” and “They are….”   As you see, even in English our “to be” verb changes as our person perspective changes.   This also occurs in Icelandic with the “vera” (be) or “að vera” (to be; being) verb.  Below are tables showing the basic pronouns, in their simplest, nominative form in both singular person forms and in multiple person forms.  And below the introduction of each pronoun, you will find the addition of the Icelandic "vera" (to be) verb.

     

    Single Person Pronouns

    3rd Person
    Ég (I) Þú (you) Hann (he) Hún (she) Það (it)
    Ég er (I am) Þú ert (You are) Hann er (He is) Hún er (She is) Það er (It is)

    Multiple Persons Pronouns

    3rd Person
    Við (we) Þið (ya’ll) Þeir (group of males; they) Þær (group of females; they) Þau (mixed gender group – they)
    Við erum (We are) Þið eruð (you all are) Þeir eru (you (guys) are) Þær eru (you (girls) are) Þau eru (you (mixed or neuter group) are)

    These are pretty straightforward for English-only speakers to understand and memorize because they mirror English pronoun shifting patterns.   But there are two unique issues to the Icelandic pronouns here.   First, in English, whether we're talking about a singular person or a group of people in the 2nd person we have the same word.   We’d say “You” whether talking about a particular other person or about two or more other people as a generalized group of persons.   For example, we would say “You are tall” to an individual basketball player just as we’d say “You are tall” to a whole basketball team.  But Icelandic uses two different words – Þú for the singular “you” and Þið for the multiple person “you.”   To help me differentiate these in English, I like to think of our English multiple 2nd person situation – as “ya’ll” or “you all.”

    A second unique feature is that in our multiple 3rd person perspective in English, we simply call any group of individuals (regardless of their sex) “they.”   In Icelandic however, the “they perspective” has three different words depending on the make-up of the “they” group of people – males only, females only, or mixed.   So, memorize these pronouns, paying special attention to the slightly different pronunciations of these three words:  þeir (thay-er), Þær (thigh-er) and Þau (thoy).

    This is a very basic introduction to Icelandic pronouns in their simplest, nominative state.  Just like regular nouns decline into different cases (forms) based on how they are used in a sentence, all these pronouns also decline into various, related other forms (spellings and pronunciations).  A basics introduction to noun declension is provided in the next Lesson.

    Lesson 5

    Regular Noun Declension -- An Introduction

    Defining Declension, When It Occurs and How "Regular" Icelandic Nouns Decline -- The Basic Foundation

    Declension is a characteristic of many world languages, but what does declension mean?   It simply means a word will change, take on a different spelling or pronunciation, it will decline or evolve based on how the word is being used.

    In modern English, words do not generally decline or change their form.  One easy to understand English exception is when we add an apostrophe-s to the end of a word to denote the word is possessed by someone or something.   For examle we would say "the lady's purse" to denote the purse belongs to the lady.  Perhaps we see the most declension in English (or don’t really see it because it’s so natural to us) in our pronouns.   For example, when referring to oneself, we might say “I,” “me,” “my,” or “mine” depending on how what we’re trying to communicate about oneself in the sentence.   But for the most part nouns in English remain in their highly stable form (spelled and spoken the same) no matter how they’re used in a sentence.

    But Icelandic is an inflection language, with very different styling and syntax shaping of words.  This means that an Icelandic word will change its shape (altered spelling and pronunciation) in many different ways depending on how the word is being used in a sentence.   This is true for nouns (including proper names), adjectives and the numerals 1 – 4.

    How a particular Icelandic word declines (inflects or changes) depends on four different variables:

    1. The gender of the word (see Lesson #2)
      1. Masculine,
      2. Feminine, or
      3. Neuter
    2. Whether the word is about something in a general or in the particular form (see See Lesson #3)
      1. Indefinite (non-particular)
      2. Definite (particular)
    3. Whether the word is
      1. Singular or
      2. Plural
    4. The context the word is being used in…the “case” of the word if you will, falling into one of these four categories or cases (also showing the common abbreviation):
      1. Nominative (nom)
      2. Accusative (acc)
      3. Dative (dat) or
      4. Genitive (gen)

    As you might image with these four considerations at play for each noun…and then with each multiple variables possible, any one Icelandic noun may decline (change) into upwards of 16 different “shapes” (spellings and pronunciations).

    So, what do each of these cases (nominative, accusative, dative and genitive) mean?   And how do you determine which case controls the shaping (spelling and thus pronunciation) of the noun?   For those who are English-only speakers, these four “case” categories are an unfamiliar concept. Yep – pretty complex!!

    This particular study guild provides a very initial look at the declension of a few regular, singular, indefinite nouns to simply demonstrate the concept and show how words shift into the nominative, accusative, dative and genitive forms.

    In short, the following describes the general character of each of the four cases:

     

    Nominative (nom)-- This is the form of the word you will generally find in an Icelandic dictionary.  This is the base (basic) form of the subject noun.  This for of the noun would appear in simple statement about the subject noun.  Example -- That is a horse [Það er hestur].

    Accusative (acc) -- The Icelandic word "um" (about) is associated with this case.  This form is the most common case.  It would be the case if we were talking about the subject noun.  Example -- Eyes on a horse [Augu á hest].

    Dative (dat) -- The Icelandic word "frá" (from) is associated with this case.  This is a less common case, meaning few verbs slip a basic noun to the dative form.   Example -- I give you a horse [Ég gef þér hest].

    Genitive (gen)  -- The Icelandic word "tíl" (to) is associatied with this case.  This form is the rarest case, except when the noun is used in a possessive form -- belong to someone or something else.   Example -- A horse's color [Litur hests].

     

    Before learning the how regular nouns decline, we must ask this basic question -- what is the trigger that pushes a noun into one of these four cases?  The simple answer is the verb!   Each Icelandic verb carries with it a unique "key" or influence pattern on the noun or object of the sentence.   When that key (the verb) is inserted into the sentence, it will turn the lock such that the noun declines in a predictable way -- based on the rules of that verb's key.  Fortunately, each Icelandic verb only has one unique key and always influences the nouns in that case-specific way.   Any particular Icelandic verb will force the noun declensions in the same way -- into the same case.  Thus, knowing whether the verb forces the noun to become accusative (+acc) or dative (+dat) or genetive (+gen) is essential.

    To work with this concept in the rest of this lesson, we must necessarily introduce three verbs -- one that holds the +acc key, one that holds the +dat key, and one that holds the +gen key.   The three Icelandic verbs we will use are the following:

    • borða (+acc) -- meaning eat or eats
    • hjálpa (+dat) -- meaning help or helps
    • sakna (+gen) -- meaning miss or misses, like missing or longing for something

    Review:  As stated above, nouns decline from their nominative case into an accusative, dative or genitive case (pattern or form) based on the particular verb characteristic or “key, the gender of the noun (masculine, feminine or neuter), whether the noun is indefinite or definite, and whether the noun is singular or plural.   For simplicity sake and basic introduction to the concept, this lesson illustrates three singular, indefinite noun declension from those in SET 2 only from Lesson #2 -- a masculine subset of regular nouns.

     

    SET 2 DECLENSION – where the stem vowel is an “a”

    Nominative (+nom) dagur remains dagur
    Accusative (+acc) dagur becomes dag
    Dative (+dat) dagur becomes dagi
    Genitive (+gen) dagur becomes dags

     

    SET 2 DECLENSION – where the stem vowel is NOT an “a”

    Nominative (+nom) hestur remains hestur fiskur remains fiskur
    Accusative (+acc) hestur becomes hest fiskur becomes fisk
    Dative (+dat) hestur becomes hest fiskur becomes fisk
    Genitive (+gen) hestur becomes hests fiskur becomes fisks

    You will note SET 2 declension also plays off whether the noun has an “a” or some other letter as the stem vowel in the core of the word.    The same is also true for the other five SETS.   Let’s create some short sentences with what we know throughout these five lessons using the three chosen verbs.

     

    • Ég borða fisk [I eat a fish].    Borða is a verb that shifts nouns to an accusative form; thus, in this particular SET, the nominative word for a fish (fiskur) becomes the accusative form, fisk, by simply removing the -ur ending.
    • Þú hjálpar hest [She helps a horse].   Hjálpa is a verb that shifts nouns to a dative form; thus, in this particular SET, the nominative word for a horse (hestur) becomes the dative form, hest, by simply removing the -ur ending.   [NOTE:  The verb hjálpa also conjugates to hjálpur when linked with the pronoun Þú but beyond noting that as an FYI, verb conjugation will be held until a later lesson.]
    • Þier sakna dags [They miss a day].  Sakna is a verb that shifts nouns to a genitive form; thus, in this particular SET, the nominative word for day (dagur) becomes the dative form, dags, by replacing the -ur ending with an “s.”

     

    The same declension patterns apply for all similar nouns in SET 2.   So, once you know the noun belongs in this set, you have the declension patter for all those nouns.   With that in mind, can you craft a few simple sentences with other SET 2 nouns from Lesson #2?   For example, how would you write and pronounce “She eats cheese” or “I miss a dog”?

    Years of intense study would be necessary to understand all the variations and forms of noun declension and the many exceptions to the general rules.   We hope this lesson presents a good foundation to simply understand what declension means and a few examples of a similar type noun actually declining into its various cases.