Icelandic and English Language Use in Iceland

Icelandic is a beautiful language, and it's amazing to learn it hasn't changed too much from the Old Norse spoken by Vikings. Icelandic is also, however, an incredibly difficult language to learn.

While other languages descended from Old Norse like Swedish and Norwegian have evolved and simplified greatly, Icelandic retains a complex grammar that's very tough for most English speakers to wrap their minds around. Icelandic verbs are conjugated for tense, mood, person, number, and voice, and then nouns are inflected for gender, number, and case. In other words, we English speakers generally expect verbs to change very little (we change, it changes) and we expect nouns to always stay the same (save for a simple -s for most plurals and -'s for possessives). In Icelandic, those words are constantly shifting, and they do so in a multitude of often-irregular ways.

Given these daunting difficulties, it's understandable if any prospective visitor to Iceland gets a little worried about language use on their trip.

English provided with Icelandic—even on top of a mountain
(Heimaklettur, Heimaey, Westman Islands)
Those worries should last about thirty seconds—or however long it takes you to read to this sentence. Prospective visitors to Iceland should note that absolutely no knowledge of the Icelandic language is required to travel around the country. In nearly all circumstances—or, at least, nearly all situations typical tourists might find themselves in—English is spoken or information in English is provided.

English seems to be accorded such an equal status with Icelandic around the country that the really remarkable places are the few that don't give it that status. One of those places my wife and I found during our visits to Iceland was the IKEA outside of Reykjavík, which presumably doesn't care too much about catering to tourists. (And if you've been to IKEA anywhere else in the world, you understand how the store works anyway.)

Signage that's trilingual (with German)
and quadrilingual (with French) is common
Over the course of our trips, my wife and I have spent nearly thirty days in Iceland. In all that time, we met perhaps two Icelanders who couldn't speak any English, and both of them were older people who weren't working in the visitor industry. That is to say—we went out of our way to try to talk to these non-English-speakers. On top of that, there were probably less than half a dozen times when we really would have wanted to read something, but it was only written in Icelandic.

All that being said, learning a little bit of Icelandic is a wonderful way to better enjoy your travels in Iceland. "Hæ" (pronounced "hi"), "takk" (thanks), and "bless" (bye) are extremely easy to learn and use with anyone you meet. You can also easily use "já" (pronounced "yow") and "nei" to answer basic questions you're asked—and sometimes it'll even trick Icelanders into thinking you speak Icelandic!

Despite it's bewildering grammar, Icelandic also has some great traits that English would do well to learn from. The most obvious to spot is that Icelandic retains two different characters to distinguish the two "th" sounds we also have in English: ð (Ð in uppercase, but that's rarely seen) represents th as in "that," while þ (Þ in uppercase) represents th as in "thing." Þ is only ever used at the beginning of words, and there are no words that start with ð, but it's still great to distinguish the sounds. I þink ðat it would be worþ it for English speakers to use ðese letters too. Don't you?

Comments