Native toIceland
Native speakers
(undated figure of 330,000)[1]
Early forms
Latin (Icelandic alphabet)
Icelandic Braille
Official status
Official language in
 Nordic Council
Regulated byÁrni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies[a]
Language codes
ISO 639-1is
ISO 639-2ice (B)
isl (T)
ISO 639-3isl
Geographic distribution of the Icelandic language
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

Icelandic (/sˈlændɪk/ eyess-LAN-dik; endonym: íslenska, pronounced [ˈistlɛnska] ) is a North Germanic language spoken by about 314,000 people, the vast majority of whom live in Iceland, where it is the national language.[2] Since it is a West Scandinavian language, it is most closely related to Faroese, western Norwegian dialects, and the extinct language Norn. It is not mutually intelligible with the continental Scandinavian languages (Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish) and is more distinct from the most widely spoken Germanic languages, English and German. The written forms of Icelandic and Faroese are very similar, but their spoken forms are not mutually intelligible.[3]

The language is more conservative than most other Germanic languages. While most of them have greatly reduced levels of inflection (particularly noun declension), Icelandic retains a four-case synthetic grammar (comparable to German, though considerably more conservative and synthetic) and is distinguished by a wide assortment of irregular declensions. Icelandic vocabulary is also deeply conservative, with the country's language regulator maintaining an active policy of coining terms based on older Icelandic words rather than directly taking in loanwords from other languages.

Aside from the 300,000 Icelandic speakers in Iceland, Icelandic is spoken by about 8,000 people in Denmark,[4] 5,000 people in the United States,[5] and more than 1,400 people in Canada,[6] notably in the region known as New Iceland in Manitoba which was settled by Icelanders beginning in the 1880s.

The state-funded Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies serves as a centre for preserving the medieval Icelandic manuscripts and studying the language and its literature. The Icelandic Language Council, comprising representatives of universities, the arts, journalists, teachers, and the Ministry of Culture, Science and Education, advises the authorities on language policy. Since 1995, on 16 November each year, the birthday of 19th-century poet Jónas Hallgrímsson is celebrated as Icelandic Language Day.[7]


See also: Germanic languages

Icelandic is an Indo-European language and belongs to the North Germanic group of the Germanic languages. Icelandic is further classified as a West Scandinavian language.[8] Icelandic is derived from an earlier language Old Norse, which later became Old Icelandic and currently Modern Icelandic. The division between old and modern Icelandic is said to be before and after 1540.[9]


East Germanic languages

West Germanic languages

Proto-Norse →
Old Norse
Old West Norse




Old East Norse




Main article: History of Icelandic

A page from the Landnámabók, an early Icelandic manuscript
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The oldest preserved texts in Icelandic were written around 1100 AD. Many of the texts are based on poetry and laws traditionally preserved orally. The most famous of the texts, which were written in Iceland from the 12th century onward, are the sagas of Icelanders, which encompass the historical works and the Poetic Edda.

The language of the sagas is Old Icelandic, a western dialect of Old Norse. The Dano-Norwegian, then later Danish rule of Iceland from 1536 to 1918 had little effect on the evolution of Icelandic (in contrast to the Norwegian language), which remained in daily use among the general population. Though more archaic than the other living Germanic languages, Icelandic changed markedly in pronunciation from the 12th to the 16th century, especially in vowels (in particular, á, æ, au, and y/ý). The letters -ý & -y lost their original meaning and merged with -í & -i in the period 1400 - 1600. Around the same time or a little earlier the letter -æ originally signifying a simple vowel, a type of open -e, formed into the double vowel -ai, a double vowel absent in the original Icelandic.

The modern Icelandic alphabet has developed from a standard established in the 19th century, primarily by the Danish linguist Rasmus Rask. It is based strongly on an orthography laid out in the early 12th century by a document referred to as the First Grammatical Treatise by an anonymous author, who has later been referred to as the First Grammarian. The later Rasmus Rask standard was a re-creation of the old treatise, with some changes to fit concurrent Germanic conventions, such as the exclusive use of k rather than c. Various archaic features, as the letter ð, had not been used much in later centuries. Rask's standard constituted a major change in practice. Later 20th-century changes include the use of é instead of je[10] and the replacement of z with s in 1974.[11]

Apart from the addition of new vocabulary, written Icelandic has not changed substantially since the 11th century, when the first texts were written on vellum.[12] Modern speakers can understand the original sagas and Eddas which were written about eight hundred years ago. The sagas are usually read with updated modern spelling and footnotes, but otherwise are intact (as with recent English editions of Shakespeare's works). With some effort, many Icelanders can also understand the original manuscripts.

Legal status and recognition

According to an act passed by the Parliament in 2011, Icelandic is "the national language of the Icelandic people and the official language in Iceland"; moreover, "[p]ublic authorities shall ensure that its use is possible in all areas of Icelandic society".[13]

Iceland is a member of the Nordic Council, a forum for co-operation between the Nordic countries, but the council uses only Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish as its working languages (although the council does publish material in Icelandic).[14] Under the Nordic Language Convention, since 1987 Icelandic citizens have had the right to use Icelandic when interacting with official bodies in other Nordic countries, without becoming liable for any interpretation or translation costs. The convention covers visits to hospitals, job centres, the police, and social security offices.[15][16] It does not have much effect since it is not very well known and because those Icelanders not proficient in the other Scandinavian languages often have a sufficient grasp of English to communicate with institutions in that language (although there is evidence that the general English skills of Icelanders have been somewhat overestimated).[17] The Nordic countries have committed to providing services in various languages to each other's citizens, but this does not amount to any absolute rights being granted, except as regards criminal and court matters.[18][19]


Main article: Icelandic phonology


All Icelandic stops are voiceless and are such distinguished by aspiration.[20] When at the beginning of the word stops are realised post-aspirated, but pre-aspirated when occurring within a word.[21][b]

Consonant phones
Labial Coronal Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal () m () n (ɲ̊) (ɲ) (ŋ̊) (ŋ)
Stop p t () (c) k
Continuant sibilant s
non-sibilant f v θ ð (ç) j (x) (ɣ) h
Lateral () l
vibrant () r

Scholten (2000, p. 22) includes three extra phones: l̥ˠ lˠ].

Word-final voiced consonants are devoiced pre-pausally, so that dag ('day (acc.)') is pronounced as [ˈtaːx] and dagur ('day (nom.)') is pronounced [ˈtaːɣʏr̥].[25]


Chart plotting the location of the 8 monopthongs in Icelandic
Vowel chart of the 8 monophthongs

Icelandic has 8 monophthongs and 5 diphthongs.[26] The diphthongs are created by taking a monophthong and adding either /i/ or /u/ to it.[27] All the vowels can either be long or short and is based on a length rule, vowels in open syllables are long, and vowels in closed syllables are short.[28]

Front Back
plain round
Close i   u
Near-close ɪ ʏ  
Open-mid ɛ œ ɔ
Open a
Mid eiœi [œy][c] ou
Open ai au


Main article: Icelandic grammar

Photograph taken from page 176 of Colloquial Icelandic
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Icelandic retains many grammatical features of other ancient Germanic languages, and resembles Old Norwegian before much of its fusional inflection was lost. Modern Icelandic is still a heavily inflected language with four cases: nominative, accusative, dative and genitive. Icelandic nouns can have one of three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine or neuter. There are two main declension paradigms for each gender: strong and weak nouns, and these are further divided into subclasses of nouns, based primarily on the genitive singular and nominative plural endings of a particular noun. For example, within the strong masculine nouns, there is a subclass (class 1) that declines with -s (hests) in the genitive singular and -ar (hestar) in the nominative plural. However, there is another subclass (class 3) of strong masculine nouns that always declines with -ar (hlutar) in the genitive singular and -ir (hlutir) in the nominative plural. Additionally, Icelandic permits a quirky subject, that is, certain verbs have subjects in an oblique case (i.e. other than the nominative).

Nouns, adjectives and pronouns are declined in the four cases and for number in the singular and plural.

Verbs are conjugated for tense, mood, person, number and voice. There are three voices: active, passive and middle (or medial), but it may be debated whether the middle voice is a voice or simply an independent class of verbs of its own, as every middle-voice verb has an active-voice ancestor, but sometimes with drastically different meaning, and the middle-voice verbs form a conjugation group of their own. Examples are koma ("come") vs. komast ("get there"), drepa ("kill") vs. drepast ("perish ignominiously") and taka ("take") vs. takast ("manage to"). In each of these examples, the meaning has been so altered, that one can hardly see them as the same verb in different voices. Verbs have up to ten tenses, but Icelandic, like English, forms most of them with auxiliary verbs. There are three or four main groups of weak verbs in Icelandic, depending on whether one takes a historical or a formalistic view: -a, -i, and -ur, referring to the endings that these verbs take when conjugated in the first person singular present. Almost all Icelandic verbs have the ending -a in the infinitive, some with á, two with u (munu, skulu) one with o (þvo: "wash") and one with e. Many transitive verbs (i.e. they require an object), can take a reflexive pronoun instead. The case of the pronoun depends on the case that the verb governs. As for further classification of verbs, Icelandic behaves much like other Germanic languages, with a main division between weak verbs and strong, and the strong verbs, of which there are about 150 to 200, are divided into six classes plus reduplicative verbs.

The basic word order in Icelandic is subject–verb–object. However, as words are heavily inflected, the word order is fairly flexible, and every combination may occur in poetry; SVO, SOV, VSO, VOS, OSV and OVS are all allowed for metrical purposes. However, as with most Germanic languages, Icelandic usually complies with the V2 word order restriction, so the conjugated verb in Icelandic usually appears as the second element in the clause, preceded by the word or phrase being emphasised. For example:

In the above examples, the conjugated verbs veit and fór are always the second element in their respective clauses, see verb-second word order.

A distinction between formal and informal address (T–V distinction) had existed in Icelandic from the 17th century, but use of the formal variant weakened in the 1950s and rapidly disappeared.[30] It no longer exists in regular speech, but may occasionally be found in pre-written speeches addressed to the bishop and members of parliament.[30]


Main articles: Icelandic vocabulary and Icelandic name

A simple family tree showing the Icelandic patronymic naming system.
Eyjafjallajökull, one of the smaller ice caps of Iceland, situated to the north of Skógar and to the west of Mýrdalsjökull, is Icelandic for "glacier of Eyjafjöll", in turn "glacier of island mountain".

Early Icelandic vocabulary was largely Old Norse with a few words being Celtic from when Celts first settled in Iceland.[31][32] The introduction of Christianity to Iceland in the 11th century[33] brought with it a need to describe new religious concepts. The majority of new words were taken from other Scandinavian languages; kirkja ("church"), for example. Numerous other languages have influenced Icelandic: French brought many words related to the court and knightship; words in the semantic field of trade and commerce have been borrowed from Low German because of trade connections. In the late 18th century, language purism began to gain noticeable ground in Iceland and since the early 19th century it has been the linguistic policy of the country (see linguistic purism in Icelandic).[34] Nowadays, it is common practice to coin new compound words from Icelandic derivatives.

Icelandic personal names are patronymic (and sometimes matronymic) in that they reflect the immediate father or mother of the child and not the historic family lineage. This system, which was formerly used throughout the Nordic area and beyond, differs from most Western systems of family name. In most Icelandic families, the ancient tradition of patronymics is still in use; i.e. a person uses their father's name (usually) or mother's name (increasingly in recent years) in the genitive form followed by the morpheme -son ("son") or -dóttir ("daughter") in lieu of family names.[35]

In 2019, changes were announced to the laws governing names. Icelanders who are officially registered with non-binary gender will be permitted to use the suffix -bur ("child of") instead of -son or -dóttir.[36]

Language policy

A core theme of Icelandic language ideologies is grammatical, orthographic and lexical purism for Icelandic. This is evident in general language discourses, in polls, and in other investigations into Icelandic language attitudes.[37] The general consensus on Icelandic language policy has come to mean that language policy and language ideology discourse are not predominantly state or elite driven; but rather, remain the concern of lay people and the general public.[38] The Icelandic speech community is perceived to have a protectionist language culture,[35] however, this is deep-rooted ideologically primarily in relation to the forms of the language, while Icelanders in general seem to be more pragmatic as to domains of language use.[39]

Linguistic purism

Main article: Linguistic purism in Icelandic

Starting in the late 16th century discussion has been ongoing on the purity of the Icelandic language, the bishop Oddur Einarsson wrote in 1589 that the language has remained unspoiled since the time the ancient literature of Iceland was written.[40] Later in the 18th century the purism movement got bigger and more works were translated into Icelandic, especially in areas where Icelandic had hardly ever been used in, with this came many neologisms, with many of them being loan-translations.[40] In the early 19th century people were influenced by romanticism and a bigger importance was put on the purity of spoken language, instead of just the written language. The written language was also brought closer to the spoken language as the sentence structure of literature had previously been influenced by Danish and German.[41]

The changes brought by the purism movement have had the most influence on the written language, as many speakers use foreign words freely in speech, but try to avoid them when writing. The success of the many neologisms created from the movement has also been variable as some loanwords have not been replaced with native ones.[42] There is still a conscious effort to create new words, especially for science and technology, with many societies publishing dictionaries, some with the help of The Icelandic Language Committee (Íslensk málnefnd).[43]

Writing system

Main articles: Icelandic orthography and Icelandic Braille

The Icelandic alphabet is notable for its retention of three old letters that no longer exist in the English alphabet: Þ, þ (þorn, modern English "thorn"), Ð, ð (, anglicised as "eth" or "edh") and Æ, æ (æsc, anglicised as "ash" or "asc"), with þ and ð representing the voiceless and voiced "th" sounds (as in English thin and this), respectively, and æ representing the diphthong /ai/ which does not exist in English. The complete Icelandic alphabet is:

Majuscule forms (also called uppercase or capital letters)
Minuscule forms (also called lowercase or small letters)
a á b d ð e é f g h i í j k l m n o ó p r s t u ú v x y ý þ æ ö

The letters with diacritics, such as á and ö, are for the most part treated as separate letters and not variants of their derivative vowels. The letter é officially replaced je in 1929, although it had been used in early manuscripts (until the 14th century) and again periodically from the 18th century.[10] The letter z was formerly in the Icelandic alphabet, but it was officially removed in 1974, except in people's names.[11][44]

See also



  1. ^ In an advisory capacity.
  2. ^ pre-aspirated stops are typologically rare.[21]
  3. ^ [œy] is thought of being a result from co-articulation, so the phonemic representation is /œi/.[29]


  1. ^ Icelandic at Ethnologue (26th ed., 2023) Closed access icon
  2. ^ Icelandic language at Ethnologue (19th ed., 2016) Closed access icon
  3. ^ Barbour & Carmichael 2000, p. 106.
  4. ^ "StatBank Denmark".
  5. ^ "Icelandic". MLA Language Map Data Center. Modern Language Association. Archived from the original on 6 December 2010. Retrieved 17 April 2010. Based on 2000 US census data.
  6. ^ Government of Canada (8 May 2013). "2011 National Household Survey: Data tables". Statistics Canada.
  7. ^ "Icelandic: At Once Ancient And Modern" (PDF). Icelandic Ministry of Education, Science and Culture. 2001. Archived from the original (PDF) on 26 August 2019. Retrieved 27 April 2007.
  8. ^ Karlsson 2013, p. 8.
  9. ^ Thráinsson 1994, p. 142.
  10. ^ a b Kvaran, Guðrún (12 November 2001). "Hvenær var bókstafurinn 'é' tekinn upp í íslensku í stað 'je' og af hverju er 'je' enn notað í ýmsum orðum?". Vísindavefurinn (in Icelandic). Retrieved 20 June 2007.
  11. ^ a b Kvaran, Guðrún (7 March 2000). "Hvers vegna var bókstafurinn z svona mikið notaður á Íslandi en því svo hætt?". Vísindavefurinn (in Icelandic). Archived from the original on 29 October 2023. Retrieved 29 October 2023.
  12. ^ Sanders, Ruth (2010). German: Biography of a Language. Oxford University Press. p. 209. Overall, written Icelandic has changed little since the eleventh century Icelandic sagas, or historical epics; only the addition of significant numbers of vocabulary items in modern times makes it likely that a saga author would have difficulty understanding the news in today's [Icelandic newspapers].
  13. ^ "Act [No 61/2011] on the status of the Icelandic language and Icelandic sign language" (PDF). Ministry of Education, Science and Culture. p. 1. Retrieved 15 November 2013. Article 1; National language – official language; Icelandic is the national language of the Icelandic people and the official language in Iceland. Article 2; The Icelandic language — The national language is the common language of the Icelandic general public. Public authorities shall ensure that its use is possible in all areas of Icelandic society. All persons residing in Iceland must be given the opportunity to learn Icelandic and to use it for their general participation in Icelandic society, as further provided in leges speciales.
  14. ^ "Norden". Retrieved 27 April 2007.
  15. ^ "Nordic Language Convention". Archived from the original on 29 June 2007. Retrieved 27 April 2007.
  16. ^ "Nordic Language Convention". Archived from the original on 28 April 2009. Retrieved 27 April 2007.
  17. ^ Robert Berman. "The English Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency of Icelandic students, and how to improve it". Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. English is often described as being almost a second language in Iceland, as opposed to a foreign language like German or Chinese. Certainly in terms of Icelandic students' Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS), English does indeed seem to be a second language. However, in terms of many Icelandic students' Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP)—the language skills required for success in school—evidence will be presented suggesting that there may be a large number of students who have substantial trouble utilizing these skills.
  18. ^ Language Convention not working properly Archived 2009-04-28 at the Wayback Machine, Nordic news, March 3, 2007. Retrieved on April 25, 2007.
  19. ^ Helge Niska, "Community interpreting in Sweden: A short presentation", International Federation of Translators, 2004. Retrieved on April 25, 2007. Archived 2009-03-27 at the Wayback Machine
  20. ^ Árnason 2011, p. 99.
  21. ^ a b Flego & Berkson 2020, p. 1.
  22. ^ Kress 1982, pp. 23-24: "It's never voiced, as s in sausen, and it's pronounced by pressing the tip of the tongue against the alveolar ridge, close to the upper teeth – somewhat below the place of articulation of the German sch. The difference is that German sch is labialized, while Icelandic s is not. It's a pre-alveolar, coronal, voiceless spirant.".
  23. ^ Ladefoged & Maddieson 1996, pp. 144–145.
  24. ^ Liberman, Mark. "A little Icelandic phonetics". Language Log. University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved 1 April 2012.
  25. ^ Árnason 2011, pp. 107, 237.
  26. ^ Flego & Berkson 2020, p. 8.
  27. ^ Árnason 2011, p. 57.
  28. ^ Árnason 2011, pp. 58–59.
  29. ^ Árnason 2011, p. 58.
  30. ^ a b "Þéranir á meðal vor". Morgunblaðið. 29 October 1999.
  31. ^ Brown & Ogilvie 2010, p. 781.
  32. ^ Karlsson 2013, p. 9.
  33. ^ Forbes 1860.
  34. ^ Van der Hulst 2008.
  35. ^ a b Hilmarsson-Dunn & Kristinsson 2010.
  36. ^ Kyzer, Larissa (22 June 2019). "Icelandic names will no longer be gendered". Iceland Review.
  37. ^ Kristinsson 2018.
  38. ^ Kristinsson 2013.
  39. ^ Kristinsson 2014.
  40. ^ a b Karlsson 2013, p. 36.
  41. ^ Karlsson 2013, pp. 37–38.
  42. ^ Karlsson 2013, p. 38.
  43. ^ Thráinsson 1994, p. 188.
  44. ^ Ragnarsson 1992, p. 148.


Ragnarsson, Baldur (1992). Mál og málsaga [Language and language history] (in Icelandic). Mál og Menning. ISBN 978-9979-3-0417-3.