Ask A Linguist: What Do Icelanders Find Difficult About The Icelandic Language?

Ask A Linguist: What Do Icelanders Find Difficult About The Icelandic Language?

Ask A Linguist: What Do Icelanders Find Difficult About The Icelandic Language?

Published August 14, 2020

Nico Borbely
Photo by
Sigurgeir S/Morgunblaðið

Icelandic is a notoriously difficult language that even native speakers often struggle with. But what exactly do they find difficult? We reached out to Jóhannes B. Sigtryggsson, assistant research professor at the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, for answers.

“Native speakers don‘t usually have problems speaking and using their mother tongue. What Icelanders probably have the most difficulties with is the more formal aspect of the language, the spelling. This has its origins in the archaic nature of the language. The golden age of literature was in the 13th and 14th centuries and when the spelling of Modern Icelandic was standardised in the 19th century, this older stage of the language was seen as a model. The normalised spelling in the Sagas is thus similar to the modern spelling, which makes it easier for modern Icelanders to read them. The problem is that the pronunciation of Icelandic has changed a lot in the intervening centuries and therefore grown apart from the spelling. There were some efforts to simplify the spelling in the 19th century and make it more phonetic, but they weren‘t successful. The modern pronunciation of words is therefore not as helpful in this regard as in some other languages.

“An example is the letter ‘y’, which morphed with ‘i’ in the 15th century but still survives in the spelling as a separate letter. The pronunciation thus doesn‘t help to differentiate between words like “il” (“sole”) and “yl” (declension of “ylur” or “warmth”) and “tína” (“gather”) and “týna” (“lose”), which have the same pronunciation.
The current version of the spelling rules are from 2016 and 2018 but the standard orthography hasn‘t changed perceptibly since the latter part of the 19th century. The biggest change happened in 1974 when the letter z was abolished.”

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