From Iceland — Ask An Expert: Why Do Icelanders Switch Their ‘W’s And ‘V’s In English?

Ask An Expert: Why Do Icelanders Switch Their ‘W’s And ‘V’s In English?

Ask An Expert: Why Do Icelanders Switch Their ‘W’s And ‘V’s In English?

Published August 8, 2022

Photo by
Kristinn Ingvarsson

If you’ve spent time speaking English with an Icelander, you may have noticed some of their letters get mixed up. Somehow ‘vikings’ become ‘wikings’ and ‘west’ becomes ‘vest.’ We were curious if there is a scientific–or better yet, linguistic–answer to this consonant switching madness. We sought out the help of linguist Hanna Óladóttir, an Assistant Professor at the University of Iceland, to answer our question.

“First of all, we don’t have [‘w’] sound in our sound system,” Hanna explains. “When you’re learning or speaking a second language, the sound system of your native language can take over.”

Hanna adds that the consonant confusion is so prominent that English teachers make a point to address it in courses.

“I remember our English teacher used to make us say ‘very’ and ‘visit,’ so we wouldn’t pronounce them incorrectly. We don’t have the sound for ‘w’ in Icelandic, so you might hear Icelanders say ‘wery’ instead of ‘very’ because we start to confuse them!,” Hanna says.

The ‘w’ and ‘v’ switch does not happen with every word, instead it’s almost like an overcompensation due to confusion of which consonant to use.
Hanna also clarifies that words which have recently come into mainstream discussion—such as ‘vaccines,’—may be more at risk of having their consonants swapped.

“[Vaccine] is a new word. It’s a word that you’re not used to using and then suddenly, because of the pandemic, everybody is using it. And people think ‘ah okay it’s an English word, it probably has a ‘w’ instead of a ‘v’!’” Hanna says. “If you know you should be attentive to something, you question yourself and get confused.”

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