For most English-speaking tourists, the Icelandic language might be another in a long list of quaint novelties experienced from behind the padding of a tour group decked out in matching rain slickers: a bunch of tongue-air and whisper-sounds in the distance as they learn, in English (that they all speak so well!), about Viking settlers and Hidden People.
For the slightly more adventurous tourist, Icelandic may lead you down incomprehensible consonant clusters on street signs and roadmaps (“Harold, let’s take a stroll down scenic Lowguhvegger!” “Eunice, did you get a chance to visit Ella-fudge-ajock-uhl?”), on billboards and concert flyers, or on vacation tattoos (“Can I get one of those funny Ds? Or that adorable P-looking thing?”). It’s something to be experienced, to gawk at; or perhaps, at worst, it is a minor-but-still-just-so-quaint-and-charming impediment to navigating the island.
For those who dig a bit deeper, Icelandic is infamous as one of the more difficult tongues worldwide to acquire as a second language. Feel free to do a quick search online to confirm—you’ll find it appears on a whole host of fun clickbait lists (and on more legitimate sites as well, to be fair) of languages considered difficult to learn.
These articles are exclusively written by English speakers—so of course English doesn’t make an appearance, even though it very, very much should. I mean, you could spell fish G-H-O-T-I if you felt like it. Also, let’s not forget the travesty that is: cough, ought, plough, rough, though, through. English orthography (rules of spelling, hyphenation, capitalization, word breaks, emphasis, and punctuation in a given language) is a bastard of the highest caliber. But that’s neither here nor there.
Mostly, Icelandic is encountered by non-natives in passing as a transitory haze of aural curiosity—the diegetic soundtrack to your fairy-tale travels. Though for a few brave souls, who for whatever reason chose this fair island as their long-term, or even permanent residence—or who just feel the need to learn it for the sake of learning—the Icelandic language becomes a formidable linguistic foe. But what exactly is so difficult about it? What are the potential roadblocks, pitfalls, and barriers between English speakers and fluency?
What the… Huh? How do you say that?
“English speakers come from a linguistic background that is related to Icelandic,” says Jón Símon Markússon, historical linguist and lecturer in linguistics and Icelandic language at the University of Iceland. “In terms of lexical roots, you can see a lot of correspondences.” Words like “bók” and “book,” “fótur” and “foot,” “hundur” and “hound,” “köttur” and “cat,” illustrate the historical intersection of contemporary English and Icelandic back in the day. “But the thing that English lacks,” says Jón, “is the floral, inflectional regalia.”
We’ll return to issues of inflection in a bit, because even before they encounter grammar, burgeoning Icelandic speakers must first face more fundamental hurdles: namely pronunciation. According to Jón, Icelandic sounds that English speakers have the most difficulty with are the trilled-r and pre-aspiration—meaning a word like “hattur” [ˈhaʰtʏr], which features both sounds, is rather difficult for students to pronounce early on.
Further, the differences between the way many consonants in Icelandic are pronounced is less obvious than in English. For instance, the letter b is realized as [p] in Icelandic, and p as [ph], which in English is the difference between spit and pit. The same goes for t & d ([th] & [t]), as well as k & g ([kh] & [k]—not to mention the many other sounds the letter g signifies in Icelandic, which again are much closer together than English speakers are trained to hear). Then come smaller rules, like a written f being spoken as a [p] when before an “n,” or how the hv in “hvar” is realized as a [kw], or sometimes even [xw]—because phonology!
Some other sounds that English speakers will be unfamiliar with include the ll, realized as a [l̥] or [tl] or even [ɬ] depending on the speaker, and vowel sounds written as “ö” [œ] and the diphthong “au” [øʏ], neither of which appear in English. And even the remaining consonants in Icelandic, which at first glance seem familiar, are just different enough from those in English to cause problems, both in speech and in comprehension. The list goes on. It’s a lot to process, though not impossible by any means.
What all of this adds up to is a language that requires the English speaker to differentiate in hearing between minute sound differences that had before not been differentiated, and to choreograph the mouth in ways that are unfamiliar, infrequently accessed, or theretofore inconceivable in order to communicate.
Though there are a few ways around some of the trickier voicing. “I often tell them [language students], ‘You can choose where you want to come from’,” says Jón. Though Icelandic is relatively uniform in how it is pronounced nation-wide, there are some minor differences in the north and south, specifically in how some of the trickier consonants are realized. “It’s more predictable from orthographic presentation in Akureyri Icelandic,” Jón says. So where do students most often decide to be from? Jón says they usually choose Akureyri.
This, That, The Other (x 24)
Perhaps the most formidable component of the Icelandic language is the complex system of declension and conjugation. To a person who has studied other languages, such as Latin, German, or Russian, these aspects of language won’t be too much of a surprise—though I’m sure (s)he won’t be thrilled by the prospect of starting anew with them.
But to those who have never encountered such heavy inflection, the Icelandic system of four cases, three grammatical genders, singular, and plural—changing the forms of everything all the time always—can be a lot to process, and presents a massive undertaking to master. I imagine the combined tears shed over charts of the declined demonstrative pronouns alone would be enough to fill Þórisvatn lake to the brim.
And while a major amount of grammatical memorisation seems like the only option, Jón informs me that it may not be so simple: “Over the years, verbs [in Icelandic] have come to assign cases in very arbitrary ways—the lines have become slightly blurred.”
The example he gives is the difference between the verbs “to open” and “to close” (“opna” and “loka”). “Opna” assigns the accusative, and “loka” assigns the dative. “There is no logic behind this,” says Jón. “This is something that causes foreigners problems, because there’s nothing about the verbs in the dictionary that would give you any indication as to which assigns what.”
Then there are all the irregulars and the repetitious forms. It all just seems like too much; and there’s no way around it. But still, it’s not impossible.
The Icelandic Village
So how does one go about teaching this multitude of possible word forms to students? And quickly, at that—one can’t simply sit in a classroom practicing conjugation forever (as totally awesome as that might sound).
Jón speaks of a dilemma that many language teachers face: “How do I teach them the case system and the conjugation according to the verbs and moods in a short amount of time? Some people said they would prefer to let them speak however they want. That’s the dilemma we face: Do you just give them the lexical roots and let them speak however they want, or do you teach them properly?”
Another roadblock to learning Icelandic are the students and the Icelanders themselves. Jón says that students are often wary to approach Icelanders: “They think Icelanders will be standoffish, or that it will be difficult to penetrate Icelandic society.” Icelanders acquired their language naturally, learning the rules as they went along. As foreigners we learn the rules first, and then learn to apply the language.
Though they are by no means unwilling to engage with new speakers, it seems to be a cultural norm for Icelanders to switch into English almost immediately when speaking to a foreigner, which makes the most essential form of language practice more of a challenge for students. “People have to be bold when they’re learning a new language,” says Jón. “I always recommend spending time in coffeehouses and pubs, as well as coming to class,” he laughs. “When I was learning Faroese I spent almost every day in coffeehouses just talking to people and using the language.”
To combat the hesitancy of new learners and the tendencies of Icelanders to switch to English, there is a new teaching initiative called the ‘Icelandic Village.’ “There are a number of participating staff around Reykjavík, in banks or bakeries,” says Jón. “Students are sent to these places. The staff know that the students are coming, and are trained not to switch to English right away. It’s a way of getting foreigners out into the city and using the language.” This provides a necessary chance to contend with the language as it is used day-to-day, and not just in the abstract as a series of grammatical rules.
Jón has some final words of advice for those learning Icelandic: “If you’re learning the language and have a question,” he says, “never ask an Icelander. Ever. Never, ever ask an Icelander about Icelandic grammar, unless they are a professor of linguistics at the University of Iceland. Because they’ll have no idea.”
So with a healthy dose of humility, a copious amount of self-determination, willingness and an eagerness to learn, it seems that although Icelandic presents a challenge for English speakers, it’s far from insurmountable.