Learning Icelandic isn’t the easiest of tasks. I got scared myself after a try or two, but I have to admit I haven’t put much effort into it yet. I can say I know more than a few words, but that’s as far as I can go. When I’m forced to know what’s going on without relying on English I’m properly lost and clueless. I promise I’m going to try harder from now on. Living somewhere not knowing the language is not only troublesome, but also shameful.
For those who are interested, have a few minutes to spare and don’t know anything about it, here is a brief overview on the Icelandic language. Very basic overview, actually, but don’t be afraid because I’m going to attach links to more complete sources as well.
Icelandic is the official and main spoken language of Iceland. Other commonly spoken languages are Danish and English. Icelandic is part of the North Germanic branch of Indo-European languages. The Faroese is the closest relative of Icelandic. They share similar ancestry.
As Iceland was occupied around 900 AD and its first settlers were mainly from the western regions of Norway, Icelandic inherited much from Old Norse, differentiating from it, it is believed, only around the XIV century. Icelandic, despite its relationship over time with other languages, especially Danish, remained basically unchanged and uniform throughout the centuries. This is the reason why many old texts are still understandable by modern Icelandic speakers.
Icelandic grammar, compared to that of other more modern languages, Norwegian from which it originates included, is quite complex. The complications in Icelandic grammar depend mainly on its archaic nature. If you have familiarity with languages like Latin or Ancient Greek from school, you can have a vague idea. Icelandic detains much of its old Norse origins. First of all, Icelandic is an inflected language. Other languages, like modern German, are inflected. Icelandic nouns have four cases (nominative, genitive, accusative and dative) and can have one among three genders (masculine, feminine and neuter). Nouns and adjectives, together with prounouns, in addition to the four cases declension, can be singular or plural. Lacking definite and indefinite articles, suffixes are suitably joined to the end of the nouns. Declensions and their many irregularities represent something not all learners, especially occasional ones, are prepared to confront. Grammar is one of the hardest barriers for beginners in the learning process of Icelandic. For a brief overview on Icelandic grammar, take Wikipedia’s entry as a reference.
Another infamous impediment for beginners is the pronounciation. As I said other times, whenever I try to listen to Icelanders talk without concentrating too much, Icelandic sounds to me a lot like Simlish. Some sounds are very peculiar to the Icelandic language and unknown or almost absent in other languages. For reference on Icelandic pronounciation, please feel free to look again at Wikipedia’s entry.
Thankfully, nowadays several sources are available on the web for whoever, for a reason or another, has an interest in learning Icelandic. Dictionaries and more or less exhaustive courses are accessible for free. Here’s a small list of links:
- Icelandic Online by the Universtity of Iceland
- Icelandic Grammar Notebook
- Icelandic Tutorial by ielanguages.com
- Before You Know It Lite – select Icelandic as language to dowload the Icelandic flashcards software. Upgrade is possible for paying users.
- Icelandic Course by Livemocha.com – registration needed. Upgrade possible for paying users.
- Icelandic Language Exchange
- Icelandic 101
- Icelandic Wiktionary – monolingual.
- An Icelandic-English Dictionary by Richard Cleasby and Gudbrand Vigfusson – published in 1874
- Concise Icelandic-English Dictionary by Sverrir Hólmarsson, Christopher Sanders and John Tucker – published in 1989
- English-Icelandic-English Dictionary by Ordabok.is
Also, many courses are open for foreigners residing in Iceland, with various levels of difficulty. People with the necessary requirements can apply to the University of Iceland, that offers different programmes to learn Icelandic as a second language, just to name one.
On a final note, I remember watching a video some time ago about a dude called Daniel Tammet, who also appeared on Icelandic television. Tammet was able to learn Icelandic to the point of speaking it fluently in just one week. Tammet is considered an extraordinary case, but if we seriously devote ourselves to the task, we also have some chances. Well, it will take more than a week, perhaps.