Updated: Apr 26, 2021
Today, 16. November is Icelandic Language Day (Dagur Íslenskrar Tungu). It is celebrated each year on the birthday of poet, author, and scientist, Jónas Hallgrímsson (1807-1845). Our common ancestors are his great grandparents and my 5th great grandparents from the Öxnadalur in Eyjafjörður. His father drowned when he was just 8 years old and Jónas was sent to live with his aunt. Jónas died at the age of 37 from blood poisoning after breaking his leg.
Learning Icelandic is difficult when time and the chance to practice are limited. By working on genealogy, my writing and reading of Icelandic has improved but speaking it is a whole different challenge. Just take for instance the word snow. Icelanders say that there are over 100 words to describe snow. Check out some of them spoken on this video.
Here is an interesting post from the Icelandic Language Blog that explains why speaking the language is so difficult.
Drop it like it’s a Ð, G, H, Þ, or a vowel.
The most confusing part of Icelandic may not actually be the grammar – although difficult – nor the spelling – it will eventually make sense – but the way Icelanders pronounce it during everyday conversations. Depending on the speaker the language may be riddled with words borrowed from English, severely mumbled or shortened to unrecognizable form. Since the shortening is the most commonly occurring one* I decided to try to explain the typical forms of it.
Words are shortened both from the beginning and the end, depending on the situation. This makes speaking faster and easier too, since some sound combinations of Icelandic are challenging even for Icelanders themselves, for example when sound Ð (= eth) is followed by Þ (= thorn). For example “Syndu þeim húsið þitt” (= Show them your house) is pronounced more like “Synduðeim húsiþitt”.
Two things happened in that sentence. First of all, if a Ð is the last letter of a word it regularly falls off in spoken tongue, especially so if it’s followed by a Þ. The sound combination is just too troublesome to pronounce as it is. Another one was that the letter Þ changed into a Ð: the pronoun that begins with it is unstressed and therefore gets the faster form of pronunciation.
Another letter that often falls off at the end of a word is G. This is because it’s often already unvoiced f.ex. in words such as “ég” or “og”, when spoken in a hurry the ends disappear completely.
Lastly vowels can be left out if there’s a two vowel combination, one at the end of a word and another at the beginning of the next one. The vowel at the end of a word is left out. For example in the sentence “Láttu okkur vita” (= Let us know) the first word loses its vowel and the sentence becomes more like “Láttokkur vita”.
The letter that most commonly disappears from the beginning of a word is H. This is in particular true with unstressed pronouns: “Kom hann með þér?” (= Did he come with you?) turns into “Komann meþér?”. The Ð falls away as well, as per the rule.
To make it a bit more challenging, when the H is left out it transforms the word into one that begins with a vowel – henni = “(h)enni”. Therefore the vowel-dropping is also necessary. “Sýndu henni að þér ert ekki sama” (= Show her that you care) becomes “Sýndenni aþér ert ekki sama”.
Sounds confusing, right? Just wait until you try to understand someone who has a habit of really brutal shortenings! In their use whole sentences turn into a few syllables which in turn may also be mumbled, in which case everything I wrote above is merely a guideline.