Preparation

Icelandic words and phrases to learn (or not!)

If you’re planning to go to Iceland, you really don’t need to know any Icelandic– Nearly all Icelanders speak fluent English. But a few phrases and words will help you figure out what’s going on. For example, below you’ll learn you that “safn” as a suffix means museum or collection. Take a look at the picture above. Now that you know safn, it’s easier to figure out that Grafíksafn would be something like a graphics museum.

You most likely won’t be having conversations in Icelandic. What worked for me when speaking to Icelanders was the “sandwich” approach, which isn’t actually a real thing. Say a greeting in Icelandic, say what you need to say in English, and then say goodbye in Icelandic. For example:


Góðan Daginn! (‘GOthen DYEinn’)

“Can you tell me where the Maritime Museum is?

Takk fyrir! (‘Tahk fe-reer’)


“Góðan Daginn” works in the morning or afternoon. In the evening, you can use “Gott kvöld” (GOT kvult, good evening) instead.

It is helpful, though not mandatory, to learn how to pronounce words, and also to learn a few words and phrases. Let’s jump in.

Pronunication basics

Even though Icelandic does technically use the Roman alphabet, there are many pronunciation differences- enough that you might have a lot of trouble making yourself understood without learning the rules. Here are some primary rules:

First, Icelandic has accents on some of its vowels, like á, ý, or é. The accents just change the sound of the vowel slightly. With a little practice, this is actually nicer than in English, where words like “live” and “lead” can be pronounced in more than one way.

Here is a nice summary of how to pronounce each letter, copied from wikibooks.org:

Letter Explanation
A is like “a” in “bar”, “tar” and “car”
Á is like “ou” in “house”, “about” and “shout”
B same as English P, but without the puff of air, as in “spit”
D same as English T, but without the puff of air, as if “stick”
Ð is like “th” in “feather”, “father” and “that”, but as the first letter of a word it represents Þ/þ.
E same as in English except that it’s always short, like in “bed” and “end”
É is like “ye” in “yet” (used to be spelled in Icelandic “je” and is pronounced the same, see “j” and “e” in Icelandic)
F same as in English “from”
G like “g” in “good” at the beginning of a word, “k” in “wick” between a vowel and -l, -n; /ɣ/ after vowels, before a, u, ð, r, and when it’s the last character of a word; like “ch” in Scottish “loch” after vowels and before t, s; like “y” in “young” between vowel and -i, -j; dropped between a, á, ó, u, ú
H same as in English “hello”
I is like the first “i” in “inside” and “impossible”
Í like an English “ee” and the “i” in “Maria” and the “y” in “diary”
J is like “y” in “yes”, “Yahweh”, “Yoda” and “yikes”
K same as in English “king”
L same as in English “love”
M same as in English “mom”
N same as in English “never”
O like “a” in British English “all” and “o” in “bolt”
Ó is like “o” in “sole” and like “oa” in “goat” and “soap”
P generally same as in English “Peter”, but can be softer
R non-existent in English except Scottish English, virtually identical to a Spanish rolled R, from the very front of the mouth
S same as in English “soup”
T same as in English “time”
U virtually identical to a French “u” (as in “cul”), or a German “ü” (as in “über”)
Ú like English “oo” as in “zoo”
V somewhere between English V and W
X same as in English “six”
Y exactly like Icelandic “i”, it’s only a matter of spelling
Ý exactly like Icelandic “í”, it’s only a matter of spelling
Þ like English “th” in “thunder”, “theatre” and “thong”
Æ is like the name of the letter “i” in English or in “icy” or like the sound of the letters “ai” in the words “Thai food” (hi/hæ & bye/bæ are the same in English and Icelandic). It can also be used like “ay” such as pay/pæ
Ö like German “ö” and English “u” in “urgent” or “fur”

If you look at Icelandic text, you might see some letters which look strange, like þ or ð. These letters actually used to exist in Old and Middle English, but have been replaced by “th” today. Even though modern English only has one letter combination to represent both sounds, they’re slightly different. ð (or in uppercase, Ð) makes the sound “th” in “the.” þ (or in uppercase, Þ) makes the sound “th” in “thing.” Try saying them out loud.

A double L in Icelandic is very different from in English. A single L sounds like you’d expect it to, but a double L (LL, ll) sounds more like an English t or tl.

Words and phrases

We don’t want to overwhelm you with words, but here’s a small selection or words and phrases that you might find useful as you travel in Iceland.

Words for touring in Iceland:

Foss: Waterfall. Often used as a suffix: Gullfoss.

Kirkjan: Church. Often used as a suffix. Hallgrímskirkja.

Viti: Lighthouse. Often used as a suffix. Reykjanesviti.

Safn: Museum. (Technically, “collection”) Often used as a suffix. Byggðasafn (folk museum)

Bókasafnið: Library (“Book collection”)

Peysu: Sweater

Lopa: Wool

Lopapeysa: Hand knit wool sweater. Combines the previous two words!

Strætó: Bus. Also the name of the bus company.

Veður: Weather. Pronounced almost the same in both languages. Check vedur.is every day for the weather forecast and warnings!

Laugar: Pool (of water)

Sund: Swim

Sundlaug: Swimming pool. Combines the previous two words!

Jökull: Glacier. Often used as a suffix. Sólheimajökull.

Gamli: Old

Takk: Thanks

Takk Fyrir: “Thanks for”, but means “thank you” or “thank you very much”

Góðan Daginn: Good day

Barna, Börn: Children

 

Food words in Iceland:

Matur: Food

Drykkur: Drink. Note that there is a restaurant in Reykjavik called “Matur og Drykkur”, which just means Food and Drink! This confused me when I saw this phrase used in other places.

Matseðill: Menu

Pylsa: Hot Dog

Vatn: water

Kjúklingur: Chicken

Nautakjöt: Beef

Svínakjöt: Pork (note the root Svín, similar to swine, which means pig)

Grísakjöt: Also pork

Kjöt: Meat

Kjötsúpa: Meat soup, traditionally lamb

Fiskur: Fish

Þorskur: Cod

Lax: Salmon

Franskar: Means “French,” but often means french fries

Kartöflur: Potatoes

Samloka: Means “sandwich,” but often means ham and cheese.

Skinka: Ham

Ostur: Cheese

Brauð: Bread

Mjólk: Milk

Note that you’ll find lots of forms of these words, but at least the root will tell you what kind of meat it is. For example, kjúklingavængir means chicken wings, and svínarif are pork ribs.

 

General Icelandic words:

Já: Yes

Nei: No

Halló: Hello

Bless: Goodbye

Opinn, Opið: Open

Lokað: Closed

Ófært: Impassable. (If you ever see “Lokað” or “Ófært” near any road, turn around. Iceland doesn’t use these words unless they are serious.)

Sunnudagur: Sunday

Mánudagur: Monday

Þriðjudagur: Tuesday

Miðvikudagur: Wednesday

Fimmtudagur: Thursday

Föstudagur: Friday

Laugardagur: Saturday (“Washing day”)

 

Let us know if we’re missing anything!

Icelandic words and phrases to learn (or not!) was last modified: March 30th, 2017 by Eric