Iceland is a country of incredible landscapes and an equally beautiful language, Icelandic. Converse with the locals with my Icelandic travel phrase guide with pronunciation.
It was only a few years ago that Iceland barely registered on the tourist radar. But since its popularisation through American films such as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Prometheus and the highly successful HBO TV series, Game of Thrones, visitors from all over the world and flocking to see Iceland’s dramatic landscapes. Heck, even Justin Bieber filmed a video clip here!
This travel phrase guide is one of many I’ve created for the inspired traveller who seeks to do more than just sight-see.
Through my years of travel, I’ve met many wonderful people in all sorts of wonderful situations. One I met on the airport shuttle from Alice Spings, one was a guide on a whale watching trip in Iceland, and another welcomed me into her circle of friends in a bar in Rome. While English was our common language, it was not their mother-tongue.
Travel, paired with using languages have always interested me. Hence why I created The Intrepid Guide. And while I don’t (currently) speak as many languages as I would like, I’ve started a series of language guides as an ode to my international friends. With their help, I’ve created these short guides (and many more to come!) of essential and most common travel phrases.
My guide to common Icelandic travel phrases with a pronunciation guide couldn’t have been done without the help of my favourite whale expert, Baldur, whom I met whilst spotting Minke Whales in Reykjavik.
I hope you enjoy this post on Icelandic phrases for tourists as much as I enjoyed bringing it together. If you have any requests for other languages, let me know in the comments section!
An Introduction to Icelandic
Iceland is like no place I’ve ever been too. Even just a few miles from its capital, Reykjavík, with a population of just 120,000, Iceland looks and feels like how the world was before humans came along. With mossy rocks as far as the eye can see, crystal blue iceberg lagoons, 130 ominous volcanoes, and towering waterfalls dotted along the coast, Iceland is a country of sharp contrasts and incredible beauty.
This awesome landscape is matched with an equally beautiful language called, Icelandic.
Since there are no Latinate words, for an English mother tongue, learning Icelandic would be a major challenge. But personally, I think it’s a challenge worth accepting if it means enhancing my Icelandic experience.
But, there’s good news for German speakers! There are many elements of Icelandic grammar that will be familiar to you. Both languages retain various conjugations and declensions from Proto-Germanic, which have been lost in other Germanic languages.
Where is Icelandic spoken?
Icelandic is spoken in Iceland. No surprises there!
The vast majority of Icelandic speakers (approximately 320,000) live in Iceland. More than 8,000 Icelandic speakers live in Denmark. Icelandic is also spoken by some 5,000 people in the United States and by more than 1,400 people in Canada.
Related to Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian, Icelandic is a North Germanic language and has 320,000 speakers in Iceland (Ísland), 8,000 in Denmark (Danmörk), 1,400 in Canada (Kanada) and 5,000 in the USA (Bandaríki Norður-Ameríku).
Icelandic is the closest of the Northern Germanic languages to Old Norse, making it one of the oldest languages in the world.
The Icelandic used today has changed very little since it was created in the 9th century. This means that Icelandic speakers are able to read the Old Norse sagas in their original form without too much difficulty.
It would be like an English speaker knowing exactly what Shakespeare was on about….without having to study it at school!
A Brief History of Icelandic
In 870 AD Iceland saw its first permanent settlement, established by Vikings from Norway and Celts from the British Isles. The main language of the settlers was Old Norse or the Dǫnsk tunga (Danish tongue).
A number of great literary works, called sagas, were written by Icelanders during the 12th and 13th centuries. These sagas, many of which were the work of unknown authors, were written in a language very much like Old Norse.
It wasn’t until 1944 that Iceland gained its independence and Icelandic was revived as an official and literary language. Prior to then, Iceland was governed by Norway (1262 until the 15th century) before the Danes took over.
During the periods of Norwegian and Danish rule, Norwegian and Danish were used in Iceland, to some extent.
Now for the tricky stuff!
In Icelandic, the stress always falls on the first syllable. The only exception is in the word “halló,” which usually has stress on the second syllable.
The Icelandic alphabet is famous for its retention of two old letters which no longer exist in the English alphabet: Þ, þ (þorn, modern English “thorn”) and Ð, ð (eð, anglicised as “eth” or “edh”), representing the voiceless and voiced “th” sounds (as in English thin and this).
Although Icelandic looks very complex with its strange characters “þ” and “ð” and its numerous accented vowels, once the basic rules have been learned, pronunciation is fairly straightforward.
Since most Icelandic sounds don’t exist in English, the examples of pronunciation I give later are just a guide.
Unlike the other Nordic countries, Icelandic doesn’t have any dialects.
A major reason for the purity of language is the absence of international words for modern ideas and inventions. Much like the French, Icelanders avoid using international words, preferring to use their own purely Icelandic words instead.
For example, “telephone”, in Icelandic is “simi“, which is an old Icelandic word for “thread” or “wire”.
Icelandic’s links with Old English are also reflected in the alphabet, which contains the old runic letters – (eth), the voiced th, and the “t” (thorn), the unvoiced. It also contains the “æ” of Danish and Norwegian. The English word “geyser” and “eider” are of Icelandic origin.
The Tale of ‘Please’
It might come as a surprise but Icelandic doesn’t have an equivalent to “please”.
The phrase Gerðu svo vel is used to invite a person into a house, to the table or to begin eating. It also translates to “here you are” when giving something to somebody.
For a polite request such as “please take your shoes off” the word vinsamlegast.
When leaving the table or saying goodbye after a meal or drinks it is customary to thank the host by saying Takk fyrir mig.
Now that you’re sufficiently confused, let’s take a look and some common Icelandic travel phrases and words to use in your travels.
Don’t worry, the pronunciation guide will make things easier.
For your free infographic that you can both Pin or save, scroll down to the bottom of this article. Otherwise, use these quick links to jump to the phrases you’re interested in.
P.S. If you’re reading this on your phone and can’t see the pronunciation column, turn it to landscape mode. For some reason tables aren’t mobile friendly. Sorry!
Icelandic Phrases with Pronunciation
Want the infographic to take with you? Scroll to the bottom on the page.
|Good morning||Góðan dag||go-han dah|
|Good evening||Gott kvöld||goht kvult|
|Good night||Góða nótt||go-han not|
|How are you?||Hvernig hefur þú það?||kver-nik her-wer thoo thahd?|
|I’m well, and you?||Ágætt, en þú?||al-gyt, en thoo?|
|Good, thanks||Ágætt, takk||al-gyt, tak|
|Thank you||Takk fyrir||tak fi-rir|
|You’re welcome||Ekkert að þakka||eh-kehrt ath thah-ka|
|Excuse me (getting attention)||Afsakið||av-sa-kith|
|I’m sorry (express regret)||Því miður||thvee mi-thur|
|I don’t understand||Ég skil ekki||yeh skil eh-ki|
|I’m sorry, (didn’t hear)||Ha?||hah?|
|Do you speak English?||Talar þú ensku?||ta-lar thoo en-sku?|
|How much does that cost?||Hvað kostar það?||kvadh kos-tar thadh?|
|Where is…?||Hvar er…?||kvar er..?|
|May I please have…?||Gæti ég fengið…?||gigh-ti ye fen-kidh…?|
|I don’t eat…||Ég borða ekki…||ye poor-ah eh-ki|
|I’m a vegetarian||Ég er grænmetisæta||ye er gryn-met-is-igh-ter|
|The bill, please||Get ég fengið reikninginn?||get ye fen-kidh rayk-ning-yin|
|Straight ahead||Beint áfram||bay-nt aw-fram|
|Turn left||Beygja til vinstri||bey-jah til vin-stri|
|Turn right||Beygja til hægri||bey-jah til high-kri|
|Train station||Lestarstöð (there are no trains in Iceland)||leh-stah-sturd|
|I need a doctor||Ég þarf lækni||yeh tha-rf lie-kni|
|I don’t feel well||Mér líður ekki vel||m-yer lee-thur eh-ki vel|
|Call the police!||Hringið á lögregluna!||kring-gith a uk-rek-luna!|
Ready to improve your Icelandic? Visit my handy language resource guide.
Plus, if you want to know how the experts learn languages, I asked 11 top polyglots to share their language learning secrets. Find out how they start learning a new language, overcome plateaus, and maintain multiple languages.
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Over to you!
Which of these phrases are the most useful? What other languages would you like a travel phrase guide for? Are you planning a trip to Iceland or have already been there?
Let me know using the comments section below or join me on social media to start a conversation.
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed this post.
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