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Number of Speakers: 280,000

Key Dialects: Reykjavík

Geographical Center: Iceland

Icelandic is a Scandinavian language, spoken by about 278,000 people in Iceland, and in several communities throughout the world. The largest Icelandic communities outside Iceland are in Canada (Manitoba), the continental Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Norway, Sweden), and US.

Icelandic belongs to the Northern branch of the Germanic language family of Indo-European. Other Northern Germanic languages are Danish, Swedish, Faroese, and Norwegian. Icelandic, Faroese and Norwegian are further classified as Western Scandinavian languages. Unlike Norwegian, which shares many linguistic features with the Eastern Scandinavian languages (Danish and Swedish), Icelandic and Faroese have developed in relative isolation.

Icelandic is generally considered to have minimal dialect variation, but it is possible to notice several phonetic and lexical differences between the Southwestern region (which includes the capital, Reykjavík), the Southeast, the North, and the Northwest (the Western Fjords). Although attempts have been made to preserve these dialectal features, most of them are slowly vanishing, and quite a few are already gone. The most widespread dialect is that of Reykjavík, which is the basis for standard Icelandic.

Icelandic uses the Latin alphabet with some additional letters including the consonants ð and þ and the vowels ö and æ. All vowel letters with the exception of æ and ö can also have the superscripted acute, cf. á, é, í, ó, ú, ý.

Icelandic has 21 consonants, 8 vowels and 5 diphthongs. The voiceless stops p, t, k are strongly aspirated word-initially, and merge with word-internally and in consonant clusters. When voiceless stops are geminated or precede the resonants , they become pre-aspirated, cf. ekki ‘not’, epli ‘apple’. When resonants are followed by voiceless stops, preceded by , or stand in word-final position, they become voiceless. The length of vowels and diphthongs is conditioned by their position. Word-finally and before one consonant they are long, and in all other positions they are short. Unlike Swedish and Norwegian, Icelandic has not developed tones.

Icelandic has a rich morphological system. The noun has the categories of case, number, gender and definiteness. There are four cases, two numbers and three genders in Icelandic (masculine, feminine and neuter). The nouns are divided into “strong” and “weak”. The case forms of the strong nouns can differ from each other quite significally, cf. fjörð-ur ‘fjord’, firð-i, fjarð-a. The definite article is suffixed to the noun, and both are fully declined, cf. hestur ‘a horse’ – hestur-inn ‘the horse’ – hestar ‘horses’ – hestar-nir ‘the horses’. The definite article also has the category of gender, which always agrees with the gender of the noun. The verb has the categories of person, number, tense, mood and voice. There are two tenses in Icelandic: past and non-past, which is also used for the future. Icelandic has three moods: indicative, optative and imperative. The negation particle ekki ‘not’ generally follows the verb it modifies.

Icelandic is an SOV language.

Icelandic has a number of loanwords, such as banani ‘banana’, flygill ‘grand piano’ (< German Flügel), sígaretta ‘cigarette’, kók ‘coke, Coca-Cola’ etc., but native neologisms are strongly encouraged. A large number of neologisms are widely used, e.g. sími ‘telephone’, tölva ‘computer’, knattspyrna ‘football’ (lit.: ‘ball-kicking’), eðlisfræði ‘physics’ (lit.: ‘lore of origins’), etc., while several, such as bjúgaldin ‘banana’ (lit.: ‘sausage-fruit’), slag-harpa ‘grand piano’ (lit.: ‘hit-harp’), etc. have been rejected by native speakers. Word composition is the main source for the formation of neologisms.

Icelandic is the official language of Iceland. The standard language, based on the Reykjavík dialect, is increasingly being used throughout the country at the expense of various local features. In Iceland there are a number of Icelandic newspapers, magazines and radio stations in addition to several TV channels. The language of education is Icelandic, but some education is available in other languages. The University of Iceland in Reykjavik annually offers a number of courses taught in English. Literacy in Iceland is 99.9 %

The main wave of colonization of Iceland began in 874 AD, and the settlers came predominantly from Western Norway. The language of the newcomers was mostly Old Norwegian (also called “Old Norse”). Around 1000 AD Iceland adopted Christianity. At that time the Icelandic literary tradition began. During the next 400 years Icelanders produced a great number of manuscripts, containing priceless jewels of medieval Scandinavian literature, such as the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda, the sagas (“histories”), and various texts of religious contents. During this period the language of Icelanders diverged from the Norwegian spoken in the continent, and since then it has been known as the “Icelandic” language. The history of Icelandic can be divided into three periods. The Old Norse period extends from the 9th to the early 14th century, the Middle Icelandic period continued from the middle 14th to the 17th century, and the late 17th century is considered to be the beginning of the Modern Icelandic period.

Kress, Bruno. 1982. “Isländische Grammatik”. 1. Auflage. M. Hueber, Münster.

Pálsson, Einar. 1975-7. “Icelandic in Easy Stages”. Vols. 1. and 2. Málaskólinn “Mímir”, Reykjavík.

Campbell, G. L. 1991. Compendium of the World's Languages, Vol. 1 -2. London and New York: Routledge.

Grimes, B. F., ed. 1992. Ethnologue, Languages of the World. Dallas, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

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