Viking Roots: The Language Evolution of Icelandic and Danish

Icelandic and Danish —as well as the other Scandinavian languages—originate from Old Norse, the ancient language of the Vikings.

The Icelandic language has been sheltered from the influence of other languages because of the geographical isolation of Iceland. As a result, Icelandic has remained close to its ancestor, the Old Norse language.

Danish, in contrast, has been in close contact with other languages. That’s why it has changed a lot more than Icelandic. Danish has absorbed many loanwords from other languages and its grammar has been simplified.

Vocabulary comparison

Icelandic and Danish have an abundance of similar vocabulary words. Many of these word pairs are cognates, meaning that they share a common etymological ancestor, typically a term from Old Norse.

English Icelandic Danish
friend vinur ven
to love elska elske
word orð ord
expensive dýr dyr
victory sigur sejr
food matur mad
to say segja sige
to grow vaxa vokse
valley dalur dal
salary laun løn
month mánuður måned
old gamall gammel
forest skógur skov

Icelandic and Danish are different languages, so only some of their vocabulary is similar. Below are some examples of Icelandic and Danish words which are quite different:

English Icelandic Danish
telephone sími telefon
difficult erfiður svær
work vinna arbejde
cheap ódýr billig
computer tölva computer
e-mail tölvupóstur e-mail
kitchen eldhús køkken
hungry svangur sulten
silent þögull stille
beautiful fallegur smuk

Compared to Danish, Icelandic has been less influenced by other languages

Iceland is an island approximately 600 miles away from mainland Scandinavia, which was settled in the 9th century by Norsemen who spoke the old Norse language.

For centuries, the geographical isolation of Iceland has sheltered Icelandic from outside linguistic influences.

During that period, Denmark was involved in trade with German cities and as a result, the Danish language assimilated some German vocabulary words.

Even in the modern era, Icelanders have had an active policy of limiting the inclusion of foreign words into Icelandic. While the Danish language has adopted foreign vocabulary words such as “computer” and “e-mail”, Icelanders have instead created new words (“tölva” and “tölvupóstur”).

In terms of grammar, Icelandic is more complicated than Danish

Icelandic has three grammatical genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter). The old Danish language had the same three grammatical genders just like Icelandic. However, in modern Danish the masculine and feminine grammatical gender have been merged into a common gender, resulting in a total of only two grammatical genders (common, and neuter).

Just like Old Norse, Icelandic is a language in which nouns are declined according to four grammatical cases (nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive). Basically, in Icelandic, the ending of a noun changes to reflect its grammatical function in a sentence.

In contrast to Icelandic, the Danish language has eliminated this grammatical feature of case-based noun declensions.

Verb conjugation

Conjugation is another area where the Danish language is more straightforward than the Icelandic language.

Danish verbs have the same form regardless of the subject pronoun. In contrast, Icelandic verbs are conjugated according to the subject pronoun.

As an example, here are the conjugation tables of the verb “to be” in Danish and Icelandic:

In English:
I
am
you
are
he/she/it
is
we
are
you (pl.)
are
they
are
In Danish:
jeg
er
du
er
han/hun/det
er
vi
er
i
er
de
er
In Icelandic:
ég
er
þú
ert
hann/hún/það
er
við
erum
þið
eruð
þeir/þær/þau
eru

Danish is easier to learn than Icelandic

Comparing Danish to Icelandic is like comparing Italian to Latin. Both Icelandic and Latin have certain grammatical features in common that used to be widespread among the Indo-European languages, such as noun declensions based on case and three grammatical genders. These same features were also found in Old English.

The Danish language has undergone a series of changes that parallel, in some ways, the transformation of Old English into modern English.

While a speaker of Old English may have found Icelandic to be easier than Danish, a speaker of modern English will likely find Danish to be a much easier language to learn than Icelandic.

Learning Icelandic or Danish: the pros and cons

One of the pros of learning Danish is that it is pretty similar to Swedish and Norwegian (particularly in its written form). Hence by learning Danish, one would have relatively easy access to these other two Scandinavian languages.

On the other hand, language learners with an interest in Norse mythology can benefit from learning Icelandic as it could enable them to read Old Norse literature, and in particular the famous Sagas.

Language learners who do not have an affinity for grammar might enjoy the process of learning Danish more than that of learning Icelandic.

When learning a language, it is helpful to practice with native speakers. One may have an easier time finding a language partner for Danish compared to Icelandic because there are 20 times more native Danish speakers than native Icelandic speakers (6 million vs 300 thousand).