The easier and the harder aspects of learning Icelandic

Is Icelandic hard to learn? Well, to start, let’s rewrite that question in Icelandic. Here it is: “er íslenskt erfitt að læra?”

As we can see from this example, Icelandic uses a variant of the Latin alphabet used in English but with a few additional letters. So Icelandic does not require memorizing a whole new alphabet, unlike, for example, Korean, Thai, or Hebrew.

The Icelandic alphabet is not too difficult

While the English alphabet contains 26 letters, the Icelandic alphabet contains 32 letters. Four letters (C, Q, W, and Z) used in English are not part of the Icelandic alphabet.

So the Icelandic alphabet has 22 letters in common with English plus ten additional letters, which are:

Letter Example word
Á ár (year)
Ð maður (person)
É ég (I)
Í líklega (probably)
Ó ósk (wish)
Ú úti (outside)
Ý nýr (new)
Þ þekking (knowledge)
Æ dæmi (example)
Ö söngur (song)

The first step in learning a language is getting familiar with its alphabet. For Icelandic, this first step is not too difficult. So, is Icelandic an easy language? Or, to rephrase that question in Icelandic: “Er íslenska auðvelt tungumál?”

Well, the second step of learning a language is getting familiar with some vocabulary words. And this is where things start getting a bit more complicated: Icelandic vocabulary has relatively little in common with English vocabulary.

Icelandic vocabulary can be rather difficult

Looking at the thousand most frequently used Icelandic words, one notices that relatively few are similar to their English counterparts. Norwegian vocabulary words, in contrast, have more in common with English.

English Norwegian Icelandic
moon måne tungl
fruit frukt ávöxtur
juice juice safi
hope håp von
smart smart klár
example eksempel dæmi
music musikk tónlist
journalist journalist blaðamaður
criticism kritikk gagnrýni
culture kultur menning
popular populær vinsæll
contract kontrakt samningur
information informasjon upplýsingar
interview intervju viðtal
dolphin delfin höfrungur

When the settlement of Iceland began in the 9th century, the first settlers were Norwegian; at the time, the language spoken in Iceland was the same as in Norway.

But Icelandic and Norwegian have diverged quite a bit over the centuries.

Icelandic vocabulary is harder than Swedish

In terms of vocabulary, Icelandic is not just more difficult than Norwegian —it is also harder than Swedish. Quite a few Swedish words resemble their English counterparts, while the Icelandic versions differ greatly. Some examples are listed in the table below.

English Swedish Icelandic
job jobb starf
police polis lögregla
season säsong árstíð
risk risk áhætta
president president forseti
period period tímabil
class klass bekkur
comment kommentar athugasemd
bus buss strætó
student student námsmaður
energy energi orka
fact faktum staðreynd
lunch lunch hádegismatur
Telephone telefon sími

Unlike other Scandinavian languages, Icelandic avoids incorporating foreign loanwords. This linguistic protectionism makes Icelandic harder to learn, as the absence of familiar loanwords means that there are more entirely new vocabulary words to learn.

Frozen in Time: Icelandic, a language resilient to change

Icelandic is a Germanic language, and so is English. But unlike most Germanic languages (Norwegian, Swedish, German, etc.), the Icelandic language has been relatively sheltered from outside linguistic influences.

Due to the geographical isolation of Iceland, as an island nation rather far from the mainland, Icelandic has remained close to its parent language, Old Norse —a language spoken in Scandinavia during the Viking age.

As a result, Icelanders can still read classic medieval literature, like the Icelandic sagas, without too much difficulty. English has changed much more, so reading 14th-century English authors like Chaucer without a translation to modern English is quite challenging.

Icelandic vocabulary is harder than German

Many English words come from Latin. The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 is the main reason, as it led Old Norman (a French dialect) to be used by the Anglo-Norman government in England, which caused an influx of Latin-derived French words into English.

For an English speaker, the process of learning German is facilitated not only by some similar Germanic words but also by the many Latin-derived words in common between the two languages.

Icelandic has a lot fewer Latin-derived vocabulary terms, compared to most other Germanic languages. This is another factor that makes Icelandic vocabulary hard to learn.

English German Icelandic
Problem Problem vandamál
price Preis verð
program Programm dagskrá
family Familie fjölskylda
team Team lið
chance Chance tækifæri
idea Idee hugmynd
system System kerfi
plan Plan áætlun
region Region hérað
product Produkt afurð
concept Konzept hugtak
friend Freund vinur
fan Fan aðdáandi
start Start byrjun

The grammar is one of the hardest aspects of learning Icelandic

As we have seen, Icelandic vocabulary has remained close to that of Old Norse. The same is true of Icelandic grammar.

Complex grammatical features from Old Norse have mostly disappeared from Scandinavian languages like Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish. But Icelandic is a Scandinavian language that has preserved many of these complex features.

These challenging grammatical features include noun case declensions and the use of three grammatical genders. These were common in ancient Indo-European languages, such as Latin, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit, and of course, Old Norse.

These grammatical features may not be inherently difficult, but because they are not present in modern English, most English speakers are not familiar with them (unless they have studied Latin or other languages that have them).

Language difficulty rankings

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI), based on its experience with language training for diplomats, has classified languages into four categories according to how difficult they are for English speakers to learn.

According to the FSI, Icelandic is a Category III Language, so it requires about 1100 class hours to reach proficiency. That’s almost twice as long as for the Category I Languages.

Icelandic is the hardest of the Germanic languages included in the FSI rankings. Languages in the same difficulty category as Icelandic include Greek, Thai, Russian, and Finnish.

Although Icelandic is in the category of “hard languages”, there is a category with languages harder than Icelandic. These Category IV languages (the “Super-hard languages”) include Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Arabic.

Category Languages
1 Spanish, Norwegian, Dutch, ...
2 German, Indonesian, ...
3 Icelandic, Greek, Thai, Russian, Finnish, ...
4 Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, ...