Basic Icelandic: Introduction to the Special Letters

Knowing the basics of how to pronounce Icelandic can make life easier while travelling.

If you speak English, you don’t have to worry about language barriers during your stay in Iceland. Icelanders generally speak very good English and some speak other languages too.

Although this is the case, it might be fun to try speaking some Icelandic with the locals. I know they will appreciate the effort!

The first step is to understand how Icelandic is pronounced. This isn’t easy, I know, but once you’ve learned the basic principles of the pronunciation, you will be ready to learn some phrases.

First of all, I’d like to introduce you to the special letters of the Icelandic language.

Á is the first special Icelandic letter in the alphabet. It's easy to pronounce for most people, at least for those who can say the word “cow”.

Try reading these words out loud:
  • Ári (English meaning: A devil)
  • Átvagl (English meaning: A glutton)
  • Gráta (English meaning: To cry)
Nowadays, ð is unique to the Icelandic alphabet. It used to belong to other languages' alpabets and was commonly used throughout Scandinavia during the middle ages. It's also used in Old English.

Ð is a relatively common letter in the Icelandic language but words do never start with ð. There was a book written about ð a few years ago, a brief history of the letter ð, to be precise.

For native English speakers, pronouncing ð isn't difficult. Other nationalities, such as the French and the German might find it hard.

Try reading these words out loud:
  • Bað (English meaning: Bath)
  • Maður (English meaning: A man)
  • Glaður (English meaning: Happy)

Can you pronounce the word “yeah”? Then you can easily pronounce the Icelandic letter "é".

Try reading these words out loud:
  • Ég (English meaning: I)
  • Sérstakt (English meaning: Special)
  • Pétur (Icelandic version of Peter)

This is an easy one too. I often hear foreigners confuse Í and I when they are pronouncing words in Icelandic. Í is basically like a double e in English but I is pronounced like 'i' in 'miserable'.

Try reading these words out loud:

  • Ísland (English meaning: Iceland)
  • Sími (English meaning: A telephone)
  • Gítar (English meaning: A guitar)

If you can say “oh my god” without trouble, it shouldn't be hard to pronounce the Icelandic letter Ó. Just like the English “oh”, the letter Ó can be used as an exclamation.

Try reading these words out loud:

  • Bók (English meaning: Book)
  • Sól (English meaning: Sun)
  • Góður (English meaning: Good)

Ú is pronounced like 'u' in 'super' or 'uo' in 'you'. Not a very difficult letter to pronounce.

Try reading these words out loud:

  • Súpa (English meaning: A soup)
  • Húrra! (English meaning: Hurray!)
  • Búð (English meaning: A shop/boutique)

The letter y is pronounced just like the letter i. For Icelanders, this is probably the most frustrating letter of the alphabet because it's hard to know when to spell words with i and when to spell them with y. Kids fail on spelling tests because of the letter y all the time!

The letter ý is also an unpleasant letter for Icelandic students. That specific letter is pronounced just like the letter í. There's not even a slight nuance, you make the exact same sound.

Þ is a letter that can only be found in the Icelandic alphabet. The name of the letter is Thorn and is never to be confused with P! It is often transliterated to 'th' when it's written, especially when the readers are English.

My name is Nína Þorkelsdóttir but I usually write 'Thorkelsdottir' when I'm abroad, otherwise it will be mispronounced as 'Porkelsdóttir'. It's also good to know that Icelandic words never end with the letter þ.

Try reading these words out loud:

  • Þingvellir (The name of a national park in Iceland)
  • Þór (The Norse god Thor)
  • Þú (English meaning: You)

Æ is a grapheme, formed by the letters a and e. When this letter is used in English (in words like 'archæology' and 'encyclopædia') it's usually pronounced like the letter e.

In Icelandic however, it's pronounced like 'eye'. It can stand alone as an exclamation too, just like the letter Ó.

Try reading these words out loud:

  • Sætur (English meaning: Sweet/cute)
  • Rækja (A prawn)
  • Tækifæri (An opportunity)

Ö is a vowel that not everyone can pronounce easily. For native English speakers, it shouldn't be so hard though. Ö can also be found in Swedish. Danish and Norwegian have a different letter: ø.

Try reading these words out loud:

  • Ömurlegt (English meaning: Awful)
  • Sjö (English meaning: Seven)
  • Röð (English meaning: A queue)