How to Learn Basic Icelandic: A Beginner’s Guide

By OptiLingo • 9 minutes read

Icelandic is a Germanic language that still has a serious uniqueness all on its own. Many people have said it’s a difficult language to learn, but this can be made considerably easier by just focusing on the basics. For example, Icelandic has a number of different greetings. The trick for how to learn basic Icelandic is to take it slow and to refrain from trying to learn too much at once. You have to learn the basics before you can pile all the other words and concepts on top of that in order to get a more full fluency.

General Introduction to Icelandic

This is a fairly contextual language, and there are nuances to the words that English often doesn’t have. For example, even basic greetings will often change based on the exact gender of the person you are greeting. There isn’t really anything like that in English. Most of the greetings in the English language serve anyone in any situation. Whereas, in Icelandic, there are often different words for greeting a single man, a single woman, a group of women, or a mixed group or group of men. It’s important to pay attention to these details if you want to get the language right and not confuse or embarrass the people that you are conversing with in or out of the country.


There are 32 letters in the Icelandic alphabet, it also has 3 letters that are used to represent foreign words including a letter that has gone obsolete. The Icelandic language is made up from the Latin alphabet; the same alphabet as English and almost all Western European languages.


Phonetically Icelandic only has minor dialectal variations. It consists of diphthongs and monophthongs, whereas there are voiced as well as unvoiced consonants. Voice is the key factor playing the main role in differentiating most consonants including nasals but not plosives.


Same as other old Indo-European languages, Icelandic too, is based on a complicated grammar. There are four cases in nouns namely the nominative noun, accusative noun, dative noun and the genitive noun which have singular and plural forms.

Most pronouns and adjectives have the same qualities as nouns do which includes the definite article, the ordinal, and the initial four cardinal numerals. Most of the adjectives are based on three degrees of comparison which are divided into strong inflection adjectives and weak inflection adjectives. The verbs have variations in three persons i.e. first, second, third which are further divided into singular and plural. There are two types of tenses in the Icelandic language. There are three moods in verbs i.e indicative mood, subjunctive mood, and imperative mood whereas it has two voices namely active voice and medio-passive voice.

Icelandic “Hello” Greetings

First there’s “hallo” which is pronounce like “hallaw.” This is the basic way to say “hello” in Icelandic. It’s more formal. Then, there’s “saell” which is how you say “hello” in a casual or informal way specifically to a man. The phonetic way you say this is like “sight-ee.” If you’re instead saying it to a woman, then it’s “sael” which is like “sigh-i.”Then, there’s “hae” which is essentially just like the English “hi.”

Further Greeting Phrases

Past the initial “hello” greetings, there are common Icelandic phrases you can say upon meeting someone, such as “how are you?” The way to say this in Icelandic is “hvad segirou got?” This is pronounced roughly how it looks. This is a fairly formal greeting, and it’s the kind of phrase that is used frequently in every day conversation.

The response to this question might be “Fine, Thank you.” The way you say this in Icelandic is “Eg segi allt got, pakka per fyrir.” Another way to say thank you would be simply “takk,” which is less formal. The longer line is more of a full phrase, and not just single words like with “takk.”

If you want to learn someone’s name, you might say “Hvad heitirou?” The “hvad” part is the “what” part of the sentence. If you want to say what your own name is, then you would use the word for “my” or me” which is “Eg” along with the word for naming, which is “heiti.” Together it is “Eg heiti,” along with your name.

The phrase “nice to meet you” is a bit like the phrase for basic greetings. It’s “Komdu saell” if you’re speaking to a man, with the same variation for speaking to a woman. Other important greeting phrases could include “pakka-per fyrir,” as a more complex way of saying “thank you,” and “Ekkert ao pakka” in order to express that “you’re welcome.” The word for “yes” is similar to the word in German, as it is simply “ja.” The word for “no” is simple as well, as it is just “nei,” which is similar to the german “nein.”

Getting Out of Trouble

There are a number of phrases that will serve you well if you get confused or need help while in the country or in an area where Iceland is spoken but not English. For example, if you didn’t understand what someone said, you could say “ha” to indicate so. This is a bit like the English phrase “huh?” It’s also possible to say “hvad sgir pu” to say that you didn’t hear or understand something.

Other important phrases related to this concept include saying that you can’t understand Icelandic very well, which would be, “eg tala ekki iselnsku svo vell.” This word “eikki” means “not” and it’s similar to the Norwegian version, which is “ikke.”

If you’re really getting stuck, in your quest to understand someone who is speaking Icelandic, one option is to ask them if they speak English. Even if no one in the immediate group speaks English, by asking them if they speak it in Icelandic, they will be able to more easily recognize the problem and find someone who does speak the language for you.

The way you do this in Icelandic is “Talarou ensku?” This is literally “do you speak English.” In order to make a further request to find someone who does, it would be “Er einhver her sem talar ensku.” This translates as asking if anyone here speaks the language.

For more general pleas for help, there’s the word “Hjalp” which just means “help.” If, n the other hand, you want to instead help them out by warning them of danger, “Gaetinn,” is the way of telling them to watch out.

Other Phrases for Confusion

The phrase for saying you don’t understand something is relatively simple. It’s “eg skil eikki.” The phonetic for this is “yeh skil ehki.”

Saying Goodbye

There are a number of other ways to say goodbye to someone in Icelandic as well, such as saying “bless” or even “bless bless.” This is an informal way to say it. This is due to Iceland’s traditionally religious culture. If you want more formal ways of saying bye, there’s the word “faravel,” which also means goodbye, but it’s highly formal and only really used among people who don’t know each other at all, especially if they’ve just met for the first time.

By using phrases like these, you should be able to get fairly far in any exchange with someone you haven’t met. You don’t need to know the whole language if you just want to know to learn basic Icelandic.

Tips on how to learn old Icelandic language:

Although Icelandic is a language that requires pure dedication to learn yet one of the major reasons people fail at learning the language is that they lack a technique on how to learn old Icelandic language. There are a few tips that are listed below which can help you in reaching your goal:

1. Don’t worry about the hype

One of the major reasons many people fail before starting because they tend to buy into the hype that it is “impossible” to learn Icelandic. It is a general yet an uninformed perception that Icelandic is difficult to the impossible level, a tale which most of the new learners get traumatized by a false idea of linguistic torture.

Icelandic has its complexities almost at the same level as any other language yet it is actually a very close relative to the English language; this is a proposition that beginners need to hear a lot often but don’t. It is easier to Icelandic for a native English speaker in comparison to learning Persian, Arabic, Urdu, Korean, or Chinese. So do not get let down by doom-mongers, with focus and commitment you can achieve it.

2. Start Now

If you’re still in the process of thinking to learn Icelandic, be prepared for the move, do not leave the topic before you plan a strategy to achieve what you want to do. Many Icelanders believe that one can only learn Icelandic while being in Iceland.

Again, please do not fall for this argument as well. There are a lot of free resources available over the internet for you to get started practically anywhere you want to. Coming to Iceland with no or zero information and knowledge will get you in a habit of interacting in English.

3. Show Commitment; structured effort is required

While Icelandic may not be impossible yet it still requires a lot of commitment, focus and effort to be good at it. It requires one to put in the hours with a complete focus and a commitment to study hard. Mark a slot in your daily routine to pick the books and put in the hours to study daily; at least an hour per day.

4. Avoid talking to natives in English

The biggest of the obstacles is the willingness of natives to avoid speaking the language and converse in English instead. If you have hired a tutor for the task and he tends to shift to English while conversing with you; you might need to stop and request them to keep it in Icelandic as you are trying to learn the language.

5. Start Practicing Now; Don’t wait to be perfect before trying

The best advice anyone can give you is to start listening, speaking and writing sooner than you can because its practice that leads to perfection. If you plan to wait until you have a 100% confidence in any aspect of the Icelandic language before implementing it, you might not be able to speak the language ever.

Remember Icelanders are not too good at English and they make mistakes all the time. Do they really worry about it? Not even a bit. They just say what they want to say and how they can say it, which shows their confidence, courage, and passion towards learning the language there are speaking.

Remember that focus, commitment, and persistence will get you there!



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