An Introduction to Icelandic Sounds

Icelanders are very proud of their language. The Icelandic language is the closest living relative of Old Norse, and has been conservative in retaining some very old features lost in other Germanic languages. That's especially true of Icelandic grammar.

A lot has changed since Norse times, and Icelandic pronunciation is no exception. Still, if you pay attention to the rules below, you'll be able to pronounce most Icelandic words based on their spelling.

This website has Icelandic words, sound files and practice exercises to help you learn Icelandic pronunciation. Here's a short table of contents for this page:

  1. Long vowels and short vowels
  2. Single consonants
  3. Vowels in combination (diphthongs)
  4. Consonants in combination
  5. Other resources (where to go from here)

Long vowels and short vowels

There are two types of vowels in Icelandic. The first is called a long vowel. Notice the long mark on top of these long vowels.

Icelandic Long Vowel Sounds like English...
já yes out
hér here yet
líka too each
bróðir brother shows
þú you soon
nýr new (same as í)

The second type of vowel is a short vowel. Listen for the difference between long and short vowels.

Icelandic Short Vowel Sounds like English...
að fara to go saw
ef if let
minn my sit
kona woman rock
hundur dog none (try French reçu)
systir sister (same as i)

Look out for these two vowels. They don't have long and short variations.

Vowel Sounds like...
sæll hello height
kjöt meat set, but with rounded lips

Practice Activity
Now, try saying these Icelandic words out loud:

sé, ýmis, tölva, fiskur, smá, pasta, svo, jajæ

Single consonants

Most Icelandic consonants will be easy to pronounce. Keep in mind that p, t and k have a puff of air, just like in English.

Icelandic consonant Sounds like...
kærasti boyfriend kick
pítsa pizza park
tala speak take

Their counterpart plosives (b, d and g) are different in Icelandic. They're voiceless.

Consonant Sounds like...
bátur boat spark
dagur day stamp
góður good sky

Pay attention to the sound of the Icelandic consonants j, r, ð and þ.

Consonant Sounds like...
maður man then
hjarta heart yes
rúm bed better (American pron.)
þ all of you thing

Keep an ear out for g. It sounds like a rough "h" before Icelandic t, and like a voiced rough "h" between vowels or between a vowel and the end of a word.

Consonant Sounds like...
sagt said none (try Scottish loch)
dagur day none (try Spanish agua)
og and none (try Spanish agua)

The letter f is pronounced like v between two vowels.

Practice Activity
Speak these Icelandic words aloud:

búð, að hafa, lagt, Bandaríkin, sjáðu, lög, tómatur

Vowel combinations (dipthongs)

When multiple vowels have their pronunciations combined, they form a diphtong. Listen how the diphthongs au and ei (or ey) sound in Icelandic.

Icelandic vowels Sound like...
auga eye they (but with rounded lips)
eiga supposed to they
eyra ear they

Consonant combinations

The Icelandic double consonants pp, tt and kk are pronounced like a single p, t or k with an h-sound before it. Hear the "aitch" in these words:

Icelandic consonants Sound like...
ekki not (h + k)
stoppa stop (h + p)
þetta this (h + t)

Icelandic f is pronounced like a "p" in the combinations fl and fn (when they come after a vowel). Compare this to the other pronunciations of f:

Consonants Sound like...
safn museum (p + n)
hafa have v (btwn vowels)
fara to go f (elsewhere)

The consonant clusters sl, sn, rl, rn and ll all insert a "t" sound before the n or l.

Consonants Sound like...
íslenska Icelandic (s + t + l)
barn child (r + t + n)
ll car (t + l)

Icelandic speakers pronounce hv like "kv".

Consonants Sound like...
hv what (k + v)

Practice Activity
Say these words in Icelandic:

nafn, sæll, drekka, hvernig

Further resources

There are a few recommended offline courses with thorough pronunciation guides and audio CDs (allowing you to hear and imitate the pronunciation of native Icelandic speakers). Beginner's Icelandic comes with two compact discs that read through the excellent pronunciation guide and the dialogues in the book. Teach Yourself Icelandic offers a great book-and-CD program, with an intro to pronunciation. Colloquial Icelandic also provides a complete lesson course, but does not come as highly recommended.

Forvo has a list of words in Icelandic you can listen to. Sigur Rós has a basic pronunciation guide. You might try this page on Icelandic Phonology (Wikipedia) if you know IPA. An Icelandic learner also has a video of pronouncing the alphabet.