Icelandic is not as difficult as you think. Here’s why

Icelandic has often been touted as one of the most difficult languages, if not, the most difficult language to pick up. Some believe that it is impossible to learn Icelandic, and that being fluent in that language is a rather formidable achievement. Its early divergence from the other languages of Scandinavia, coupled with its preference for language purism, are examples of reasons why people believe that Icelandic is the hardest language to learn. However, as language learning goes, this is more of a myth than reality. Sure, all languages have their own respective difficulty curves in learning, from the writing system of Japanese, to the inconsistent orthography and varieties of English. However, there surely cannot be an “objectively” hardest language to learn, can there?

This title of the world’s hardest language to learn is normally granted by the anglophone sphere, and widely shown on the internet for all to gawk at. But upon further inspection, there are some counterexamples when it comes to awarding Icelandic with this so-called rating. The US Foreign Service Institute, for instance, classifies Icelandic as a Class IV language, putting it on par with Russian and isiZulu, “more difficult” than languages like French, but “less difficult” than languages like Japanese. So, given this counterexample, where did the myth of Icelandic’s overwhelming difficulty originate? It is true that Iceland’s location has allowed the language to branch off from its other cousins from Old Norse, retaining way more archaic features than those found spoken in Sweden, Norway and mainland Denmark. However, we should take a look at the most popular reasons Icelandic is thought to be difficult, and try to debunk them as we go along.

Icelandic has weird sounds

Icelandic pronunciation
The bare basics of Icelandic pronunciation

To the fresh Icelandic learner, the correspondence between the Icelandic alphabet and sounds may seem rather intimidating. With accents on vowels and two more weird-looking letters, there are definitely some sounds that seem foreign to the native English speaker. Some of these sounds do not seem to appear in its closest cousins either.

To the English native speaker, people can seem to understand why Icelandic sounds are more complex than it seems. There are rules where some letters are pronounced as one particular sound, and others where they are not quite pronounced. Unlike English, which uses voicing to distinguish /b/ from /p/, /g/ from /k/, and /d/ from /t/, for example, Icelandic uses aspiration to distinguish these phonemes. Another weird feature not found in English (and may make Icelandic appear exceptionally hard), is the voiceless counterparts of the phonemes /r/, /l/, /m/ and /n/. These are often approximated by having a little aspiration before the consonant, and do not occur phonemically in several other languages spoken in Scandinavia.

However, even though Icelandic has a broad number of allophones, there are pretty much few dialectal differences in sounds, and generally one can get by using the standard used in Reykjavík. Also, despite the rules, these pronunciations appear to be more regular than those found in English, giving a slightly more intuitive association between letter(s) and phoneme.

In colloquial situations, people have shared in forums that there is a “fast speaking” feature in Icelandic, where words can merge, shorten, or contract in some bizarre manners to sound so foreign to the learner who is trying to have a nice day speaking Icelandic. These may seem to be the reasons why people would think Icelandic sounds so weird compared to its Scandinavian cousins.

Icelandic words are so unique

For around two hundred years, Iceland has a policy of linguistic purism in Icelandic, where the adoption of new loanwords into the language is actively discouraged, instead using Old Norse or Old Icelandic roots to craft new words. Its initial movement was part of the Icelandic national movement to attain independence from Denmark, to try to resuscitate the language of a golden age of Icelandic literature. This policy is still in place to this day, to maintain the linguistic structure of Icelandic. Probably one of the most prominent examples is the Icelandic Naming Committee, which decides if newly created names can be allowed for Icelandic children. Among their criteria, lists that the name “must be able to follow Icelandic grammar rules and adjustments”.

New words are created by liaising with the Icelandic Language Institute, some done by revitalising old words that fell out of use, or compounding words to form new ones. This meant that one would not see the word “stock market” being translated to “aktiemarked” as it is in Danish, but more rather, “hlutabréfamarkaður“, a compound word of “share”, “paper” and “market”. More interesting words include “army tank”, “skriðdreki“, quite literally meaning “crawling dragon”. These bizarre new words that are coined as a result of a linguistic purism policy may seem daunting to some, since learners cannot really rely much on referencing their Swedish, Danish or Norwegian counterparts, but to get used to these methods of word formation.

However, loanwords still manage to seep into the language nonetheless. The adaptation of some loanwords to fit Icelandic pronunciation and grammar rules still take place, allowing the borrowing of English words into Icelandic, albeit with minor changes in how they are spelt and perhaps, pronounced. “Kaffi” (coffee), “banani” (banana) and “veira” (virus) are all examples of words that have managed to enter Icelandic through the adaptation to the rules of the language.

Even so, Icelandic is not the only language which has seen such bizarre word etymologies, especially with some relatively new words. Take the word “computer” for example. In Finnish, it is “tietokone”, literally “knowledge machine”. In Chinese, it is “電腦”, or “electric brain”. Icelandic is no exception to such compound word formation, opting to go for “tölva“, almost quite literally “number prophetess”. Icelandic words are indeed unique, but the methods of forming some of these words are quite common with what we see in other languages. Exploring how some of these loanwords are translated to Icelandic gets better over time, as one would be exposed to interesting word etymologies the deeper they dig into the language. Perhaps if learners adopt this mindset when learning Icelandic, they would find Icelandic words more interesting than they are challenging.

Icelandic grammar is so hard

It is true that Icelandic grammar stands out from its closest cousins the North Germanic branch of languages, such as having case endings and verb conjugation. Readers would probably be introduced to the four noun cases, three noun genders and the respective verb moods they would encounter in Icelandic grammar, creating the perception that Icelandic could be spookily difficult, or complicated. Here, we would want to see if that is truly the case.

Icelandic, being a Germanic language, preserves many features found in its Old Norse or Germanic roots. Like German, Icelandic does have these three noun genders and four noun cases, but take inflection patterns to a more extensive level than German does. With strong and weak counterparts of nouns and possibly adjectives, Icelandic seems to project its grammar as more complicated than German, and far surpassing those of Swedish, Danish and Norwegian, which lack most of the conjugation patterns we see in Icelandic.

One special feature of Icelandic I would want to bring up is the use of a “middle voice” — not quite the active voice, nor quite the passive voice. This form carries a slightly different meaning depending on the verb, and in some cases may carry a different meaning altogether. Some verbs survive only in their middle voice form, the other forms having been lost over time. Reported speech, reflexive verbs, some passive formation, reciprocation, verbal noun formation and alternate verb meanings are all ways in which a middle voice can be used, which may sound really confusing to new learners. Another feature of Icelandic is the strong bias towards using impersonal constructions for some expressions, although this feature is shared with many other popular languages. There are also expressions where the subject does not appear to follow normal grammatical norms, such as its use in the dative or the accusative. Examples include “mér finnst…” meaning “I think” (literally “to me finds”) or “mig vantar” to mean “I need”(literally “me needs”).

Perhaps one difficulty that actually scares learners is the rather high irregularity of these conjugation patterns, with some saying that adjectives, for example, have 130 different ways of declination, although many share similar or the same patterns. The relatively free word order, allowed due to the declination of words by noun case, may also intimidate learners alike. However, we see some of these irregularities being shared with other languages. Navajo is often remarked as notorious for its lack of declination patterns, giving the image that it is a “highly irregular language”, and Welsh plurals also lack solid patterns to follow. In some Russian and Latin literature, where case endings are often used (both have six noun cases, but follow certain, relatively regular patterns of declination), one would also spot a relatively free word order, where the meaning of sentences could be derived from understanding case endings, and perhaps, deducing the discourse of the sentence through the way the sentence is ordered. These languages are indeed difficult in their own ways, but as we will discuss later, this difficulty is relative. Even for English native speakers, there will be languages that involve more conjugation patterns, or agglutinative properties that dwarf those of Icelandic. Perhaps one popular language is Hungarian, with its 18 noun cases, and a seemingly complex verb conjugation pattern, or Finnish, with generally four different noun stems to be able to create all the possible noun case endings, in addition to a similarly complex agglutination system consisting of various affixes. To some learners who do not come from such a linguistic background, all these features will definitely appear as too much to take in one shot, but to some who are of these backgrounds, learning Icelandic could be a relative breeze.

However, I must admit that by showing languages with “more difficult” features than Icelandic, there will be a sense of animosity created against learning these languages, a mindset I would highly discourage against. My intention here is to show that Icelandic has its own unique linguistic features that learners should pay more attention to when learning it, while not discounting the other reasons that make Icelandic grammar seem like an impossible task.

It would be expected that these reasons, when phrased and expressed in a particular discourse, will create a rather repulsive aura, discouraging prospective learners from embarking on learning such a language. However, it is the same perception that compels some learners to begin this extra challenge to push their language learning to the next level. Some YouTube videos would show learners talking about their experiences in Icelandic in detail, for instance. Understanding this rather divisive barrier the popular discourse creates in language learning communities, how could we dispel this myth that “Icelandic is the hardest language to learn” so that prospective learners, new and old, can be encouraged to learn the language? A definite wrong answer would be to scapegoat other languages as more difficult than Icelandic to learn, although I would not be surprised if some learners in the community do in fact, mention Mandarin Chinese, or Japanese as “more difficult”.

Language learning difficulty is relative

Each and every language has their own unique bits that often pose as a challenge to the language learner. Finnish with its agglutinating grammar, Arabic and its various conjugation patterns for verbs and nouns, Navajo with the apparent lack of regular verbs, and Russian verbs. These are all examples of notable aspects of languages learners would find challenging when learning them. Perhaps some of these are more foreign to the learner’s native backgrounds, posing as a bigger challenge to that learner than a learner of another linguistic background.

The many articles, posts and rankings written by language learners online primarily center around the English native speaker, which I find rather misleading. In view of this, I attempted to create such a classification for the Chinese native speaker, drawing from differences like grammatical expressions, conjugations and the like. The end result was something quite different from what one would find in the anglocentric classification, and you can see my tier list here: A non-anglocentric language tier system?.

Although difficulty can often be a repelling factor for people to learn some languages, ultimately, interest, commitment, and passion for the target language can generally overcome this hurdle. This is not without practice, of course, but the principle remains. Difficulty is relative, and the ratings and classification found online are merely a guideline for a certain linguistic background. Icelandic, according to the FSI, can take 1100 hours of study for the monolingual English native speaker to attain fluency, but it can be shorter for some, and longer for others, or it can drastically change if one is a native speaker of Faroese.

Embrace the words before embracing the grammar

Probably the most off-putting factor in learning a language is not the expressions or phrases, but learning the grammar. It is true that Icelandic grammar can be more difficult for some learners, but often they may be understood by Icelandic native speakers. However, exposing oneself to a wide variety of words would allow the learner to pick up various nouns, expressions and verbs as they go along, such as in the newspaper, or along the streets of Akureyri. Appreciation of grammar patterns for those respective words can come secondarily, as one may encounter the same words used in various parts of the sentence.

Furthermore, Icelandic has garnered a huge pop culture, which can facilitate learning the language, given its growing wealth of language resources. Books, pop songs and shows in Icelandic are all ways to pick up the language, especially colloquial terms where spoken Icelandic is concerned. As one pieces together new words they learned into a sentence, the learner would further learn how nouns are conjugated to fit the context, to cope with the grammar bits involved.

In any case, learning a language can be easy to some, and difficult to others. However, all learners will come to agree that learning any language requires practice, words, grammar, speaking and writing included. One important mentality for learners to adopt is that no language is impossible to learn, and that results can almost never come quickly. Perhaps this impatience to achieve substantial accomplishments is what drives people away from learning languages like Icelandic. To end off, for my readers who have been wanting to learn Icelandic, there are actually a wealth of resources out there for learners, from flashcard courses on Memrise to coursebooks. I hope this post has changed your perspective of Icelandic, and encouraged you to pick up the language regardless of experience and ability.

Afterword

I started learning Icelandic using the book series titled Íslenska fyrir alla, or Icelandic for everyone, back in 2015. It was a user-friendly textbook series for learners of Icelandic, introducing a smoother learning curve for learners who still feel intimidated by the difficulty so often imposed on them. I realised that Icelandic actually felt easier than some languages to learn, such as Navajo and Tamil, probably due to my familiarity with the Germanic roots of some Icelandic words. Although the grammar was challenging in my opinion, taking one step at a time greatly helped progress in my learning experiences. I still trip up when trying to speak Icelandic, but I can now understand some of the basics of the language, and perhaps I could achieve more when I return to the language wholeheartedly.

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