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Icelandic and Faroese Posted by on May 15, 2012 in Icelandic history, Uncategorized

Unfortunately we’ve been getting quite a lot of spam comments lately, so if your comment seems to have disappeared it might be because it was caught in the spam filter and we didn’t notice that it wasn’t spam. Sorry!

Many people don’t know this (just as many people don’t know about Iceland… some people don’t even know Iceland is inhabitable or has its own language!) but there is a place near Iceland called the Faroe Islands that is very similar in some regards. One of these being the language, and as far as I know Faroese is the closest living language to Icelandic. For those of you who have no interest there’s still a small list of Icelandic words you can look at in this post.

As an overview, Iceland makes a lot of “Icelandic” words from so-called “international words” (ex. English words) for new things. They take old Icelandic words and give them new meanings, directly translate the international words, add a new suffix to an old root, Iceland-ify a word, et cetera. There are also usually slang words for the same new things (often the slang is taken from Danish or English), and the rate of use by the public of the official Icelandic versions versus the slang is generally improved if the new Icelandic word is introduced at the same time as the new thing. For example, “rafmagn – electricity” and “sími – phone” were Icelandic words introduced around the same time that the technology reached Iceland, and they are more commonly used than their slang counterparts today. They’re so commonly used that some people, especially learners, might not realize there are other words for them. Even if there are slang and international words in common use, as mentioned in a previous post usually people will use the proper Icelandic word in writing.

In the case of Iceland, there is simply less “damage” done to the language, in part because they make more new Icelandic words and also try to keep the written language more pure. The result is basically that there are some loan/slang words from various languages but that’s about it. In the case of Faroese however the main idea is that for whatever reason there’s a lot more loanwords, a little different grammar, and the pronunciation of Faroese sounds almost unintelligible to some Icelanders (Faroese has had more foreign influence, as it’s closer to other European countries, is smaller, and has been owned by Denmark for longer too).

Faroese sometimes makes loanwords from Icelandic, Faroese-ifies Icelandic words, or models how Icelandic make its new words. Faroese keeps more international words than Icelandic, but many regular words may be the same just based off shared origins or by chance because they are related languages. Some people are against borrowing words from Icelandic because they want to try and maintain Faroese purity just as Iceland wants to maintain Icelandic purity. There were also some spelling reforms that didn’t take place in Icelandic but did in Faroese, and vice versa. Despite all of this, when written the two often look very similar.

For example, Faroese: At vera (to be), at skilja (to understand), at eita (to be called).
Eg eiti ikki John. (My name isn’t John.)
Icelandic: Að vera, að skilja, að heita
Ég heiti ekki John. (This seems even more similar if you know that at one point, ég in Icelandic was also spelled like eg.)

If you go to Wikipedia, I just grabbed the line at the very bottom of the main page:
Hetta Wikipedia er skrivað á føroyskum. Byrjað varð í 2004, og nú inniheldur hon 5,352 greinir. Nógv onnur Wikipedia eru. Nakrar av teimum størstu síggjast á listanum niðanfyri.

Doesn’t it look quite similar? Some words may trip you up a bit (hetta = þetta, and there is no letter þ in Faroese) but even I as an Icelandic learner can often get the gist of things without having studied either it or any Scandinavian language. One thing however is that not many things comparing Faroese and Icelandic are published. I’ve also never heard of any Faroese textbooks specifically for Icelanders. I haven’t seen any classes for Faroese being held in Iceland and I also haven’t noticed books in Faroese sold at the bookstore, but Faroese-Icelandic dictionaries are.

Here are some similar words, loanwords or not:

(Faroese – Icelandic – English)
føroyska – færeyska – Faroese
íslendska – íslenska – Icelandic
ella – eða – or
sum – sem – which/that/who (as in “words that end in…”, he who tries…”, it has some rules)
hvat – hvað – what
tað – það – it
hvørkikyn – hvorugkyn – neuter gender
kvennkyn – kvenkyn – female gender
navnorð – nafnorð – noun (this seems more similar if you know that sometimes f in Icelandic is pronounced like v)
andstøða – andstæða – opposite
landalæra – landafræði – geography
bilur – bíll – car/automobile (in Icelandic this was taken from the Danish “bil”. Both Icelandic and Faroese were influenced by Danish, although Faroese seems to have been more so.)
bræv – bréf – letter
bókmentir – bókmenntir – literature
yvir – yfir – over
høgri – hægri – right (you can see an article about “hægri” and “vinstri – left” in Icelandic here)

A little of the grammar is different too, although in some cases it’s actually easier than Icelandic for an English-speaker. For example, in Icelandic there is no indefinite article (the word “a/an”) but in Faroese there is. Some words may also look exactly the same in one grammatical case but not match each other in another, and some words may look the same but be used slightly differently. Faroese uses the Danish ø instead of ö, except I have seen old books using ö too (Wikipedia says Faroese used to have both but now only ø is used).

The Faroese edition of a Moomin book, which is a famous series in the Nordic countries, called in Faroese “Vandamikið hásummar” and in English “Moominsummer Madness” (“Örlaganóttin” in Icelandic – if you read a lot of translated stories you’ll find that often you can’t guess what you’re about to read just by the title, because Iceland likes to change them) by Tove Jansson. I bought it at this online store.

Here is the same page, an older translation and the Icelandic version. I bought it at bókin.is, however the book has been out of print for some time so you probably won’t be able to find it.

It’s quite easy to figure out how to buy things on Faroese sites if you know some Icelandic checkout terms:

Fornavn – fornafn – first name
Eftirnavn – eftirnafn – last name
Bústaður – same (heimilisfang) – residence (address)
Bygd/býur – bær/borg – town, city
Postnummar – póstnúmer – postal/zip code
Land – same – country
Teldupostur – tölvupostur/rafpóstur – Email
Telefon – sími – telephone
(Møguligur) fyrispurningur  – fyrirspurnir – (additional) inquiries

Even though it may seem like some stores only ship to specific countries usually these people are extremely nice and if you just Email them with what you want to order they might make an exception for you (I had to do that, even though I was just ordering from the Faroes to Iceland).

Sadly most Icelanders I’ve talked to don’t seem to think about Faroese much or practice it, maybe they’ve heard it and can recognize it but nothing more. The only Icelanders I’ve met who seemed to know anything about the Faroes had been/lived there, although from what I’ve seen Faroe Islanders know a lot more about Iceland than Icelanders know about the Faroes. I’ve met a few Faroe Islanders here in Iceland, they all said within a couple months they were basically fluent in Icelandic because things are so similar.

Here is The Faroese Language Board’s site, where you can browse a dictionary of newly-made words. The Icelandic Language Council doesn’t seem to have the same thing although they do have a pan-Nordic online dictionary, information on punctuation and other rules for Icelandic, and they do publish new books about Icelandic on occasion.

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About the Author: sequoia

I try to write about two-thirds of the blog topics on cultural aspects and one-third on the language, because there's much more out there already on the language compared to daily life information. I try to stay away from touristy things because there's more of that out there than anything else on Iceland, and I feel like talking about that stuff gives you the wrong impression of Iceland.


  1. Kris O:

    Thanks for the clarification, and I never do remember the website labels very well, (must be old age creeping in:) )but this info is very helpful-Thank you and please keep these types of articles coming!!

    • sequoia:

      @Kris O To be frank, this comment is vague and I’m not sure if it’s actually spam or not (we’ve been getting a lot of spam comments lately, and sometimes they slip past the radar). If this isn’t spam, then thanks! If you ever wonder about anything or want me to write about something, just comment and I’ll do my best to research and figure things out for you.

  2. Laura:

    This is so helpful and well written! I didn’t know about the similarities of Iclandic and Faroese. Thanks a lot 🙂 (I’m a huge fan of the Icelandic language. It’s so beautiful)

  3. Laura:

    Oh, also I’d like to ask: You said Faroese is unintelligible for Icelanders. But what about the other way around? Can Faroese people understand Icelanders?