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Difficult sounds in Icelandic Posted by on Jul 14, 2012 in Uncategorized

First, I’d like to say these are all rules that have been taught to me – I’m not making up any rules based on my own observations. This post from earlier shows how to (approximately) pronounce the alphabet.

If you’d just like to buy a book, I recommend “The Pronunciation of Modern Icelandic“, which is in English and aside from a workbook was the only good book I ever got for class. (Unfortunately it seems the audio portion is no longer available for sale, I wasn’t able to find it when I bought it either and this online store says it’s only on cassette.) A key thing is that in my Icelandic classes (and probably this book, as we used it for class) they taught with “Icelandic IPA”, which is Iceland’s own system apparently and is a little bit different from regular IPA. I don’t know the regular version so I can’t explain any differences.

There are a number of sounds in Icelandic that don’t exist in English, or only have a variant in English. Ö, r, “ll”, “rn”, ú, s, w/v, these are all non-existent in English or slightly different, depending on your English dialect. Ö, ú, v/w, and s are either in your English dialect already or you certainly have something close.

Just remember that with all sounds in Icelandic, little Icelanders have to learn how to pronounce them just like little English-speakers have to learn English sounds, so it’s entirely possible for adults to learn them too. You’re not born magically able to make the r, w, l, etc. sounds in English either, so please don’t get discouraged and don’t think it’s impossible! Many people give up hope, but it’s because no good instructions seem to exist for learning how to make the sounds.

Ö is a sound similar to the i in girl (u in hurl and murder too). It can vary to sound more like an e or more like an u depending on who’s speaking and what they’re saying. You make it by making the Icelandic e sound (“eh” in met, let) but keeping your lips “rounded” (making a kiss, whistling, as if making the English oo sound). I was taught that your tongue stays in the exact same position as the Icelandic e sound, it’s only your lips that you change. This is a sound that I can easily repeat, but I’m not good at saying it by myself – however it’s probably one of the easier sounds to learn after it’s just been properly explained how to make it.

R is a rolled r. From my understanding all rolled/trilled r’s in any language are the same, it just varies between languages on how long/hard you trill the r (there’s different names for other types of r’s, like the English r). Since a lot of popular languages have rolled r’s you can easily find a lot of different tips for learning it. If you have a normal tongue you can definitely make the r. If your tongue is deformed then it might still be possible depending on the deformation.

I’ve heard Hispanic people say that in Icelandic they trill the r for longer than in Spanish so it’s actually even a bit hard for them, who do have a rolled r in their native language. I’ve heard from Nordic people who as kids were unable to roll their r’s that not even in their speech therapy classes did they get precise instructions as to how to do it, so it’s not surprising that none seem to exist in English either. Here’s the best video I’ve found on how to get started (I’d recommend saving it to your computer in case the original goes down, and scanning the comments for useful tidbits).

“ll” is tricky. Sometimes two l’s make a sound “like tl”, but it’s not really tl or dl. It’s a burst of air that comes from the side of your mouth and makes a noise. I think you’re being tricked if you’re told it’s “just like the tl sound in settle” – in my dialect we don’t even have a tl sound in settle, but maybe that does work for some people. I wont explain when you make it versus a regular ll sound, as I can save that for another post, but the basic rule is that if it’s an Icelandic word you make it and if it’s a loanword you don’t.

“Rn” is one of the easiest ones to learn. It’s just a short burst of air (a snort) that comes out through your nose. It’s very slight, you don’t have to prepare for making the noise by inhaling. Maybe if you have something wrong with your nose then you can’t make this noise, but otherwise you should be fine. It appears in the word “barn – child”.

Ú is like the English oo. Your lips are just pursed more, meaning the “circle” of your lips is tighter, more like you’re trying to whistle. I usually can’t tell a difference in sound, but Nordic people certainly can.

S is like a “sharper” English s. I was told to think like the s of an English schoolmarm, that it’s between that sharp s and a normal s. My teacher said that “only people who watch too many English movies have an actually sharp s, the sharp s isn’t in Icelandic, people just use it to be cool”. I don’t know how much of that is true but I think the easiest thing to do with these sounds that we have similar versions of, is to listen to an Icelandic person with a strong accent speaking in English and just see if you notice anything different about their pronunciation of such things.

V and w are the same sound, depending on how good the Icelander’s English is (if they have good English pronunciation then they might distinguish between v and w just as we do in English). I was told that the Icelandic v sound is in-between the English v and w. Danish at least supposedly has the same sort of v/w and I’m pretty sure there’s a sound clip for it somewhere on Wikipedia.

Some minor things:
There’s a t-insertion in some consonant pairs. One you hear often is “an(t)”, which is most clear if you hear someone with an Icelandic accent speaking in English and trying to say “and” – it ends up like “andt”. It also shows up a little in “Ís(t)land / Iceland” (be careful not to really say the t or you’ll sound like you’re trying to say “Eistland / Estonia”).

Bb, tt, and kk all tend to make a different sound when at the end of a word. When you study pronunciation you’ll tend to see that p, t, and k often have special rules all the time, but I’m only going to cover this one because I really wish someone had taught me it sooner. This change doesn’t make the pre-aspiration (“h”, or breathy sound before some double-consonants) go away.

bb turns into pp – you say pabbi (“papa”) like “pahpi”.
tt into dd – “detta” (fall, drop) should sound more like “dehda”
kk into gg – “ekki” (not) should actually sound more like “ehgi”.
The same change happens when a p, t, or k is directly before an l or n (like “epli – apple, it should sound like “ehbli”).

Exception: When the letters are truly at the end of the word, you don’t really do this. “Takk” for example, should really just be “tahk”.

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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.