Icelandic orthography

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Icelandic orthography is the way in which Icelandic words are spelt and how their spelling corresponds with their pronunciation.


A handwriting extract; the Icelandic letters ð & þ are visible

The Icelandic alphabet is a Latin alphabet including some letters duplicated with acute accents; in addition, it includes the letter eth Ðð, transliterated as d, and the runic letter thorn Þþ, transliterated as th (see picture); Ææ and Öö are considered letters in their own right and not a ligature or diacritical version of their respective letters. Icelanders call the ten extra letters (not in the English alphabet), especially thorn and eth, séríslenskur ("specifically Icelandic" or "uniquely Icelandic"), although they are not. Eth is also used in Faroese, and while thorn is no longer used in any other living language, it was used in many historical languages, including Old English. Icelandic words never start with ð, which means the capital version Ð is mainly just used when words are spelled using all capitals.

Sometimes the glyphs are simplified when handwritten, for example æ (considered a separate letter, originally a ligature) may be written as ae, which can make it easier to write cursively.

The alphabet consists of the following 32 letters.

Letter Name IPA Frequency[1]
Aa a [aː] 10.11%
Áá á [äu̯] 1.8%
Bb [pjeɛ̯] 1.04%
Dd [tjeɛ̯] 1.58%
Ðð [eɛ̯ð̠] 4.39%
Ee e [eɛ̯] 6.42%
Éé é [jeɛ̯] 0.65%
Ff eff [ɛfː] 3.01%
Gg ge [cjeɛ̯] 4.24%
Hh [häu̯] 1.87%
Ii i [ɪː] 7.58%
Íí í [iː] 1.57%
Jj joð [joɔ̯ð̠] 1.14%
Kk [kʰäu̯] 3.31%
Ll ell [ɛtːl̥] 4.53%
Mm emm [ɛmː] 4.04%
Nn enn [ɛnː] 7.71%
Oo o [oɔ̯] 2.17%
Óó ó [ou̯] 0.99%
Pp [pʰjeɛ̯] 0.79%
Rr err [ɛrː] 8.58%
Ss ess [ɛsː] 5.63%
Tt [tʰjeɛ̯] 4.95%
Uu u [ʏː] 4.56%
Úú ú [uː] 0.61%
Vv vaff [vafː] 2.44%
Xx ex [ɛxs] 0.05%
Yy ufsilon y [ˈʏfsɪlɔn ɪː] 0.9%
Ýý ufsilon ý [ˈʏfsɪlɔn iː] 0.23%
Þþ þorn [θ̠ɔrːtn̥] 1.45%
Ææ æ [ai̯] 0.87%
Öö ö [œː] 0.78%
Deleted letter
Letter Name IPA
Zz seta [seɛ̯ta]

The letters a, á, e, é, i, í, o, ó, u, ú, y, ý, æ and ö are considered vowels, and the remainder are consonants.

The letters C (, [sjeɛ̯]), Q (, [kʰuː]) and W (tvöfalt vaff, [ˈtʰvœfal̥t ˌvafː]) are only used in Icelandic in words of foreign origin and some proper names that are also of foreign origin. Otherwise, c, qu, and w are replaced by k/s/ts, hv, and v respectively. (In fact, hv etymologically corresponds to Latin qu and English wh in words inherited from Proto-Indo-European: Icelandic hvað, Latin quod, English what.)

The letter Z (seta, [ˈsɛta]) was used until 1973, when it was abolished, as it was only an etymological detail. It originally represented an affricate [t͡s], which arose from the combinations t+s, d+s, ð+s; however in modern Icelandic it came to be pronounced [s], and as it was a rare letter anyway it was decided in 1973 to replace all instances of z with s.[2] However, one of the most important newspapers in Iceland, Morgunblaðið, still uses it sometimes (although very rarely), and a secondary school, Verzlunarskóli Íslands has it in its name. It is also found in some proper names, and loanwords such as pizza. Older people, who were educated before the abolition of the z sometimes also use it.

While the letters C, Q, W, and Z are found on the Icelandic keyboard, they are rarely used in Icelandic; they are used in some proper names of Icelanders, mainly family names (family names are the exception in Iceland).


The modern Icelandic alphabet has developed from a standard established in the 19th century, by the Danish linguist Rasmus Rask primarily. It is ultimately based heavily on an orthographic standard created in the early 12th century by a document referred to as The First Grammatical Treatise, author unknown. The standard was intended for the common North Germanic language, Old Norse. It did not have much influence, however, at the time.

The most defining characteristics of the alphabet were established in the old treatise:

The later Rasmus Rask standard was basically a re-enactment of the old treatise, with some changes to fit concurrent North Germanic conventions, such as the exclusive use of k rather than c. Various old features, like ð, had actually not seen much use in the later centuries, so Rask's standard constituted a major change in practice.

Later 20th century changes are most notably the adoption of é, which had previously been written as je (reflecting the modern pronunciation), and the replacement of z with s in 1973.[3]

Function of symbols[edit]

This section lists Icelandic letters and letter combinations, and how to pronounce them using a narrow International Phonetic Alphabet transcription.[4][5]

Icelandic vowels may be either long or short, but this distinction is only relevant in stressed syllables: unstressed vowels are neutral in quantitative aspect. The vowel length is determined by the consonants that follow the vowel: if there is only one consonant (i.e., a [VC] syllable), the vowel is long; if there are more than one ([VCC]), including geminates, the vowel is short. There are, however, some exceptions to this rule:

  1. A vowel is long when the first consonant following it is [p t k s] and the second [v j r], e.g. esja, vepja, akrar, vökvar, tvisvar.
  2. A vowel is also long in monosyllabic substantives with a genitive -s whose stem ends in a single [p t k] following a vowel (e.g. ráps, skaks), except if the final [p t k] is assimilated into the [s], e.g. báts.
  3. The first word of a compound term preserves its long vowel if its following consonant is one of the group [p t k s], e.g. matmál.
  4. The non-compound verbs vitkast and litka have long vowels.

The chart below is incomplete:

Grapheme Sound (IPA) Examples
Long Short Before
a [äː] [ɐ] [äu̯] taska [ˈtʰɐsːkɐ] "handbag, suitcase" About this sound listen 
kaka [ˈkʰäːkɐ] "cake" About this sound listen 
svangur [ˈsväu̯ŋːkʏr] "hungry"
á [äu̯] fár [fäu̯r] "damage" About this sound listen 
au [œy̯] þau [θœy̯] "they" About this sound listen 
e [eɛ̯] [ɛ] [ɛi̯] skera [ˈskeɛ̯rɐ] "to cut"
drekka [ˈtrɛʰkːɐ] "to drink" About this sound listen 
drengur [ˈtrɛi̯ŋːkʏr] "boy"
é [jɛː] [jɛ] ég [jɛːɣ] "I" About this sound listen 
ei, ey [ɛi̯] skeið [skɛi̯ð] "spoon" About this sound listen 
i, y [ɪ] [i] sin [sɪːn] "sinew" About this sound listen 
syngja [ˈsinːkjɐ] "to sing"
í, ý [i] íslenska [ˈiːstɬɛnskɐ] "Icelandic" About this sound listen 
o [oɔ̯] [ɔ] lofa [ˈloɔ̯vɐ] "promise" About this sound listen 
dolla [ˈtɔtːlɐ] "pot"
ó [ou̯] rós [rou̯s] "rose" About this sound listen 
u [ʏ] [u] hundur [ˈhʏnːtʏr] "dog" About this sound listen 
munkur [ˈmuŋ̊ːkʏr] "monk"
ú [u] þú [θuː] "you" About this sound listen 
æ [äi̯] læsa [ˈläi̯sɐ] "lock" About this sound listen 
ö [œ] [œy̯] ör [œːr] "scar" About this sound listen 
öngull [ˈœy̯ŋːkʏtɬ] "hook"
Grapheme Phonetic realization (IPA) Examples
b In most cases:
[p⁼] unaspirated voiceless bilabial stop
bær [päi̯r] "town" About this sound listen 
Between m and d, t, s, or g:
kembt [cʰɛm̥tʰ] "combed [past participle]"
d In most cases:
[t⁼] unaspirated voiceless alveolar stop
dalur [ˈtäːlʏr] "valley" About this sound listen 
Between l or n and g, n, l, k, or s:
lands [lanːs] "land [genitive case]"
ð between vowels, between a vowel and a voiced consonant, or at end of word:
[ð̠] voiced alveolar non-sibilant fricative
eða [ˈeɛða] "or" About this sound listen 

bað [paːð] "bath" About this sound listen 

before a voiceless consonant and before a pause:
[θ̠] voiceless alveolar non-sibilant fricative
maðkur [ˈmaθ̠ːkʏr] "maggot" About this sound listen 
Between r and n, and between g and s:
harðna [ˈharːtna] "harden"

bragðs [braxːs] "trick [genitive case]"

f At the beginning of a word or before a voiceless consonant, and when doubled:
fundur [ˈfʏnːtʏr] "meeting"

haft [hafːt] "had [past participle]"

Between vowels, between a vowel and a voiced consonant, or at the end of a word:
lofa [ˈloɔ̯vɐ] "promise" About this sound listen 

horfa [ˈhɔrːva] "look"

between ó and a vowel:
prófa [ˈpʰr̥ou̯.ɐ] "test" About this sound listen 

gulrófa [ˈkʏlˌrou̯.ɐ] "rutabaga" About this sound listen 

before l or n:
Keflavík [ˈcʰɛpːlɐvik] About this sound listen 
fnd [mt] hefnd [hɛmːt] About this sound listen 
fnt [m̥t] (voiceless) nefnt [nɛm̥ːt] About this sound listen 
g beginning of word, before a consonant or a, á, é, o, ó, u, ú and ö; or between vowel and l or n:
[k⁼] unaspirated voiceless velar stop
glápa [ˈkläu̯pɐ] "have a look" About this sound listen 

logn [lɔkːn] "calm (weather)" About this sound listen 

beginning of word, before e, i, í, j, y, ý, æ, ei or ey:
[c⁼] unaspirated voiceless palatal stop
geta [ˈceɛtɐ] "can" About this sound listen 
between a vowel and a, u, ð, l or r; or at end of word:
[ɣ] voiced velar fricative
fluga [ˈfl̥ʏːɣɐ] "fly" About this sound listen 

lag [läːɣ] "song" About this sound listen 

before t or s or before a pause:
[x] voiceless velar fricative
dragt [traxːt] "suit"
between a vowel and j or i
[j] palatal approximant
segja [ˈsɛjːɐ] "to say"
between á, ó, ú, and a or u
fljúga [ˈfl̥juː.ɐ] "to fly"
gj [c⁼] unaspirated voiceless palatal stop gjalda [ˈcalːtɐ] "to pay"
h [h] voiceless glottal fricative hár [häu̯r] "hair"
hj [ç] voiceless palatal fricative hjá [çäu̯] "next to, with"
hl [l̥] voiceless alveolar lateral approximant hlýr [l̥iːr] "warm"
hr [r̥] voiceless alveolar trill hratt [r̥aʰtː] "fast"
hv [kʰv] ([xv] among some older speakers in southern Iceland) hvað [kʰväːð] "what" About this sound listen 
j [j] [jäu̯] "yes"
k beginning of word, before a consonant or a, á, é, o, ó, u, ú and ö:
kaka [ˈkʰäːkɐ] "cake" About this sound listen 
beginning of word, before e, i, í, y, ý, æ, ei or ey:
[cʰ] aspirated voiceless palatal stop
keyra [ˈcʰɛi̯rɐ] "drive"
kynskiptingur [ˈcʰɪːnskɪfːtiŋkʏr] "transsexual" About this sound listen 
before t
[x] voiceless velar fricative
október [ˈɔxːtou̯pɛr] "October"
kj beginning of word:
[cʰ] aspirated voiceless palatal stop
kjöt [cʰœːt] "meat"
all other contexts:
[c⁼] unaspirated voiceless palatal stop
þykja [ˈθɪcːjɐ] "to be regarded"
kk [ʰk] þakka [ˈθaʰkːɐ] "thank" About this sound listen 
l in most cases:
lás [läu̯s] "lock" About this sound listen 
at end of word, or next to a voiceless consonant:
[l̥] voiceless alveolar lateral approximant
sól [sou̯l̥] "sun" About this sound listen , stúlka [ˈstul̥ːkɐ] "girl"
ll in most cases:
bolli [ˈpɔtlɪ] "cup" About this sound listen 

milli [ˈmɪtlɪ] "between" About this sound listen 

in loan words and pet names:
bolla [ˈpɔlːɐ] About this sound listen 

mylla [ˈmɪlːɐ] "mill" About this sound listen 

m in most cases:
mamma [ˈmamːɐ] "mum"
after and before voiceless consonants
lampi [ˈlam̥ːpɪ] "lamp"
n in most cases:
nafn [napːn̥] "name"
after and before voiceless consonants
planta [ˈpʰl̥an̥ːtɐ] "plant"

hnífur [ˈn̥iːvʏr] "knife"

before g or k
vængur [ˈväi̯ŋːkʏr] "wing"
nn after accented vowels or diphthongs:
steinn [stɛi̯tːn̥] "rock"

fínn [fitːn̥] "elegant"

all other contexts
finna [ˈfɪnːɐ] "to find"
p beginning of word:
[pʰ] aspirated voiceless bilabial stop
par [pʰäːr] "pair" About this sound listen 
after a voiceless sound:
[p⁼] unaspirated voiceless bilabial stop
spara [ˈspäːrɐ] "save" About this sound listen 
before s, k or t:
[f] voiceless labiodental fricative
September [ˈsɛftɛmpɛr] "September"

skips [skɪfːs] "ship [genitive case]"

before n:
vopn [vɔʰpːn̥] "weapon"
pp [ʰp] stoppa [ˈstɔʰpːɐ] "to stop" About this sound listen 
r at the beginning of words and between vowels:
[r] (voiced alveolar trill)
rigna [ˈrɪkːnɐ] "to rain"

læra [ˈläi̯rɐ] "to learn"

before and after voiceless consonants and before a pause
[r̥] (voiceless alveolar trill)
svartur [ˈsvar̥ːtʏr] "black"
rl [rtl̥] karlmaður [ˈkʰarːtl̥maðʏr] "man"
rn [rtn̥] þorn [θɔrːtn̥] "the name of the letter þ"
s [s] sósa [ˈsou̯sɐ] sauce
sl [stl̥] rusl [rʏsːtl̥] "garbage"
sn [stn̥] bysna [ˈpɪsːtn̥ɐ] "overflow"
t beginning of word:
[tʰ] aspirated voiceless alveolar stop
taka [ˈtʰäːkɐ] "take" About this sound listen 
after voiceless sound:
[t⁼] unaspirated voiceless alveolar stop
stela [ˈsteɛ̯lɐ] "steal" About this sound listen 
tt [ʰt] detta [ˈtɛʰtːɐ] "to fall"
v [v] vera [ˈveɛ̯rɐ] "to be"
x [xs] or [ks] lax [laxs] "salmon"
z [s] beztur [ˈpɛsːtʏr] "best" (former orthography)

Zakarías [ˈsakɐriːɐs] "Zachary"

þ [θ̠] see ð above þú [θ̠uː] "you"

Aþena [ˈäθ̠enɐ] "Athens" About this sound listen 

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Icelandic Letter Frequencies". Practical cryptography. Retrieved 4 April 2013. 
  2. ^ Hvers vegna var bókstafurinn z svona mikið notaður á Íslandi en því svo hætt? (Icelandic)
  3. ^ Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson. "Stafsetning og greinarmerkjasetning" (in Icelandic). Retrieved 9 May 2014. 2. og 3. grein fjalla um bókstafinn z, brottnám hans úr íslensku, og ýmsar afleiðingar þess. z var numin brott úr íslensku ritmáli með auglýsingu menntamálaráðuneytisins í september 1973 (ekki 1974, eins og oft er haldið fram).  (Icelandic)
  4. ^ Thráinsson, Höskuldur. Icelandic in The Germanic Languages, 2002, eds. König, Ekkehard; van der Auwera, Johan. pgs 142-52. Routledge Language Family Descriptions
  5. ^ Einarsson, Stefán (1949). Icelandic: Grammar, Texts, Glossary. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press. pp. 1–25. 

External links[edit]