Icelandic orthography is the way in which Icelandic words are spelt and how their spelling corresponds with their pronunciation.
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 (pictured to the right); 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, while thorn is no longer used in any other living language. Icelandic words never start with ð, which means the capital version Ð is mainly just used when words are spelled using all capitals.
The alphabet consists of the following 32 letters.
An Icelandic speaker reciting the alphabet in Icelandic
|Problems playing this file? See media help.|
|Yy||ypsilon y||[ʏfsɪlɔn ɪ]||0.9%|
|Ýý||ypsilon ý||[ʏfsɪlɔn i]||0.23%|
- Deleted letter
The letters C (sé, [sjɛ]), Q (kú, [kʰu]) 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 substituted with 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. 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). Many consider the letters should be part of the Icelandic alphabet, as the alphabet is first and foremost a tool to collate words and names, and not having these letters in the alphabet makes it impossible to alphabetize names like Carl and Walter that are well known in Iceland. The alphabet, as taught in Icelandic schools until c. 1980, consisted of 36 letters: a, á, b, c, d, ð, e, é, f, g, h, i, í, j, k, l, m, n, o, ó, p, q, r, s, t, u, ú, v, w, x, y, ý, z, þ, æ, ö.
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:
- Use of the acute accent (originally to signify vowel length).
- Use of þ, also used in the Old English alphabet as the letter thorn.
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.
Function of symbols
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The non-compound verbs vitkast and litka have long vowels.
The chart below is incomplete:
|a||[äː]||[ɐ]||[äu̯]||taska "handbag, suitcase" listen (help·info)
kaka "cake" listen (help·info)
|á||[äu̯]||fár "damage" listen (help·info)|
|au||[œy̯]||þau "they" listen (help·info)|
|e||[eɛ̯]||[ɛ]||[ɛi̯]||skera "to cut"
drekka "to drink" listen (help·info)
|é||[jɛː]||[jɛ]||ég [jɛːɣ] "I" listen (help·info)|
|ei, ey||[ɛi̯]||skeið "spoon" listen (help·info)|
|i, y||[ɪ]||[i]||sin "sinew" listen (help·info)
syngja "to sing"
|í, ý||[i]||íslenska "Icelandic" listen (help·info)|
|o||[oɔ̯]||[ɔ]||lofa "promise" listen (help·info)
|ó||[ou̯]||rós "rose" listen (help·info)|
|u||[ʏ]||[u]||hundur "dog" listen (help·info)
|ú||[u]||þú "you" listen (help·info)|
|æ||[äi̯]||læsa "lock" listen (help·info)|
|ö||[œ]||[œy̯]||ör "scar" listen (help·info)
|Grapheme||Phonetic realization (IPA)||Examples|
|b||In most cases:
||bær "town" listen (help·info)|
|Between m and d, t, s, or g:
||kembt [cʰɛm̥tʰ] "combed [past participle]"|
|d||In most cases:
||dalur "valley" listen (help·info)|
|Between l or n and g, n, l, k, or s:
||lands [lans] "land [genitive case]"|
|ð||between vowels, between a vowel and a voiced consonant, or at end of word:||eða "or" listen (help·info)|
|before a voiceless consonant:||maðkur "maggot" listen (help·info)|
|Between r and n, and between g and s:
||harðna [ˈhartna] "harden"
bragðs [braxs] "trick [genitive case]"
|f||At the beginning of a word or before a voiceless consonant, and when doubled:
haft [haftʰ] "had [past participle]"
|Between vowels, between a vowel and a voiced consonant, or at the end of a word:
||lofa "promise" listen (help·info)
horfa [ˈhɔrva] "look"
|between ó and a vowel:
||prófa [prou̯ɐ] "test" listen (help·info)|
|before l or n:
||Keflavík listen (help·info)|
|fnd||[mt]||hefnd [hɛmt] listen (help·info)|
|fnt||[m̥t] (voiceless)||nefnt [nɛm̥t] listen (help·info)|
|g||beginning of word, before a consonant or a, á, é, o, ó, u, ú and ö; or between vowel and l or n:
||glápa "have a look" listen (help·info)|
|beginning of word, before e, i, í, j, y, ý, æ, ei or ey:
||geta "can" listen (help·info)|
|between a vowel and a, u, ð, l or r; or at end of word:||fluga "fly" listen (help·info)|
|before t or s||dragt "suit"|
|between a vowel and j or i||segja "to say"|
|between á, ó, ú, and a or u
||fljúga "to fly"|
|gj||[c⁼] unaspirated voiceless palatal stop||gjalda "to pay"|
|h||[h] voiceless glottal fricative||hár "hair"|
|hj||[ç] voiceless palatal fricative||hjá "next to, with"|
|hl||[l̥] voiceless alveolar lateral approximant||hlýr "warm"|
|hr||[r̥] voiceless alveolar trill||hratt "fast"|
|hv||[kʰv] ([xv] among some older speakers in southern Iceland)||hvað "what" listen (help·info)|
|k||beginning of word, before a consonant or a, á, é, o, ó, u, ú and ö:
||kaka "cake" listen (help·info)|
|beginning of word, before e, i, í, y, ý, æ, ei or ey:
kynskiptingur "transsexual" listen (help·info)
|before t||október "October"|
|kj||beginning of word:
|all other contexts:
||þykja "to be regarded"|
|kk||[ʰk]||þakka "thank" listen (help·info)|
|l||in most cases:
||lás "lock" listen (help·info)|
|at end of word, or next to a voiceless consonant:
||sól "sun" listen (help·info), stúlka|
|ll||in most cases:
||bolli "cup" listen (help·info)|
|in loan words and pet names:
||bolla listen (help·info)|
|m||in most cases:
|after and before voiceless consonants
|n||in most cases:
|after and before voiceless consonants
|before g or k
|nn||after accented vowels or diphthongs:
|all other contexts
||finna "to find"|
|p||beginning of word:
||par "pair" listen (help·info)|
|after a voiceless sound:
||spara "save" listen (help·info)|
|before s, k or t:||September "September"
||vopn [vɔhpn̥] "weapon"|
|pp||[ʰp]||stoppa "stop" listen (help·info)|
|r||at the beginning of words and between vowels:
||rigna "to rain"
læra "to learn"
|before and after voiceless consonants and before a pause
|rn||[rtn̥]||þorn "the name of the letter þ"|
|t||beginning of word:
||taka "take" listen (help·info)|
|after voiceless sound:
||stela "steal" listen (help·info)|
|tt||[ʰt]||detta "to fall"|
|v||[v]||vera "to be"|
|z||[s]||beztur "best" (former orthography)
|þ||[θ̠] see ð above||þú "you"|
- "Icelandic Letter Frequencies". Practical cryptography. Retrieved 4 April 2013.
- Hvers vegna var bókstafurinn z svona mikið notaður á Íslandi en því svo hætt? (Icelandic)
- 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)
- Thráinsson, Höskuldur. Icelandic in The Germanic Languages, 2002, eds. König, Ekkehard; van der Auwera, Johan. pgs 142-52. Routledge Language Family Descriptions
- Einarsson, Stefán (1949). Icelandic: Grammar, Texts, Glossary. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press. pp. 1–25.