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Icelandic orthography

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


File:Icelandic handwriting.JPG
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 to d, and the runic letter thorn Þþ, transliterated to 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, uniquely Icelandic"), although they are not. Eth is also used in Faroese language, 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.

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.

An Icelandic speaker reciting the alphabet in Icelandic

Problems playing this file? See media help.
Letter Name IPA Frequency[1]
Aa a [a] 10.11%
Áá á [au̯] 1.8%
Bb [pjɛ] 1.04%
Dd [tjɛ] 1.58%
Ðð [ɛð̠] 4.39%
Ee e [ɛ] 6.42%
Éé é [jɛ] 0.65%
Ff eff [ɛfː] 3.01%
Gg [cɛ] 4.24%
Hh [hau̯] 1.87%
Ii i [ɪ] 7.58%
Íí í [i] 1.57%
Jj joð [jɔð̠] 1.14%
Kk [kʰau̯] 3.31%
Ll ell [ɛtl̥] 4.53%
Mm emm [ɛmː] 4.04%
Nn enn [ɛnː] 7.71%
Oo o [ɔ] 2.17%
Óó ó [ou̯] 0.99%
Pp [pʰjɛ] 0.79%
Rr err [ɛr] 8.58%
Ss ess [ɛs] 5.63%
Tt [tʰjɛ] 4.95%
Uu u [ʏ] 4.56%
Úú ú [u] 0.61%
Vv vaff [vafː] 2.44%
Xx ex [ɛxs] 0.05%
Yy ypsilon y [ʏfsɪlɔn ɪ] 0.9%
Ýý ypsilon ý [ʏfsɪlɔn i] 0.23%
Þþ þorn [θ̼ɔrtn̥] 1.45%
Ææ æ [ai̯] 0.87%
Öö ö [œ] 0.78%
Deleted letter
Letter Name IPA
Zz seta [sɛta]

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 (, [sjɛ]), Q (, [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. (And in fact, hv is a direct cognate of Latin qu and English "wh": 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. 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 of people. 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/proper nouns. Not having these letters in the alphabet makes it impossible to alphabetize names like Carl and Walter that are well known in Iceland.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]


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 abolition of z in 1973.[2]

Function of symbols

This section lists Icelandic letters and letter combinations, and how to pronounce them using a narrow International Phonetic Alphabet transcription.[3][4]

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 "handbag, suitcase" About this sound listen 
kaka "cake" About this sound listen 
svangur "hungry"
á [äu̯] fár "damage" About this sound listen 
au [œy̯] þau "they" About this sound listen 
e [eɛ̯] [ɛ] [ɛi̯] skera "to cut"
drekka "to drink" About this sound listen 
drengur "boy"
é [jɛ] ég [jɛːɣ] "I" About this sound listen 
ei, ey [ɛi̯] skeið "spoon" About this sound listen 
i, y [ɪ] [i] sin "sinew" About this sound listen 
syngja "to sing"
í, ý [i] íslenska "Icelandic" About this sound listen 
o [oɔ̯] [ɔ] lofa "promise" About this sound listen 
dolla "pot"
ó [ou̯] rós "rose" About this sound listen 
u [ʏ] [u] hundur "dog" About this sound listen 
munkur "monk"
ú [u] þú "you" About this sound listen 
æ [äi̯] læsa "lock" About this sound listen 
ö [œ] [œy̯] ör "scar" About this sound listen 
öngull "hook"
Grapheme Phonetic realization (IPA) Examples
b In most cases:
[p⁼] unaspirated voiceless bilabial stop
bær "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 "valley" About this sound listen 
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:
[ð̠] voiced alveolar non-sibilant fricative
eða "or" About this sound listen 

bað "bath" About this sound listen 

before a voiceless consonant:
[θ̠] voiceless alveolar non-sibilant fricative
maðkur "maggot" About this sound listen 
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:
fundur "meeting"

haft [haftʰ] "had [past participle]"

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

horfa [ˈhɔrva] "look"

between ó and a vowel:
prófa [prou̯ɐ] "test" About this sound listen 

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

before l or n:
Keflavík About this sound listen 
fnd [mt] hefnd [hɛmt] About this sound listen 
fnt [m̥t] (voiceless) nefnt [nɛm̥t] 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 "have a look" About this sound listen 

logn "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 "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 "fly" About this sound listen 

lag "song" About this sound listen 

before t or s
[x] voiceless velar fricative
dragt "suit"
between a vowel and j or i
[j] palatal approximant
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" About this sound listen 
j [j] "yes"
k beginning of word, before a consonant or a, á, é, o, ó, u, ú and ö:
kaka "cake" About this sound listen 
beginning of word, before e, i, í, y, ý, æ, ei or ey:
[cʰ] aspirated voiceless palatal stop
keyra "drive"
kynskiptingur "transsexual" About this sound listen 
before t
[x] voiceless velar fricative
október "October"
kj beginning of word:
[cʰ] aspirated voiceless palatal stop
kjöt "meat"
all other contexts:
[c⁼] unaspirated voiceless palatal stop
þykja "to be regarded"
kk [ʰk] þakka "thank" About this sound listen 
l in most cases:
lás "lock" About this sound listen 
at end of word, or next to a voiceless consonant:
[l̥] voiceless alveolar lateral approximant
sól "sun" About this sound listen , stúlka
ll in most cases:
bolli "cup" About this sound listen 

milli "between" About this sound listen 

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

mylla "mill" About this sound listen 

m in most cases:
mamma "mum"
after and before voiceless consonants
lampi "lamp"
n in most cases:
nafn "name"
after and before voiceless consonants
planta "plant"

hnifur "knife"

before g or k
vængur "wing"
nn after accented vowels or diphthongs:
steinn "rock"

fínn "elegant"

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

skips "ship's"

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

læra "to learn"

before and after voiceless consonants and before a pause
[r̥] (voiceless alveolar trill)
svartur "black"
rl [rtl̥] karlmaður "man"
rn [rtn̥] þorn "the name of the letter þ"
s [s] sósa sauce
sl [stl̥] rusl
sn [stn̥] bysna
t beginning of word:
[tʰ] aspirated voiceless alveolar stop
taka "take" About this sound listen 
after voiceless sound:
[t⁼] unaspirated voiceless alveolar stop
stela "steal" About this sound listen 
tt [ʰt] detta "to fall"
v [v] vera "to be"
x [xs] lax "salmon"
þ [θ̠] see Ð above þú "you"

Aþena "Athens" About this sound listen 

See also


  1. ^ "Icelandic Letter Frequencies". Practical cryptography. Retrieved 4 April 2013. 
  2. ^ Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson. "Stafsetning og greinarmerkjasetning" (in íslenska). 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). 
  3. ^ Thráinsson, Höskuldur. Icelandic in The Germanic Languages, 2002, eds. König, Ekkehard; van der Auwera, Johan. pgs 142-52. Routledge Language Family Descriptions
  4. ^ Einarsson, Stefán (1949). Icelandic: Grammar, Texts, Glossary. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press. pp. 1–25. 

External links