Icelandic orthography is the way in which Icelandic words are spelled and how their spelling corresponds with their pronunciation.
The Icelandic alphabet is a Latin-script 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.
The alphabet consists of the following 32 letters.
An Icelandic speaker reciting the alphabet in Icelandic
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|Majuscule forms (also called uppercase or capital letters)|
|Minuscule forms (also called lowercase or small letters)|
|Yy||ufsilon y||[ˈʏfsɪlɔn ɪː]||0.9%|
|Ýý||ufsilon ý||[ˈʏfsɪlɔn iː]||0.23%|
- Deleted letter
The letters C (sé, [sjɛː]), Q (kú, [kʰuː]) and W (tvöfalt vaff, [ˈtʰvœːfal̥t 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, [ˈsɛːta]) 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 believe these letters should be included in the alphabet, as its purpose is a tool to collate. The alphabet as taught in schools up to about 1980 has these 36 letters (and computers still order this way): 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 and pre-aspirated stops, 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.
This section is incomplete. This is because the chart below is incomplete. (May 2017)
ng or nk
|a||[aː]||[a]||[au]||taska [ˈtʰaska] ( listen) "handbag"|
kaka [ˈkʰaːka] ( listen) "cake"
svangur [ˈsvauŋkʏr] "hungry"
|á||[auː]||[au]||fár [fauːr] ( listen) "disaster"|
|au||[øiː]||[øi]||þau [θøiː] ( listen) "they"|
|e||[ɛː]||[ɛ]||[ei]||skera [ˈscɛːra] "to cut"|
drekka [ˈtrɛʰka] ( listen) "to drink"
drengur [ˈtreiŋkʏr] "boy"
|é||[jɛː]||[jɛ]||ég [jɛːɣ] ( listen) "I"|
|ei, ey||[eiː]||[ei]||skeið [sceiːð] ( listen) "spoon"|
hey [heiː] "hay"
|i, y||[ɪː]||[ɪ]||[i]||sin [sɪːn] ( listen) "sinew"|
syngja [ˈsiɲca] "to sing"
|í, ý||[iː]||[i]||íslenska [ˈistlɛnska] ( listen) "Icelandic"|
|o||[ɔː]||[ɔ]||lofa [ˈlɔːva] ( listen) "to promise"|
dolla [ˈtɔtla] "pot"
|ó||[ouː]||[ou]||rós [rouːs] ( listen) "rose"|
|u||[ʏː]||[ʏ]||[u]||hundur [ˈhʏntʏr] ( listen) "dog"|
munkur [ˈmuŋ̊kʏr] "monk"
|ú||[uː]||[u]||þú [θuː] ( listen) "you"|
|æ||[aiː]||[ai]||læsa [ˈlaiːsa] ( listen) "lock"|
|ö||[œː]||[œ]||[øi]||ör [œːr] ( listen) "scar"|
hnöttur [ˈn̥œʰtʏr] "sphere"
öngull [ˈøiŋkʏtl̥] "hook"
|Grapheme||Phonetic realization (IPA)||Examples|
|b||in most cases:||bær [paiːr] ( listen) "town"|
|between m and d, t, s, or g:
||kembt [cʰɛm̥t] "combed [past participle]"|
|d||in most cases:||dalur [ˈtaːlʏr] ( listen) "valley"|
|between l or n and g, n, l, k, or s:
||lands [lans] "land's [genitive]"|
|ð||between vowels, between a vowel and a voiced consonant, or at end of word:||eða [ˈɛːða] ( listen) "or"|
bað [paːð] ( listen) "bath"
|before a voiceless consonant and before a pause:||maðkur [ˈmaθkʏr] ( listen) "worm"|
|between r and n, and between g and s:
||harðna [ˈhartna] "to harden"|
bragðs [praxs] "trick's [genitive], flavour's [genitive]"
|f||at the beginning of a word or before a voiceless consonant, and when doubled:||fundur [ˈfʏntʏr] "meeting"|
haft [haft] "had [past participle]"
|between vowels, between a vowel and a voiced consonant, or at the end of a word:||lofa [ˈlɔːva] ( listen) "to promise"|
horfa [ˈhɔrva] "look"
|between ó and a vowel:
||prófa [ˈpʰr̥ou.a] ( listen) "test"|
gulrófa [ˈkʏlˌrou.a] ( listen) "rutabaga"
|before l or n:||Keflavík [ˈcʰɛplaˌviːk] ( listen) "Keflavík"|
|fnd||[mt]||hefnd [hɛmt] ( listen) "revenge"|
|fnt||[m̥t] (voiceless)||nefnt [nɛm̥t] ( listen) "named"|
|g||beginning of word, before a consonant or a, á, é, o, ó, u, ú or ö; or between vowel and l or n:||glápa [ˈklauːpa] ( listen) "to stare"|
logn [lɔkn] ( listen) "windstill"
|beginning of word, before e, i, í, j, y, ý, æ, ei or ey:||geta [ˈcɛːta] ( listen) "to be able"|
|between a vowel and a, u, ð, l or r; or at end of word:||fluga [ˈfl̥ʏːɣa] ( listen) "fly"|
lag [laːɣ] ( listen) "layer"
|before t or s or before a pause:||dragt [traxt] "suit"|
|between a vowel and j or i:||segja [ˈsɛjːa] "to say"|
|between á, ó, ú, and a or u:
||fljúga [ˈfl̥juː.a] "to fly"|
|gj||[c] unaspirated voiceless palatal stop||gjalda [ˈcalta] "to pay"|
|h||[h] voiceless glottal fricative||hár [hauːr] "hair"|
|hj||[ç] voiceless palatal fricative||hjá [çauː] "next to"|
|hl||[l̥] voiceless alveolar lateral approximant||hlýr [l̥iːr] "warm"|
|hn||[n̥] voiceless alveolar lateral approximant||hné [n̥jɛː] "knee"|
|hr||[r̥] voiceless alveolar trill||hratt [r̥aʰt] "fast"|
|hv||[kʰv] ([xv] among some older speakers in southern Iceland)||hvað [kʰvaːð] ( listen) "what"|
|j||[j]||já [jauː] "yes"|
|k||beginning of word, before a consonant or a, á, é, o, ó, u, ú or ö:||kaka [ˈkʰaːka] ( listen) "cake"|
|beginning of word, before e, i, í, y, ý, æ, ei or ey:||keyra [ˈcʰeiːra] "to drive"|
kynskiptingur [ˈcʰɪːnscɪftiŋkʏr] ( listen) "transsexual"
|other contexts, before a, á, é, o, ó, u, ú or ö:||skarfur [ˈskarvʏr] "cormorant"|
haka [ˈhaːka] "chin"
|other contexts, before e, i, í, y, ý, æ, ei or ey:||skip [ˈscɪːp] "boat"|
hroki [ˈr̥ɔːcɪ] "arrogance"
|before t:||október [ˈɔxtouːpɛr] "October"|
|kj||beginning of word:||kjöt [cʰœːt] "meat"|
|other contexts:||þykja [ˈθɪːca] "to regard"|
|kk||[ʰk], [ʰc]||þakka [ˈθaʰka] ( listen) "to thank"|
ekki [ˈɛʰcɪ] "not"
|l||in most cases:||lás [lauːs] ( listen) "lock"|
|at end of word, or next to a voiceless consonant:||sól [souːl̥] ( listen) "sun"|
stúlka [ˈstul̥ka] "girl"
|ll||in most cases:||bolli [ˈpɔtlɪ] ( listen) "cup"|
milli [ˈmɪtlɪ] ( listen) "between"
|in loan words and pet names:||bolla [ˈpɔlːa] ( listen) "bun, bread roll"|
mylla [ˈmɪlːa] ( listen) "mill"
|m||in most cases:||mamma [ˈmamːa] "mum"|
|after and before voiceless consonants:||lampi [ˈlam̥pɪ] "lamp"|
|n||in most cases:||nafn [napn̥] "name"|
|after and before voiceless consonants:||planta [ˈpʰlan̥ta] "plant"|
hnífur [ˈn̥iːvʏr] "knife"
|ng||in most cases:||vængur [ˈvaiŋkʏr] "wing"|
engi [ˈeiɲcɪ] "meadow"
|before d, l or s:||kringla [ˈkʰriŋla] "disc"|
gangs [ˈkauŋs] "movement's [genitive]"
|nk||[ŋ̊k], [ɲ̊c]||hönk [ˈhøiŋ̊k] "coil, loop"|
banki [ˈpauɲ̊cɪ] "bank"
|nn||after accented vowels or diphthongs:||steinn [steitn̥] "rock"|
fínn [fitn̥] "fine"
|all other contexts:||finna [ˈfɪnːa] "to find"|
|p||beginning of word:||par [pʰaːr] ( listen) "pair"|
|other contexts:||spara [ˈspaːra] ( listen) "to save"|
kápa [ˈkʰauːpa] "coat"
|before s, k or t:||September [ˈsɛftɛmpɛr] "September"|
skips [skɪfs] "ship's [genitive]"
|before n:||vopn [vɔʰpn̥] "weapon(s)"|
|pp||[ʰp]||stoppa [ˈstɔʰpa] ( listen) "to stop"|
|r||at the beginning of words and between vowels:||rigna [ˈrɪkna] "to rain"|
læra [ˈlaiːra] "to learn"
|before and after voiceless consonants and before a pause:||svartur [ˈsvar̥tʏr] "black"|
|rl||[rtl̥]||karlmaður [ˈkʰartl̥ˌmaːðʏr] "male human"|
|rn||in most cases:||þorn [θɔrtn̥] "the name of the letter Þ"|
|before d:||vernd [vɛrnt] "protection"|
|s||[s]||sósa [ˈsouːsa] "sauce"|
|sl||[stl̥]||rusl [rʏstl̥] "garbage"|
|sn||[stn̥]||býsna [ˈpistn̥a] "extremes"|
|t||beginning of word:||taka [ˈtʰaːka] ( listen) "take"|
|other contexts:||stela [ˈstɛːla] ( listen) "to steal"|
skutur [ˈskʏːtʏr] "stern"
|tt||[ʰt]||detta [ˈtɛʰta] "to fall"|
|v||[v]||vera [ˈvɛːra] "to be"|
|x||[xs] (or [ks])||lax [laxs] "salmon"|
|z||[s]||beztur [ˈpɛstʏr] "the best" (former orthography)|
Zakarías [ˈsaːkʰariːas] "Zachary"
|þ||[θ̠] voiceless alveolar non-sibilant fricative||þú [θuː] "you"|
Aþena [ˈaːθɛna] ( listen) "Athens"
- "Icelandic Letter Frequencies". Practical cryptography. Retrieved 4 April 2013.
- Hvers vegna var bókstafurinn z svona mikið notaður á Íslandi en því svo hætt? (in 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).(in Icelandic)
- Höskuldur Þráinsson (2002). "Icelandic". In König, Ekkehard; van der Auwera, Johan. The Germanic Languages. Routledge Language Family Descriptions. pp. 142–152.
- Stefán Einarsson (1949). Icelandic: Grammar, Texts, Glossary. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press. pp. 1–25.