Is the Icelandic language similar to Norwegian?

Icelandic and Norwegian are both languages which have evolved from Old Norse which was the language spoken by the Vikings.

Iceland was first settled in 874 by Ingólfur Arnarson, a Norseman who came from a city which is today part of Norway.

Because of its secluded location, as an Island nearly 1000 km from Norway, Iceland has been relatively sheltered from foreign linguistic influences. Compared to Norwegian, the Icelandic language has remained much closer to Old Norse.

Icelandic and Norwegian have had over 1000 years to diverge in different directions from their common linguistic ancestor. This raises the question as to how similar contemporary Icelandic is to contemporary Norwegian.

Icelandic and Norwegian: similarities & differences

Similar vocabulary words between Icelandic and Norwegian

There are a lot of similar vocabulary words between Icelandic and Norwegian. These shared words are often spelled slightly differently.

Below are some examples of similar words. Notice that when an Icelandic word ends in ‘ur’, the corresponding Norwegian word often has that ending removed.

Some vocabulary words which are similar between Icelandic and Norwegian :
English Icelandic Norwegian
peace friður fred
forest skógur skog
evening kvöld kveld
expensive dýrt dyrt
mountain fjall fjell
yellow gulur gul
white hvítur hvit
seasons árstíðir årstider
money peningar penger
shoes skór sko
friend vinur venn
calm rólegur rolig
cheese ostur ost

Pairs of words which appear to be similar yet have completely different meanings are called “false friends” in the context of language learning.

Most of the vocabulary words which appear to be similar between Icelandic and Norwegian do in fact have the same meanings. However here is an example of an Icelandic-Norwegian vocabulary “false friend”:

In Icelandic, the verb “að knúsa” means “to hug”, while in Norwegian the verb “å knuse” means “to crush”

Icelandic and Norwegian: a common origin

Norwegians today speak a language that is quite different from Old Norse, while Icelanders speak a language that is nearly identical to Old Norse.

While it might be easier for Icelanders to speak a bit of Norwegian than it is for them to take on Danish or Swedish - modern Norwegian and Icelandic are still quite different from one another.

What happened? How did the two languages diverge?

At the time of Iceland’s settlement, Norway and Iceland were closely connected because the Viking settlers in Iceland came primarily from Norway, back when Vikings ran the world. Well, they ran the North Atlantic, at least...

The history of this connection is detailed by Icelandic historian, poet, and politician Snorri Sturluson, in the Snorra Edda, also called the Prose Edda, written in the early 13th century, which details much of Iceland’s settlement history.

Early on, Norwegians and Icelanders both spoke Old Norse. Their languages didn’t start to diverge until around the 14th century.

Influences from nearby countries (Germany, Danemark, Sweden) gradually started changing the Norwegian language.

In contrast Iceland, being remote and isolated, was preserved from these influences. Icelandic grammar hasn’t changed much in the past seven hundred years or so.

In fact, the language spoken in Iceland today is almost identical to the Old Norse spoken by the Viking settlers hundreds of years ago.

Icelanders of today find it pretty easy to read Old Norse texts, while modern-day Norwegians would probably have a very hard time with it.

Different forms Of modern Norwegian and modern Icelandic

Modern Norwegian has two different written languages, “nýnorska” and “bókmál.”

There are also many different dialects within Norway (population: 5.379 million) depending on the location of the speaker in the country.

Iceland (population approximately 366,000), on the other hand, has only one form of the written language, and a tiny variation in the dialect between the general population and the Icelanders who reside in the northern part of the island.

Icelandic alphabet vs. Norwegian alphabet

Icelandic and Norwegian used similar alphabets, but each of these languages has a few letters which the other language does not have.

The Icelandic alphabet the Icelandic alphabet The Norwegian alphabet
The Norwegian alphabet

The letters Ð and Þ are unique to Icelandic, and derive from Old Norse. Icelandic also includes many accented forms of vowels, e.g., Á, É, Í, and so on.

Norwegian uses the letters Ø and Å, which are present in the other Scandinavian languages, but not in Icelandic.

In both languages, the letters C, Q, W, X, and Z are used only/primarily in foreign loan words.

Articles in Icelandic vs Norwegian

In English, articles are among the most frequently used words. The English language has both definite articles (“the”) and indefinite articles (“a”, “an”).

Indefinite articles exist in Norwegian, but they do not exist in Icelandic.

In Icelandic and in Norwegian, the definite article is usually added to the end of the word (it is a suffix).

Vocabulary for the examples:
English language
Norwegian språk
Icelandic tungumál
Indefinite articles:
English I speak a language
Norwegian Jeg snakker et språk
Icelandic Ég tala tungumál
Definite articles:
English I speak the language
Norwegian Jeg snakker språket
Icelandic Ég tala tungumál

The German language has had more influence on Norwegian than on Icelandic

The Norwegian language was influenced by German during the period of the Hanseatic League, which was an organization of merchants during the middle ages.

Hanseatic League was a commercial organization based in the North German cities of Hamburg, Lübeck, and Bremen. The Hanseatic League had trading stations in several northern European cities, including the Norwegian city of Bergen.

Here are some examples of Norwegian words which come from German. The corresponding Icelandic words generally come from Old Norse and not German.

Icelandic and Norwegian are different in the way they deal with foreign words.

Icelanders go to great lengths to preserve their language. Rather than adopt foreign (mostly English) words with Icelandic spelling, the Icelandic language committee develops entirely new words based on the linguistic conventions of Icelandic.

Many of these words are tech-related — email (tölvupóstur), hashtag (myllumerki), podcast (hlaðvarp). Icelandic “refuses” to simply adopt them directly from English.

Norwegian is more open to directly incorporating foreign words as loanwords. And, every now and then, a loanword slips into Icelandic.

English

Norwegian

Icelandic

computer datamaskin tölva
email e-post tölvupóstur
hashtag emnekagg myllumerki
airplane fly flugvél
to swim å svømme Að synda
cool kul kúl
automatically automatisk sjálfkrafa
smart smart klár
telephone telefon sími

Grammatical cases have been preserved in Islandic but not in Norwegian

Icelandic has preserved many of the complicated grammatical features from Old Norse, while these have mostly disappeared from Norwegian.

For instance, Icelandic has four grammatical cases: nominative, accusative, dative and genitive.

Old Norwegian had grammatical cases. However between the 12th and the 16th century the Norwegian language underwent considerable changes which included the loss of grammatical cases.

The example phrases below show how nouns in Icelandic are inflected based on grammatical cases. Notice how in the Norwegian phrases the noun is not inflected.

Nominative:
English a cat plays
Norwegian en katt leker
Icelandic köttur leikur sér
Accusative:
English I see a cat
Norwegian Jeg ser en katt
Icelandic Ég sé kött
Dative:
English I give food to a cat
Norwegian Jeg gir mat til en katt
Icelandic Ég gef ketti mat

Norwegian verbs are simpler to conjugate than Icelandic verbs

In Norwegian, the same verb form is used for all pronouns, this is not the case in Icelandic.

For example, here are some conjugation tables for the verb “to read” in Norwegian and Icelandic. Notice how much simpler the Norwegian conjugation is, compared to Icelandic.

In English:
I
read
you
read
he/she
reads
we
read
they
read
In Icelandic:
ég
les
þú
lest
hann/hún
les
við
lesum
þau
lesa
In Norwegian:
jeg
leser
du
leser
han/hun
leser
vi
leser
de
leser

Choosing between learning Norwegian and Icelandic

For English speakers, Icelandic is a much more difficult language to learn than Norwegian.

The choice between learning Icelandic and Norwegian also depends on the learner's affinity for grammar. Language learners who enjoy grammatical concepts will enjoy learning Icelandic; those who dislike grammar may have a more pleasant time learning Norwegian.

In any case, due to the similarities in vocabulary, learning either Icelandic or Norwegian would make learning the other one easier later on.

Conclusion

Icelandic was similar to Old Norwegian, but it is much less similar to the Norwegian language used today.

Still Icelandic and Norwegian have many similar vocabulary words in common. It is mostly in terms of grammar that these two languages differ the most.

Icelandic has kept many of the complicated grammatical features which existed in old Norse, while many of these features have disappeared from Norwegian.

This explains why Icelandic is one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn, whereas Norwegian is one of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn.

PS: You can use our free language tool to make your own vocabulary lists, and record your own phrases.