Icelandic and Danish Icelandic and Danish [Language Comparison]

Icelandic and Danish are Scandinavian languages which evolved from Old Norse - the language spoken by the Vikings.

The geographical isolation of Iceland has limited the influence of other languages on Icelandic, and as a result Icelandic has remained closer to old Norse.

In contrast to Icelandic, the Danish language has been more inclined to incorporate loanwords from other languages.

Icelandic and Danish: vocabulary similarities and differences

Both Icelandic and Danish have many vocabulary words which originate from the old Norse language. This is why there are numbers of similar vocabulary words between Icelandic and Danish.

Icelandic and Danish are different languages, so not all their vocabulary is similar. Below are some examples of words which are quite different between Icelandic and Danish.

English
Icelandic
Danish
telephone
sími
telefon
difficult
erfiður
svær
work
vinna
arbejde
cheap
ódýr
billig
computer
tölva
computer
e-mail
tölvupóstur
e-mail
kitchen
eldhús
køkken
hungry
svangur
sulten
silent
þögull
stille
beautiful
fallegur
smuk

Compared to Danish, Icelandic has been less influenced by other languages

Iceland is an island approximately 600 miles away from mainland Scandinavia, which was settled in the 9th century by Norsemen who spoke the old Norse language.

For centuries the geographical isolation of Iceland sheltered it from outside linguistic influences.

During that period Denmark was involved in trade with German cities and as a result the Danish language assimilated some German vocabulary words.

Even in the modern era, Icelanders have had an active policy of limiting the inclusion of foreign words into Icelandic. While the Danish language has adopted foreign vocabulary words such as “computer” and “e-mail”, Icelanders have instead created new words (“tölva” and “tölvupóstur”).

Icelandic grammar is a lot more difficult than Danish grammar

Icelandic has three grammatical genders (masculine, feminine and neuter). The old Danish language had the same three grammatical genders just like Icelandic. However in modern Danish the masculine and feminine grammatical gender have been merged into a common gender, resulting in a total of only two grammatical genders (common, and neuter).

Just like Old Norse, Icelandic is a language in which nouns are declined according to four grammatical cases (nominative, accusative, dative and genitive). Basically, in Icelandic the ending of a noun changes to reflect its grammatical function in a sentence.

In contrast to Icelandic, the Danish language has eliminated this grammatical feature of case-based noun declensions.

Verb conjugation in Icelandic vs Danish

Verb conjugation is another area where the Danish language is simpler than the Icelandic language.

Danish verbs have the same form regardless of the subject pronoun. In contrast Icelandic verbs are conjugated according to the subject pronoun.

As an example, here are the conjugation tables of the verb “to be” in Danish and Icelandic:

In English:
I
am
you
are
he/she/it
is
we
are
you (pl.)
are
they
are
In Danish:
jeg
er
du
er
han/hun/det
er
vi
er
i
er
de
er
In Icelandic:
ég
er
þú
ert
hann/hún/það
er
við
erum
þið
eruð
þeir/þær/þau
eru

Is Danish or Icelandic easier to learn?

Comparing Danish to Icelandic is a bit like comparing Italian to Latin. Icelandic and Latin both have grammatical features which were common among the Indo-European languages (case-based noun declensions, 3 grammatical genders). These features were even present in Old English.

The Danish language has undergone a series of changes which in some ways parallel the transformation of Old English into modern English.

While a speaker of Old English would possibly have found Icelandic to be easier than Danish, a speaker of modern English will surely find Danish to be a much easier language to learn than Icelandic.

Which language should you learn first, Danish or Icelandic?

One of the pros of learning Danish is that it is fairly similar to Swedish and Norwegian (particularly in its written form). Hence by learning Danish, one would have relatively easy access to these other two Scandinavian languages.

On the other hand, language learners with an interest in Norse mythology can benefit from learning Icelandic as it could enable them to read Old Norse literature, and in particular the famous Sagas.

Language learners who do not have an affinity for grammar, might enjoy the process of learning Danish more than that of learning Icelandic.

When learning a language, it is helpful to practice with native speakers. One may have an easier time finding a language partner for Danish compared to Icelandic, because there are 20 times more native Danish speakers than native Icelandic speakers (6 million vs 300 thousand).