Icelandic and Swedish: Language Similarities and Differences

Icelandic and Swedish are both languages which descend from Old Norse, a language which was spoken in Scandinavia during the time of the Vikings.

Icelandic has remained closer to the original Old Norse language, whereas Swedish has changed more over time.

The reason for this is the geographical isolation of Iceland, which for centuries has limited the influence of other languages on Icelandic.

Icelandic and Swedish: similarities and differences in vocabulary

Because Icelandic and Swedish both descend from Old Norse, these languages share many similar vocabulary words.

Here are some examples of words which are similar in Swedish and Icelandic (and significantly different from their English equivalents):

Because Swedish and Icelandic are different languages, there are also words which are very different between these two languages. Here are some examples of such words:

English
Icelandic
Swedish
work
vinna
arbete
telephone
sími
telefon
question
spurning
fråga
kitchen
eldhús
kök
hungry
svangur
hungrig
difficult
erfiður
svår
shy
feiminn
blyg
silent
þögull
tyst
beautiful
fallegur
skön

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

For centuries the geographical isolation of Iceland has limited the linguistic influence on Icelandic from other languages.

In today’s era of global media and the internet, geographical isolation no longer limits linguistic influence the way it used to. But Icelanders have taken up an active policy of limiting the inclusion of foreign loanwords into their language.

Icelanders will coin new words, rather than include loanwords into Icelandic: Some examples include the word “tölvupóstur” which means “email”, and the word “sími” which means “telephone”.

In contrast, the Swedish language has been in close contact with other languages for centuries. In the middle ages, Swedish cities took part in the Hanseatic League, a trading union which had Middle Low German as its trade language.

As a result there are some Swedish vocabulary words which are loanwords from German. (see this comparison of German and Swedish for some examples)

Icelandic grammar is more difficult than Swedish grammar

In many languages, nouns have a grammatical gender. This is particularly common among European languages.

In Icelandic, each noun has one of 3 possible genders (masculine, feminine or neuter). Swedish is simpler in this regard, with Swedish nouns having one of 2 possible genders (common and neuter).

Grammatical cases: Icelandic nouns are declined, but not Swedish nouns

Icelandic nouns are declined according to 4 grammatical cases (nominative, accusative, dative and genitive). This means that the ending of the noun changes depending on its grammatical function in a sentence.

Just as noun case declensions (which were present in Old English), disappeared from modern English, these were also present in Old Swedish and disappeared from modern Swedish.

Basically, Icelandic being a more conservative language than other Germanic languages like Swedish and English, has conserved certain grammatical features which have disappeared from these other languages.

Verb conjugations in Swedish vs. Icelandic

In contrast to Icelandic, Swedish verbs do not conjugate according to number and person. In Swedish, the same verb form is used for all subject pronouns.

For example, here is the verb "to be" and its conjugation tables in Swedish and Icelandic:

In English:
I
am
you
are
he/she/it
is
we
are
you (pl.)
are
they
are
In Swedish:
jag
är
du
är
han/hon/det
är
vi
är
ni
är
dom
är
In Icelandic:
ég
er
þú
ert
hann/hún/það
er
við
erum
þið
eruð
þeir/þær/þau
eru

In Icelandic and in Swedish, the infinitive form of most verbs ends in -a. Examples of common Swedish verbs can be seen in this list of the 1000 most common Swedish words.

Grammatical articles in Swedish and in Icelandic

In Icelandic and in Swedish, the definite article (which corresponds to the English word “the”) is usually a suffix added to the noun, rather than a word placed in front of it. This is a fairly common feature among Scandinavian languages.

Indefinite articles (which correspond to the English words “a” and “an”) exist in Swedish, but not in Icelandic.

Is Swedish or Icelandic easier to learn?

Swedish is one of the easiest languages, whereas Icelandic is one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn.

The significant difference in learning difficulty between Swedish and Icelandic, is apparent in how these languages are rated by the US Foreign Service Institute (FSI).

Based on their experience in teaching languages to US diplomats, the FSI ranks languages in 4 categories according to their learning difficulty.

Swedish is in the easiest category, alongside other accessible languages such as Spanish and Italian.

Icelandic, on the other hand, is in category III, alongside some notoriously difficult languages such as Hungarian and Finnish.

Which language should you learn first, Swedish or Icelandic?

One advantage of learning Swedish is that it is very similar to Norwegian and Danish. (see these comparisons of Swedish vs Norwegian, and Swedish vs Danish)

By learning Swedish, these other two nordic languages (Norwegian and Danish) become very accessible.

On the other hand, because Icelandic is so similar to Old Norse, knowing Icelandic can enable one to read Old Norse literature, such as the famous Sagas.

Another factor to take into consideration when choosing between learning Swedish or Icelandic, is that there are approximately 30 times more native Swedish speakers as there are native Icelandic speakers (10 million vs 300 thousand).

Icelandic being significantly more difficult than Swedish, in particular with regards to grammar, language learners who do not enjoy grammar may prefer learning Swedish rather than Icelandic.