A Conlanger’s Guide to the Icelandic Language

In this article, I’m going to try something new. I’ve decided to talk about some features in a language that I have found interesting, which I hope will give you some ideas for your conlangs.

The language that I will discuss in this article is the Icelandic Language. Icelandic is a north-germanic language spoken in Iceland. Its a descendant of Old Norse and therefore closely related to Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and Faroese. Unlike some of its relatives, it is more conservative and has retained many of Old Norse’s grammatical features, such as noun case.

Phonology

Icelandic phonology is complicated, particularly in its consonant inventory as it is not clear which are phonemes and which ones are just allophones.

If two sounds can be used contrastively then they are considered separate phonemes, but if two sounds with phonetically distinct features can not be used contrastively then they considered allophones. The particular allophone which is realised depends on adjacent phonemes. For example, the letters k and g are both realised as [x] when after a vowel and before a t /t/ or an s /s/.

When conlanging, it is tempting to just make a chart of phonemes and leave it there. However, natural languages are rarely that simple and the actual set of phonemes a language has may not be agreed upon. If you want to make a realistic phonology for your naturalistic conlang, then you should consider adding some allophones.

In the consonant chart below, I’ve used the phonemes that are suggested by Icelandic spelling and then I added the major allophones in brackets. 

Iceland.png

Some notes for the chart above:

  • Icelandic also has geminate consonants and pre-aspiration (see below).
  • The voiceless continuants are true fricatives but the voiced continuants are half-way between fricatives and approximants.
  • The rhotic is either a tap or a trill depending on the speaker.
  • For the vowels, I have only listed the monophthongs. There are five diphthongs: /ei/, /œi/, /ai/, /ou/ and /au/. Vowels can also be lengthened, but this is not a contrastive feature.

Pre-aspiration

Aspiration is when a consonant is released with a strong puff of air. This is a common feature in many languages, but sometimes this is the puff of air can occur before the closure of the consonant. This is called pre-aspiration.

In Icelandic spelling, the letters p,t and k represent the regular aspirated plosives: [pʰ],[tʰ] and [kʰ] respectively. However, if those letters are doubled or followed by l /l/, m /m/ or n  /n/ then they will represent the pre-aspirated plosives: [ʰp], [ʰt] and [ʰk]. Some examples of words with pre-aspiration include tappi [ˈtʰaʰpɪ] ‘cork’, vítt [ˈviʰt] ‘wide’, bakka [ˈbaʰka] ‘to reverse’, and vakna [ˈvaʰkna] ‘to wake up’.

Pre-aspiration is never contrasted with a [h] followed by a stop, so I did not include pre-aspiration in the chart above as it is unlikely that it would be considered phonemic.

Pre-aspiration is an interesting feature to include in your conlang’s phonology. It has a subtle breathy sound, which could be used as an interesting alternative to breathy vowels. But bare in mind that it shouldn’t be considered phonemic unless contrasted with a [h] + stop cluster.

There several other languages with pre-aspiration. The most notable of which is Huautla Mazatec which, unlike Icelandic, allows pre-aspirated consonants to occur at the beginning of a word.

Grammar

Icelandic is an inflectional language, which means that some grammatical features are expressed by tweaking the stem of a word. Icelandic mainly uses suffixes to achieve this.

Umlaut

When adding suffixes to a word (derivational or inflectional), the suffix may trigger previous vowels to change. This sound change is called umlaut.

The most basic umlaut in Icelandic is the U-umlaut. This is when an a /a/ changes to an /œ/  if there is u /ʏ/ in the next syllable. For example, the verb að tala (to talk) becomes tölum in the first-person plural present tense. As you can see, the vowel in the stem has changed due to the –um suffix.

Sometimes the suffix causing the umlaut has been lost, leaving just the stem with the altered vowel. For example, the noun for salad is salat in the nominative singular form but becomes salöt in the nominative plural form. This is because there used to be a suffix containing ‘u’ but it was dropped leaving only the stem with the changed vowel.

The other main umlaut in Icelandic is the I-umlaut. This is more complicated as it affects more than one type of vowel, but generally, the end result is a front vowel. For example, bók ‘book’ has the nominative plural form bækur.

The U and I umlauts are said to be productive, which means they are still applied when creating new words. There are other types of umlaut in Icelandic but these are either rare or unproductive.

Umlaut is a good thing to consider if you’re making an inflectional language. It’s nice to have a different method of inflection than just suffixes and prefixes.

Noun Declension

Icelandic inflects nouns, pronouns, adjectives and the numbers one to four; for case (nominative, accusative, genitive and dative), gender (masculine, feminine and neuter) and number (singular and plural). All three of these are expressed by a single suffix.

The definite article (‘the’) is expressed by an extra suffix on the noun. The form of this suffix depends on the case, gender and number of the noun. Unlike the main suffix, the article is more regular, suggesting that it has been attached to noun more recently. There is no indefinite article (‘a’ or ‘an’), so indefiniteness has to be expressed by the absence of the definite article.  For example, hestur ‘a horse’ and hesturinn ‘the horse’.

As I’ve mentioned Icelandic has four cases: nominative (subject), accusative (direct object), genitive (possesser) and dative (indirect object). These four cases are quite common but Icelandic can use them in more unusual ways.

Quirky Subject

Usually, the subject is in the nominative case, but there are a few instances where the subject can be in another case. For some verbs, if it is not followed by an object then the subject will be in the case that the object would have been. Verbs that do this are called case persevering verbs. For example, the sentence: Hana þyrstir ‘she is thirsty’ (literally, ‘her thursts’) has an accusative subject.

Prepositions and Case

The case of a noun after a preposition is different for each preposition. For example, some prepositions take the genitive case such as til ‘to’ and án ‘without’; while others such as ‘at’ and frá ‘from’ take the dative case; there are even a few that take the accusative case including um ‘about’ and gegnum ‘through’.

More notably, there are some prepositions can either take the accusative case or the dative case depending on the context. If preposition á ‘on’ takes the accusative then it means ‘going to’, while if it takes the dative then it means ‘at’. Basically, the accusative case implies a change of state, while the dative case implies a static state.

It useful to remember that cases don’t always obey their general definitions, there will almost always be exceptions in natural languages.

Middle Voice

Many things can be inflected onto the verb in Icelandic including person, gender, number, tense, aspect, mood, and voice. For brevity, I will just focus on voice as I think it’s particularly interesting.

There are three grammatical voices: active, passive and middle. Voice of a sentence depends on the relationship between the verb and the nouns. If the subject of the sentence performs the verb, then the voice is active. However, in the passive voice, the subject is affected by the verb instead. The active and passive voices exist in English. For example, the sentence ‘I eat food’ is in the active voice, but in the passive voice it would be ‘The food was eaten by me’.

Icelandic has a third voice called the middle voice which is marked by the suffix –st. This is when the subject is simultaneously performing the verb and being acted upon by the verb. The middle voice has many uses and can get quite complicated, but the two main ones are reflexivity and reciprocity. Reflexivity when the subject is acting upon itself. While reciprocity refers to each member of a group acting upon another member of the same group. For example Við sjáumst um helgina is ‘we see each other at the weekend’ with the ‘each other’ part being implied by the middle voice.

V2 word order

Noun cases allow Icelandic’s word order to be flexible. However, a finite verb must be the second component of a clause, this is called V2 word order. Usually, the subject will come before the verb, but any other component of a clause may be placed before the verb if it is the topic.

Compare the sentences: María hefur gefið honum hring ‘María has given him a ring’, and Honum hefur María gefið hring. The indirect object (honum) has been moved to the front, but the verb (hefur) also has to be moved in front of the subject (María) so that the verb is still the second component.

Vocabulary

Linguistic Purism

As I’ve mentioned, Icelandic is a conservative language and part of that is due to linguistic purism, which is a language’s resistance to outside influence such as loan words.

For modern terminology, coining a new word based on Old Norse vocabulary is preferred to borrowing. The simplest way to do this is to reuse an older word, for example, þota ‘jet’ is literally ‘sped’, the past participle of þjóta ‘speed’. Another way to do this is to compound pre-existing words, for example, líffræði ‘biology’ is a compound of the words líf ‘life’ and fræði ‘study’. Alternatively, pre-existing words can be blended together, for example, tölva ‘computer’ from tölur ‘numbers (plural form)’ and völva ‘prophetess’. This process creates a shorter word than compounding, which is more convenient for the word computer since many more words are derived from it, including tölvuleikur ‘computer game’, tölvumús ‘computer mouse’, and tölvupóstur ‘E-mail’.

Loan words aren’t completely absent. In the 11th century, Christianity was introduced to Iceland which caused Icelandic to borrow new religious terminology from other north-germanic languages, for example, the word kirkja meaning ‘church’. Modern loan words are much rarer but they do exist, for example, the word kaffi ‘coffee’ is from the french word café.

Personal Names

This last part is more about culture, but I think this is still relevant to a conlanger since it concerns how names work.

Icelandic names work differently to names in other cultures of the modern western world. They retain the traditional Norse naming system of using patronyms as a surname. This consists of using the father’s name in the genitive form followed by either -son or -dóttir (daughter) depending on the gender. Note that this is not simply a surname passed through the male line since a son will have a different surname to his father.

Although this is a traditional system, there have been some modern modifications to it. It’s now possible for the mother’s name to be used instead (which is known as a matronym). Also, there is an option of a gender-neutral suffix, -bur (meaning ‘child of’), for those who identify as non-binary.

Afterword

For a more in-depth summary of the Icelandic language, I recommend ‘The Germanic Languages’ by Ekkehard König, which has a chapter on Icelandic by Höskuldur Thráinsson. 

If you want to see more posts like this let me know. If I am going to do another one like this in the future, then it will probably be about Mandarin Chinese since I know quite a lot about it.

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