Why is Icelandic considered harder to learn for English speakers than other North Germanic languages?

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Multiple sources, including this website, claim that Icelandic is a particularly difficult language to learn for native English speakers.

Of particular note, this source claims Icelandic is substantially more difficult to learn than other closely related North Germanic languages, including Danish, Norwegian and Swedish.

So why is Icelandic considered harder to learn than the other North Germanic languages?

(Note: the original question used the term Scandinavian languages instead of North Germanic languages.)

Gwen

Posted 2016-04-10T18:08:32.620

Reputation: 695

"Scandinavian languages" is a "folk linguistics term" at best, not a real linguistic term, since the languages spoken in Scandinavia are not all genetically related. The group of languages you are talking about are North Germanic languages.

– Christophe Strobbe – 2016-09-23T18:53:13.017

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I already am aware of at least part of the answer, which is Icelandic's relative lack of loan words. I don't think it's the complete answer though, which is why I asked the question.

– Gwen – 2016-04-10T18:43:49.913

This link is probably more interesting than the article on wikipedia. – Laure – 2016-04-11T09:11:37.637

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I first thought of how difficult is to speak icelandic when I read some of the names they gave to volcanoes, like Eyjafjallajökull or Reykjaneshryggur.

– gmauch – 2016-04-12T02:21:53.433

Answers

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According to Beyond Highbrow – Robert Lindsay,

Icelandic is very hard to learn, much harder than Norwegian, German or Swedish. Part of the problem is pronunciation. The grammar is harder than German grammar, and there are almost no Latin-based words in it. The vocabulary is quite archaic. Modern loans are typically translated into Icelandic equivalents rather than borrowed fully into Icelandic.

There are four cases: nominative, accusative, dative and genitive – as in German – and there are many exceptions to the case rules, or “quirky case,” as it is called. In quirky case, case can be marked on verbs, prepositions and and adjectives. The noun morphology system is highly irregular. Articles can be postfixed and inflected and added to the noun. In fact, Icelandic in general is highly irregular, not just the nouns. Verbs are modified for tense, mood, person and number, as in many other IE languages (this is almost gone from English).

There are up to ten tenses, but most of these are formed with auxiliaries as in English. Icelandic also modifies verbs for voice – active, passive and medial. Furthermore, there are four different kinds of verbs – strong, weak, reduplicating and irregular, with several conjugation categories in each division. Many verbs just have to be memorized. Adjectives decline in an astounding 130 different ways, but many of these forms are the same.

In essence, Icelandic is an archaic and isolated languages with an immensely tricky pronunciation, as well as completely unfamiliar and irregular sentence structure, vocabulary, and grammar.

Personally, though I suspect the fact that while Swedish and other Scandinavian languages influenced the development of modern English because the Vikings, who invaded the British Isles several times, were from Scandinavia, Iceland remained completely isolated from Britannia. Since Iceland had no influence over English, it seems logical that it would be more difficult than other Scandinavian languages.

fi12

Posted 2016-04-10T18:08:32.620

Reputation: 5 657

7The survey text doesn't seem to be available on the site, but it seems they just asked people which language they thought hardest. I don't think that's a good way to compare difficulty because it doesn't control for availability of resources or distance from a learner's L1.

Also, I don't think the writeup on the survey is very good. First he says it's a very good survey but then tosses Swedish off the list because it "actually seems to be a pretty easy language to learn", even though it "has an irrational orthographic system", "a huge vowel inventory", and "hundreds of irregular verbs". – zzxjoanw – 2016-04-14T21:27:08.163

3@zzxjoanw Swedish really is one of the easiest languages for an English speaker to learn. That said, I agree with you that the post is not all that great. – Gwen – 2016-04-19T19:59:48.400

1I second the concerns about listing Swedish as difficult. My experience is with Norwegian, but it's really just like a more sensible version of English. – Azor-Ahai – 2016-04-25T17:33:18.100

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Other people have already commented on why Icelandic is hard for English speakers.

Here are some reasons why it is easy compared to other languages:

  • Icelandic has a relatively huge pop culture, some original and some in translation. When a language learner can spend hours listening to Icelandic pop, watching Icelandic TV and Movies, reading Icelandic comics, then it is easier than a more analytic (i.e. without conjugations and declensions) language. When specifically comparing against other Scandinavian languages, the quantity of language-learner pop culture material is comparable.
  • Icelandic uses transparent derivational morophology extensively. By this I mean you very frequently can guess a word's meaning from it's parts. In Swedish, like English, many of these parts have eroded down to where you can't recognize them. Goodbye used to be "God be with you", "varsågod" AFAIK used to be a whole phrase too, I think the Icelandic equivalent is "gerðu svo vel" which is reasonably parsable.
  • Another factor is if the people prefer to speak to you in English or the language you are trying to learn. In some countries, it is difficult to get people to speak to you in your lousy (Swedish/Norwegian) when they could speak in English instead. Icelandic plays a big part in the cultural identity and on the continuum of preferences, Icelanders are more likely to prefer to speak to language learners in Icelandic. (Russians, I've notice, would rather talk to you in your bad Russian than in mutually good English, a very good situation for the language learner.)
  • Finally, it's a small language and the learners don't learn unless they are really motivated. This compares to the language learner community for French, which in the US is overrun by people with only a casual connection to it because they took it in high school. Being surrounded by highly motivated learners is a huge help with motivation.

I've got nothing to reference except a few years running an Icelandic study group/meetup.

MatthewMartin

Posted 2016-04-10T18:08:32.620

Reputation: 276

3

The first thing that comes to mind is that in Norwegian and Danish, for example, verbs are only conjugated according to tense, and are the same for every person - this renders the language even simpler in the sense than most other languages - e.g. Jeg sover, du sover, han sover, vi sover, etc..., while in Icelandic that is not the case. Oh yeah by the way Icelandic also has four cases according to which pronouns (and maybe even other types of words) are declined - something that also happens in German and which is commonly referenced as something which makes it hard -, and the other Scandinavian languages don't.

wet

Posted 2016-04-10T18:08:32.620

Reputation: 151

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Then there's one thing you're forgetting: actual modern Icelandic and fast-spoken Icelandic. I'm no genius in the verbs and tenses and whatnot but I can tell you this: Icelandic gets harder by the minute.

English is influencing Icelandic very much in the modern world (especially for teens and kids with phones) so it becomes harder, every minute, as Icelandic adaptations of English words (though mostly swear / profanity words).

Fast speaking is also a thing. You might study for months learning a few sentences but when your visit to Iceland finally comes you realize no one understands you; because Icelandic words are always merging and being shortened. A sentence or phrase might have five words but you merge two together and one is so short it barely makes a sound so it ends up sounding like three words.

Also, don't be fooled by the names of volcanoes or glaciers; we Icelanders love to mess with foreigners trying to say Eyjafjallajökull. I say this as a human born on Earth on Iceland and have lived in Iceland my whole (miserable) life.

Ester Hjartardóttir

Posted 2016-04-10T18:08:32.620

Reputation: 21

1Your answer explains why Icelandic may be hard to learn, but not why it is harder than other North Germanic languages. – Christophe Strobbe – 2017-10-13T12:17:19.300

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I don't know Icelandic, but I do know it differentiates aspiration rather than voicing (which I imagine would be nigh impossible for a non-linguist to learn, I've completely failed myself in getting my family members to be able to hear aspirated consonants). The reason its so hard is because aspirated consonants appear as positional allophones of voiceless consonants in English. This means that for your average English speaker, their brain is per-programmed to perceive aspirated and voiceless consonants as sounding identical.

Also, it has a case system, which most people can't seem to wrap their heads around. German does too, but its pronunciation isn't really that exotic. Personally, I had more problems with the consonant clusters than anything else when it came to pronouncing German. I personally never found case systems to be that hard, though I have noticed that most people struggle with the accusative case of Esperanto...

lXBlackWolfXl

Posted 2016-04-10T18:08:32.620

Reputation: 209