My ears love the Icelandic language. My tongue, though, hates it. Just about every attempt at saying a few bits (aside from “takk fyrir,” the phrase for “thank you”) earned me a few chuckles. I still had fun trying, and I think it’s good for any traveler to try learning a few words – no matter how bad you might mispronounce them.
That said, your odds are good of picking up a few easy Icelandic words – in written form, at least. You’ll see some of them repeated often in the names of towns and other landmarks. This will help you remember where you’re going, and maybe even give you a sense of what each place is about. So here’s a handy list of easy Icelandic words you’ll often see repeated in your itinerary and maps. If you’re good at speaking Icelandic, feel free to add a few more in the comments. And let me know if I goofed anything up.
kirkja – This is the word for church. You’ll see it in the names of places like Hallgrimskirkja, the iconic church in Reykjavik, and in the small town of Kirkjabærklaustur on the south coast.
foss – One of the few easy Icelandic words here. It means waterfall. Goðafoss is one example.
jökull – This means “glacier.” This one is harder to pronounce than you’d expect. Some language guides say the double-l produces a sound like the last syllable in “cuddle.” Um, no. This hits my ear as a really interesting clicking in the sides of the throat. Kind of like “yuck-ultl”, but with the last sound very clipped and truncated. Example: Eyjafjallajökull, a word that is double black-diamond scary for a non-Scandinavian language speaker.
vik – Here’s a nice single-syllable word that means “bay.” I heard some native speakers say “Veek,” while I could swear others said “week.” Not sure what is correct. There’s a small town called Vik, and it’s a great place to go for a hike and take photos on a black-sand beach.
reykja – You’ll recognize this from the capitol city of Reykjavik. It means smoky, which makes the city’s name translate to … Smoky Bay. I hear it got that name from all the geothermal features that emitted steam.
klaustur – This one means convent, and you’ll see it used in that tongue-twister of a town name I mentioned above. My ears detected what sounded like a very fast, truncated roll on the final r … so it sounded like “Klow-stirt.”
vatn – This one does double-duty as water or lake. Vatna appears to be the plural, like in Vatnajökull.
my – This word, pronounced “me,” is the word for annoying little flies known in English as midges. So the region known as Myvatn means “Midge Lake.” Take that name seriously, especially on the lake’s south shore. Those little bugs are everywhere.