A look at Icelandic from the view of how hard it is to learn for an English speaker. Icelandic is often considered to be one of the hardest languages on Earth to learn.
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.
The language is generally SVO, but since there is so much case-marknig, in poetry all possibilities – SVO, SOV, VSO, VOS, OSV and OVS – are allowed. There is also something odd called “long distance reflexives,” which I do not understand.
In addition, Icelandic has the typical Scandinavian problem of a nutty orthography.
Icelandic verbs are very regular but the sounds change so much, especially the vowels, that the whole situation gets confusing pretty fast. In addition, there are three different verbal paradigms depending on the ending of the verb:
Icelandic verbs are commonly cited as some of the hardest verb systems around, at least in Europe. Even Icelandic people say their own verbs are difficult.
Icelandic has a voiceless lateral l – l̥. This can be a hard sound to make for many learners, especially in the middle of a word. In addition, there are two alveolar trills (the rolled r sound in Spanish), and one of them is voiced while the other is voiceless. Learners say they have problems with both of these sounds. In addition to voiceless l‘s and r‘s, Icelandic also has four voiceless nasals – n̥, m̥, ɲ̊, and ŋ̊ – the n, m, ny (as in Spanish nina), and ng sounds.
There are also contrasts between aspirated and nonaspirated stops including the odd palatal stops cʰ and c. In addition, there is a strange voiceless palatal fricative ç (similar to the h in English huge). In addition, Icelandic has a hard to pronounce four consonant cluster strj- that occurs at the beginning of a word.
Icelandic does have the advantage of being one of the few major languages with no significant dialects, so this is a plus. Icelandic has been separated from the rest of Scandinavian for 1,100 years. Icelandic is spoken over a significant region, much of which has inhabited places separated by large expanses of uninhabitable land such as impassable glaciers, volcanoes, lava flows, geysers and almost no food. How Icelandic managed to not develop dialects in this situation is mysterious.
Icelandic has traditionally been considered to be one of the hardest languages on Earth to learn.
Icelandic gets a 5 rating, hardest of all to learn.