So is Icelandic hard to learn?

Apr 22, 2010 by

So is Icelandic “one of the most difficult languages to learn”, as one of the CNN reporters said? I don’t think so!

In general, the difficulty of learning another language depends on the degree of difference between one’s native language and the language one is learning. For an English speaker, the more different the target language is from English, the harder it is to learn. But Icelandic is not all that different from English.

For starters, it’s a Germanic language, like English. It is not the most closely related language to English, among Germanic language (that would be Scots, then Frisian). Still, it is much closer to English and much more similar to it than, say, Chinese, Arabic or Kannada.

Let’s consider the sounds of Icelandic first. Only a few Icelandic sounds would an English speaker have trouble pronouncing. Among them is the voiceless alveolar approximant — that’s a voiceless version of the /l/ sound that we hear at the end of Eyjafjallajökull. In fact, it is not completely true that we do not have this sound in English; we just don’t pay attention to it since it does not encode a different meaning in English. You can hear it in words like play.

There are also front rounded vowels in Icelandic: /œ/ and /ʏ/ — also heard in the volcano’s name. We do not have them in English but they do have them in French, as in jeune ‘young’ and the (Quebecois) French municipalité ‘municipality’.

But the basic vocabulary and the grammar of Icelandic are not that different from English. Here are a few Icelandic/English cognates: epli is ‘apple’, bók is ‘book’ and móðir is ‘mother’.

In the grammar, Icelandic retains many features of its parent language (Old Norse) and even its grandparent language (Proto-Germanic; also the grandparent of English). One of these retained old features is rich inflection: for instance, Icelandic nouns have three genders and four cases (for comparison, Russian nouns have 6 cases, West Greenlandic — 8 and Hungarian — 21 cases!). Verbs are conjugated for tense, mood, person, number and voice. English of course lost much of its inflection.

What about Icelandic syntax? The word order in declarative sentences is Subject-Verb-Object, like in English. Except for what linguists call the “Verb-Second effect” (or V2, for short): the conjugated/finite verb in Icelandic usually appears second in the sentence, regardless of whether the first position is occupied by the subject or by something else. Consider the following sentences:

(1) Ég fór til Bandaríkjanna þegar ég var eins árs. (I went to the US when I was one year old.)
(2) Til Bandaríkjanna fór ég þegar ég var eins árs. (To the US I went, when I was one year old.)

The conjugated verb fór ‘went’ appears in the second position: after the subject ég ‘I’ in (1) and after the prepositional phrase til Bandaríkjanna ‘to the US’ in (2). This pattern is very common in Germanic languages, including not only Icelandic and other Scandinavian languages (Swedish, Danish, Norwegian), but also in German, Dutch, Yiddish. The various Germanic languages differ as to the applicability of this V2 pattern: in Icelandic but not in German it applies to embedded clauses in addition to main clauses. Thus, the English ‘John said that yesterday Martin has read a book’ will be rendered in Icelandic literally as JOHN SAID THAT [YESTERDAY HAS MARTIN READ A BOOK], whereas in German it would be literally JOHN SAID THAT [MARTIN YESTERDAY A BOOK READ HAS]. Note that in Icelandic but not in German the conjugated (auxiliary) verb ‘has’ appears in the second position in the embedded clause (indicated by brackets).

What about English? Does it have any V2 effect? The answer appears to be negative, if you look at the English translations of the examples above. But it is not true that V2 is completely absent in English. There is a restricted set of declarative main clauses in which the conjugated (auxiliary) verb must appear in the second position. Can you think of what those clauses may be? I used a clause like that in this posting; can you find it? (The answer in the next posting).

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