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.)

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.

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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
    Apr 10, 2016 at 18:43
  • This link is probably more interesting than the article on wikipedia.
    – None
    Apr 11, 2016 at 9:11
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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
    Apr 12, 2016 at 2:21
  • @Gwen You can edit your question to put the link. There's no need to repeat a part of the question body in the comments. Jun 11, 2023 at 21:22

7 Answers 7


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.

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    The 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
    Apr 14, 2016 at 21:27
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    @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
    Apr 19, 2016 at 19:59
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    I 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. Apr 25, 2016 at 17:33
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    I think the quote above exaggerates the situation a bit, but is the most correct of the answers posted so far. Having learned Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic (Old Norse) I can say that Danish and Norwegian are surprisingly similar to English. Sure, you have two genders and the adjectives get some endings due to gender, but that's really about it. Icelandic, like German, has 4 cases and full set of verb conjugations for subjunctive mood which is all but gone from modern English/Danish/Norwegian/etc. The grammar itself is more complex, but really on par with German.
    – S. Burt
    May 30, 2018 at 16:31
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    @S.Burt Could you write an answer based on your experience?
    – Tommi
    Jan 21, 2019 at 18:40

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.


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.


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.

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    Your answer explains why Icelandic may be hard to learn, but not why it is harder than other North Germanic languages.
    – Tsundoku
    Oct 13, 2017 at 12:17

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...


It has deceptively superficial similarities with English and German. It's closer to the Scandinavian languages, but it's much more complex than any of them.

Like German, Icelandic has three genders and four cases, but it inflects its nouns and adjectives more extensively than German, and much more than the Scandinavians. The adjectives have strong and weak forms.

The verbs are often highly irregular, and in addition to active and passive have an additional voice, the middle. The middle voice in Icelandic is difficult for an English speaker. In English, as I understand it, the verb in a sentence like 'fire broke out' or 'the works began' is considered to be the middle voice. It's the same if you translate those sentences into Icelandic: 'eldur braust út', 'framkvæmdir hófust'. But apart from conjugating differently from the active voice, a verb in the middle voice in Icelandic sometimes translates as passive, sometimes translates as a reflexive, and sometimes has an entirely different meaning: 'koma' - come, 'komast' - make it, progress. Often you just have to memorise how it is used in a given situation.

Icelandic revels in impersonal constructions which have no real cognates in English or German, or in the Scandinavian languages for that matter. It also has 'quirky subjects' where the apparent subject is in the dative or the accusative: 'mér finnst..' meaning 'I think' (literally 'to me finds ..') or 'mig vantar' - 'I need', literally 'me needs'.

Many Icelandic verbs have direct objects in the dative rather than the accusative, especially when they involve a sense of force or direct action - eg valda - cause, breyta - change. Not only do you have to remember these verbs, you have to remember when forming the passive to put the subjects in the dative rather than the nominative: 'Vatni var breytt í vín', water was changed into wine, with vatni, water, in the dative, not nominative (vatn). English is full of bewildering verb compounds, eg 'put up with', but Icelandic leaves it in the shade. These are just some of the difficulties for an English speaker.

On top of all that, the pronunciation is very tricky, and when spoken at speed it is difficult to understand without a great deal of practice. But it is a fascinating language, it has great charm and subtlety, and an amazingly rich literature.


A few reasons:

  1. Icelandic as a world language is not useful. There are less that 500,000 speakers so their aren't many resources or people to practice with. And most Icelanders speak good English too.
  2. The orthography is very different from other languages, there are letters that are pronounced differently or change based on the letters that surround them.
  3. Grammar is very irregular and there can often be exceptions to grammar.
  • Welcome to LL.SE! Could you add a comparison to other North Germanic languages, as asked for in the question?
    – Tommi
    Jan 9 at 8:07

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