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Icelandic phonology is the study of the phonology of the Icelandic language. Unlike many languages, Icelandic has only very minor dialectal differences in sounds, due to the relatively small number of speakers and the concentration of these speakers in mostly one area. The language has both monophthongs and diphthongs, and many consonants can be voiced or unvoiced.

Icelandic has an aspiration contrast between plosives, rather than a voicing contrast. Preaspirated voiceless stops are also common. However fricative and sonorant consonant phonemes exhibit regular contrasts in voice, including in nasals (rare in the world's languages). Additionally, length is contrastive for consonants, but not vowels. In Icelandic, the main stress is always on the first syllable.

Contents

Consonants

This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

The chart below is based on Scholten (2000, p. 22); refer to the IPA article for information on the sounds of the following symbols:

Consonant phonemes
Labial Dental Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n     ɲ̊ ɲ ŋ̊ ŋ    
Plosive p t     c k ʔ  
Fricative f v θ ð s   ç j x ɣ h  
Approximant       l̥ˠ l lˠ        
Trill         r            

The voiced fricatives /v/, /ð/, /j/ and /ɣ/ are not completely constrictive and are often closer to approximants than fricatives.

The status of [c] and [cʰ] as phonemes or as allophones of /k/ and /kʰ/ is the topic of some debate. On the one hand, the presence of minimal pairs like gjóla [couːla] ('light wind') vs. góla [kouːla] ('howl') and kjóla [cʰouːla] ('dresses') vs. kóla [kʰouːla] ('cola') suggests that the palatal stops are separate phonemes. On the other hand, only the palatal stops, not the velars, may appear before front vowels, and some linguists (e.g. Rögnvaldsson 1993) have held out for an underlying phonemic representation of [couːla] and [cʰouːla] as /kjoula/ and /kʰjoula/ respectively, with a phonological process merging the /k(ʰ)j/ into [c(ʰ)].

The dental fricatives [θ] and [ð] are allophones of a single phoneme. /θ/ is used word-initially, as in þak [θaːk] ('roof'), and before a voiceless consonant, as in maðkur [maθkʏr] ('worm'). [ð] is used intervocalically, as in iða [ɪːða] ('vortex') and word-finally, as in bað [paːð] ('bath'), although it can be devoiced to [θ] before pause. The phoneme /θ/ actually represents a voiceless alveolar non-sibilant fricative [θ̠] or [ð̠] when voiced.

Of the voiceless nasals, only [n̥] occurs in word-initial position, for example in hné [n̥jɛː] ('knee'). Recently, there has been an increasing tendency, especially among children, to pronounce this as voiced; for example pronouncing hnífur [nivʏr] ('knife') rather than standard [n̥ivʏr]. The palatal nasal appears before palatal stops and the velar nasals before velar stops. [ŋ] appears also before [l] and [s] through the deletion of [k] in the consonant clusters [ŋkl] and [ŋks].

The preaspirates [ʰp ʰt ʰc ʰk] (e.g. löpp [lœʰp] 'foot') do not occur in initial position. In most analyses, consonant length is seen as phonemic while vowel length is seen as determined entirely by environment. Measurements of segment length reveal a more complex picture.

Letter Context IPA Examples
b   [p] böl [ˈpœːl] ('disaster')
d   [t] hundur [ˈhʏntʏr̥] ('dog')
ð   [ð] verða [ˈvɛrða] ('to become')
before an unvoiced consonant and as the final sound [θ] maðkur [ˈmaθkʏr̥] ('maggot'), það [θaːθ] ('it')
f initially and before f, s, þ [f] fló [ˈflouː] ('flea'); afþakka [ˈaːfθahka] ('to decline')
between a vowel and l, n [p] nafni [ˈnapnɪ] ('name' dat.); gaflar [ˈkaplar̥] ('gables')
after vowels [v] af [ˈaːv] ('off'); sofa [ˈsɔːva] ('sleep')
g initially, before n, l or after a consonant [k] göng [ˈkøɪŋk] ('tunnel'); grunn [ˈkrʏnː] ('shallow'), gegnum [ˈcɛknʏm]) ('through'); mörg [ˈmœrk] ('many')
initially before e, i, í, y, ý, æ, j [c] Geysir [ˈceiːsɪr̥] ('Geysir'); gys [ˈcɪːs] ('mockery'); gjá [ˈcjauː] ('ravine')
after vowels [ɣ] saga [ˈsaːɣa] ('story'); ögra [ˈœɣra] ('threaten'); lög [ˈlœːɣ] ('law')
between a vowel and i, j [j] lagi [ˈlaiːjɪ] ('order'); segja [ˈseiːja] ('to say')
between a vowel and s, t [x] hugsa [ˈhʏxsa] or [hʏksa] ('think'); sagt [ˈsaxt] ('said')
h initially [h] hús [ˈhuːs] ('house'); hnífur [ˈn̥iːvʏr̥ / ˈhniːvʏr̥] ('knife'); hreinn [ˈr̥eitn̥ / ˈhreitn̥] ('clean')
before v [kʰ] hver [ˈkʰvɛːr̥] ('hot spring')
initially, before j [ç] hjá [çjauː] ('by')
j   [j] eyja [ˈeiːja] ('island'); jú [ˈjuː] ('yes' (to negative questions))
after k, g - gjá [ˈcjauː] ('ravine'); kjöt [ˈcʰjœːt] ('meat')
k initially [kʰ] krakki [ˈkʰrahcɪ] ('child'); köttur [ˈkʰœhtʏr̥] ('cat')
initially before e, i, í, y, ý, æ, j [cʰ] kær [ˈcʰaiːr̥] ('dear'); kenna [ˈcʰɛnːa] ('teach'); kjöt [ˈcʰjœːt] ('meat')
after a vowel or s [k] vakur [ˈvaːkʏr̥] ('ambling'); öskra [ˈœskra] ('scream')
between a vowel or s and e, i, í, y, ý, æ, j [c] skæri [ˈscaiːrɪ] ('scissors'); banki [ˈpauɲ̥cɪ] ('bank'); þekkja [ˈθɛhca] ('know')
before k, t, n [hk] þakka [ˈθahka] ('thank'); ekki [ˈɛhcɪ] ('not'); sakna [ˈsahkna] ('miss'); þökk [ˈθœhk] ('thanks')
before s, t [x] sjúkt [ˈsjuxt] ('sick')
l   [l] líf [ˈliːv] ('life'); tala [ˈtʰaːla] ('talk')
before p, t, k [l̥] stelpa [ˈstɛl̥pa] ('girl'); rusl [ˈrʏstl̥] ('garbage')
ll   [tl]; [tl̥] galli [ˈkatlɪ] ('flaw'); sæll [ˈsaitl̥] (a greeting)
in foreign words and in names [lː] galli [ˈkalːɪ] ('outfit'); Kalli [ˈkʰalːɪ] ('Kalli')
m   [m] miði [ˈmɪːðɪ] ('ticket'); lambi [ˈlampɪ] ('lamb' dat.)
before p, t, k [m̥] lampi [ˈlam̥pɪ] ('lamp')
n   [n] níu [ˈniːʏ] ('nine'); njóta [ˈnjouːta] ('enjoy')
before t and word-finally after a voiceless consonant [n̥] vanta [ˈvan̥ta] ('need'); vatn [ˈvahtn̥] ('water'); þögn [ˈθœkn̥] ('silence')
nn after á, í, ó, ú, ý, æ, ei, ey, au [tn]; [tn̥] seinna [ˈseitna] ('latter'); Spánn [ˈspautn̥] ('Spain')
in the definite article [nː] maðurinn [ˈmaːðʏrɪnː] ('the man'); brúnni [ˈprunːɪ] ('the bridge' dat.)
ng   [ŋk] söngur [ˈsøɪŋkʏr̥] (singing, song); þing [ˈθiŋk] (gathering, parliament)
before l, s [ŋ] ungs [ˈuŋs] (young)
before t [ŋ̊] þungt [ˈθuŋ̊t] (heavy)
before i, j [ɲc] lengi [ˈleiɲcɪ] (long, for a long time); syngja [ˈsiɲcja] (sing)
nk   [ŋ̥k] tankur [ˈtʰauŋ̥kʏr̥] (tank)
before i, j [ɲ̥c] banki [ˈpauɲ̥cɪ] (bank)
word-finally [ŋ̊k] tank [ˈtʰauŋ̊k] (tank (accusative))
p initially [pʰ] páfi [ˈpʰauːvɪ] (pope)
after a vowel or s [p] tapa [ˈtʰaːpa] (loose); lepja [ˈlɛːpja] (lap (verb)); hjálp [ˈçjaul̥p]; (help)
before l, n, p [hp] tappi [ˈtʰahpɪ] (cork, stopper); happ [ˈhahp] (luck)
before k, s, t [f] dýpka [ˈtifka] (to deepen); skips [ˈscifs] (ship gen); september [ˈsɛftɛmpɛr̥] (September);
r   [r] íþrótt [ˈiːθrouht] (sport); rós [ˈrouːs] (rose)
before p, t, k, s, f and, optionally, also word-finally [r̥] kort [ˈkʰɔr̥t] (map, card); mars [ˈmar̥s] (March); dagur [ˈtaːɣʏr̥ / ˈtaːɣʏr] (day)
rl   [rtl, rtl̥, tl] kerling [ˈcʰɛrtliŋk/ˈcʰɛtliŋk ] (old woman)
rn   [rtn, rtn̥, tn̥] barn [ˈpartn̥/ ˈpatn̥] (child)
s   [s] saga [ˈsaːɣa] (story, history); sjö [ˈsjœː] (seven)
sl   [s(t)l] Ísland [ˈiːs(t)lant] (Iceland)
sn   [s(t)n] snigill [ˈs(t)niːjɪtl̥] (snail, slug)
t initially [tʰ] tvær [ˈtʰv̥aiːr̥] (two)
after a vowel or s [t] matur [ˈmaːtʏr̥] (food); standa [ˈstanta] (stand); vetrar [ˈvɛːtrar̥] (winter (genitive)
before l, n, t [ht] drottning [ˈtrɔhtniŋk] (queen); vatn [ˈvahtn̥] (water, lake); stutt [ˈstʏht] (short)
v   [v] verk [ˈvɛr̥k] (work, act, deed)
x   [xs] / [ks] vöxtur [ˈvœxstʏr̥] (growth, increase); kex [ˈcʰɛks] (cookie, cracker, biscuit)
z (archaic) [s] íslenzka = íslenska [ˈiːs(t)lɛnska] (the Icelandic language)
þ   [θ] þurr [ˈθʏrː] (dry); þriðji [ˈθrɪðjɪ] (third)

Vowels

Monophthongs Front Back
Close i u
Near-close ɪ • ʏ  
Open-mid ɛ • œ ɔ
Open a

Where symbols appear in pairs, the one to the right of the dot represents a rounded vowel.

Diphthongs Front Back to front Back
Near-close to close ʏi
Mid to close ei • øɪ ɔi ou
Open to close ai au

The diphthongs [ʏi, ɔi] appear as allophones of the respective monophthongs before /j/.

Vowel length is predictable in Icelandic (Orešnik and Pétursson 1977). Stressed vowels (both monophthongs and diphthongs) are long:

  • In one-syllable words where the vowel is word-final:
    • [fauː] ('get')
    • nei [neiː] 'no'
    • þú [θuː] ('you' singular)
  • Before a single consonant:
    • fara [ˈfaːra] ('go')
    • hás [hauːs] ('hoarse')
    • vekja [ˈvɛːcja] ('wake (someone) up')
    • ég [jɛːɣ] ('I')
    • spyr [spɪːr] ('ask' 1st person singular)
  • Before any of the consonant clusters [pr tr kr sr], [pj tj sj], or [tv kv]. (This is often shortened to the rule: If the first of the consonants is one of p, t, k, s and the second is one of j, v, r, then the vowel is long. This is known as the ptks+jvr-rule. An exception occurs, if there is a t before the infix k. Examples are e. g. notkun and litka. There are also additional exceptions like um and fram where the vowel is short in spite of rules and en, where the vowel length depends on the context.)
    • lipra [ˈlɪːpra] ('agile' accusative, feminine)
    • sætra [ˈsaiːtra] ('sweet' genitive, plural)
    • akra [ˈaːkra] ('fields' accusative, plural)
    • hásra [ˈhauːsra] ('hoarse' genitive, plural)
    • vepja [ˈvɛːpja] ('lapwing')
    • letja [ˈlɛːtja] ('dissuade')
    • Esja [ˈɛːsja] ('Esja')
    • götva [ˈkœːtva] as in uppgötva ('discover')
    • vökva [ˈvœːkva] ('water' verb)

Before other consonant clusters (including the preaspirated stops [hp ht hk] and geminate consonants), stressed vowels are short. Unstressed vowels are always short.

  • Karl [kʰartl̥] ('Carl')
  • standa [ˈstanta] ('stand')
  • sjálfur [ˈsjaulvʏr] ('self')
  • kenna [ˈcʰɛnːa] ('teach')
  • fínt [fin̥t] ('fine')
  • loft [lɔft] ('air')
  • upp [ʏʰp] ('up')
  • yrði [ˈɪrðɪ] as in nýyrði ('neologism')
  • ætla [ˈaiʰtla] ('will' verb)
  • laust [løɪst] ('lightly, loose')
Letter Context IPA Examples
á   [au] mál [ˈmauːl] ('language'), langur [ˈlauŋkʏr̥] ('long')
a before ng, nk
  [a(ː)] raka [ˈraːka] ('rake'); handa [ˈhanta] ('for')
before gi, gj [ai(ː)] æfing [ˈaiːviŋk] ('practice'); hræsni [ˈr̥aistnɪ] ('hypocrisy'); lagi [ˈlaiːjɪ] ('order');
æ  
ö   [œ] öl [ˈœːl] ('beer'); vöðvi [ˈvœðvɪ] ('muscle')
before ng, nk, gi, gj [øɪ(ː)] auga [ˈøɪːɣa] ('eye'); austur [ˈøɪstʏr̥] ('east'); löng [ˈløɪŋk] ('long' f.s.); lögin [ˈløːjɪn] ('the orders')
au  
e   [ɛ(ː)] nema [ˈnɛːma] ('to study'); sperra [ˈspɛrːa] ('rafter')
before ng, nk, gi, gj [ei(ː)] heim [ˈheiːm] ('home'), neysla [ˈneistla] ('consumption'), þegja [ˈθeiːja] ('to be silent'); lengur [ˈleiŋkʏr̥] ('longer')
ei, ey  
é   [jɛ(ː)] éta [ˈjɛːta] ('eat')
i, y   [ɪ(ː)] minni [ˈmɪnːɪ] ('smaller'); vita [ˈvɪːta] ('to know'); yfir [ˈɪːvɪr̥] ('over')
before ng, nk, gi, gj [i(ː)] ís [ˈiːs] ('ice'); ískra [ˈiskra] ('creak'); rýrna [ˈrirtna] ('diminish'); stinga [ˈstiŋka] ('to sting')
í, ý  
o   [ɔ(ː)] von [ˈvɔːn] ('hope'); sorg [ˈsɔrk] ('sorrow')
before gi, gj [ɔiː] flogin [ˈflɔiːjɪn] ('flown')
ó   [ou(ː)] fjórir [ˈfjouːrɪr̥] ('four'); kólna [ˈkʰoulna] ('to cool');
u   [ʏ(ː)] kul [ˈkʰʏːl] ('breeze'); undan [ˈʏntan] ('from under')
before gi, gj [ʏiː] flugið [ˈflʏiːjɪð] ('the flight')
in the ending -unum [ɔ] augunum [ˈøɪːɣɔnʏm] ('the eyes')
before ng, nk [u(ː)] núna [ˈnuːna] ('now'); lúðrar [ˈluðrar̥] ('horns'), tunga [ˈtʰuŋka] ('tongue')
ú  
before gi, gj [uː] sjúgið [ˈsjuːɪð] ('suck')

Bibliography

  • Orešnik, Janez, and Magnús Pétursson (1977). "Quantity in Modern Icelandic". Arkiv för Nordisk Filologi 92: 155–71.  
  • Scholten, Daniel (2000). Einführung in die isländische Grammatik. Munich: Philyra Verlag. ISBN 3-935267-00-2.  

See also

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