I Say Tomato, They Say Þðöqqxædn

Well, actually, they say “tómatur” in Icelandic, which isn’t all that hard. However, there are a whole host of interesting and interestingly difficult notes on Icelandic pronunciation which I have been picking up over the last couple of weeks which I thought I’d share, this ostensibly being a blog which deals not only with my wild and crazy adventures on The Rock (not this one; not this one; this one, and yes, they really call it that sometimes), but also the process of learning Icelandic.

So here is a list (another one! I love lists) of…

Things I’ve Learned,

or Learned that I haven’t Learned,

About Icelandic Pronunciation:

(Please remember that I am learning and I may be leaving details out or even–though hopefully not–explaining things incorrectly or at least not terribly well. Trust better sources than this one if you’re really looking for pointers on Icelandic pronunciation. The below is just for entertainment purposes only, as it were. I would feel terrible if I lead someone astray.)

1. The written language and the spoken language vary quite a bit. A good quarter of my homework assignments involve exercises which demonstrate the difference between what is written and what is actually said. For example, “Við skrifan (we write) ‘opna.’ Við segjum (we say) ‘oh-bna.'” This is basically the big take away thus far, the great granddaddy of all pronunciation rules, and what follow are just more particulars.

1.A. If you think that a lot of Icelandic words–particularly those with oodles of consonants–look difficult to pronounce, that’s not really a bad thing. Icelanders think those letter combinations are hard to pronounce, too! So you know what? They don’t say them! Or, at least, they don’t say all of them. Example: the word ‘yngst’ (youngest) is pronounced without the pesky ‘g.’ So: ‘ynst,’ which is marginally more simple to say. Likewise, when saying a sentence where vowels run into other vowels, like, “Hann er tuttugu og eins,” (“He is twenty-one”), it can be hard to get all those rounded sounds out. Ergo, in “normal fast speech,” it is more likely that an Icelander would drop the ‘u’ in ‘tuttugu,’ which again makes things ever so slightly easier to say.

1.B. Contrary to the above, sometimes there are letters pronounced in words or names which are not spelled out. For instance, the woman’s name ‘Guðrun’ is pronounced as though it has a ‘v’ in it: ‘Guvðrun.’ And the man’s name Björn is pronounced as though it has an ‘d’ in it: ‘Björdn.’

2. (Pre-)Aspirations are a big deal in Icelandic, particularly for consonants. Don’t know what that means? Don’t worry–I didn’t either, and a lot of people don’t because aspirations are not often used with the same frequency/manner that they are in Icelandic. If you want to see an extensive definition, see here. Otherwise, the easy explanation is that when a letter is pronounced with aspiration, it gets all breathy and involves a great deal of simultaneous exhalation. It’s a little like the ‘kiai,’ or (‘hi-yah!’ sound) karate, actually: you want to use your diaphragm to sort of expel the sounds as you’re saying the words. My pronunciation teacher noted that this makes for great stomach exercise.

2.A. Words with single ps, ts, and ks generally have aspirations (think of it as adding an ‘h’ sound after the aforementioned consonants). So kaka (cake) becomes kakha when you say it. When you double up these consonants, however, the pronunciation shifts, and you end up with an aspiration before the double letters and a sort of pause in the middle of the word.

So: pp –> (is pronounced like) (h)bb Example: stoppa (stop) –> stoh–pause–ba

      tt –> (h)dd Example:pottur (pot) –> poh–pause–dur

      kk –> (h)gg Example: klukka (clock) –> kluh–pause–ga

The one semi-exception to this sort of pronunciation is that when the double letter is at the end of a word (takk), you tend to hear a sharper pronunciation, instead of a softer, strongly aspirated one. (Noticing this is what I totally got cred for in class the other day.) The sharper pronunciation of the above consonants is what my pronunciation teacher seems to be referring to as ‘explosional sounds,’ which is delightfully intense. The softer aspirated sounds she refers to as the ‘softer brothers.’

There have been some other pronunciation rules and variations that will bear explication (the sound ‘dn’ in words with double nns, for instance, which may be the hardest sound I’ve tried to make yet), but this is a good enough start for now, I think. Yay, Icelandic!

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