Icelandic phonology

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.


The number and nature of the consonant phonemes in modern Icelandic is subject to broad disagreement, due to a complex relationship among consonant allophones.

Major allophones

Even the number of major allophones is subject to some dispute, although less than for phonemes. The following is a chart of potentially contrastive phones (important phonetic distinctions which minimally contrast in some positions with known phonemes; not a chart of actual phonemes), according to one analysis (Thráinsson 1994):

Consonant phones
Labial Coronal Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ɲ̊ ɲ ŋ̊ ŋ
Stop p t c k
Continuant sibilant s
non-sibilant f v θ ð ç j x c h
Lateral l
Rhotic ɲ

Scholten (2000) includes three extra phones, namely the glottal stop [ʔ], voiceless velarized alveolar lateral approximant [l̥ˠ] and its voiced counterpart [lˠ].[7]

A large number of competing analyses have been proposed for Icelandic phonemes. The problems stem from complex but regular alternations and mergers among the above phones in various positions.


Examples of alternations across different positions:

  1. [pʰ], [f]: tæp [ˈtʰaɪːpʰ] ('uncertain' fem.), tæpt [ˈtʰaɪft] ('uncertain' neut.)
  2. [p], [f], [v]: grafa [ˈkraːva] ('to dig'); grafta [ˈkrafta] ('to dig'); grafna [ˈkrapna] ('to dig')
  3. [k], [x], [ɣ], [j]: segi [ˈsɛːjɪ] ('[I] say'), sagt [ˈsaxt] ('[was] said'), sagði [ˈsaɣðɪ] ('[I] said'), sagna [ˈsakna] ('of stories')


Dorsal consonants (velar, palatal, glottal)

The "glottal fricative" [h] (actually a placeless approximant) only occurs initially before a vowel, and following a vowel in the sequences [hp ht hk hc]. These latter sequences are sometimes said to be unitary "pre-aspirated" stops; see below.

The voiceless velar fricative [x] occurs only between a vowel and [s] or [t], and initially as a variant of [kʰ] before [v]. Because it does not contrast with [kʰ] in either position, it can be seen as an allophone of [kʰ].

There are two sets of palatal sounds. "Alternating palatals" [c cʰ j] alternate with the velars [k kʰ x ɣ], while "non-alternating palatals" [ç j] do not. Note that [j] appears twice here; these two [j]'s behave differently, occur in different distributions, and are denoted by different letters (g and j). This suggests that they may belong to different phonemes, and that is indeed a common analysis.

In general, the alternating palatals [c cʰ j] are restricted to appearing before vowels. Velars ([k kʰ x ɣ] are restricted to appearing everywhere except before front vowels. In other words: Before back vowels and front rounded vowels, both palatals and velars can appear; before front unrounded vowels only palatals can appear; before consonants only velars can appear.

For the non-alternating palatals [ç j]: Both can appear at the beginning of a word, followed by a vowel. Elsewhere, only one can occur, which must occur after a non-velar, non-palatal consonant. [j] occurs before a vowel, and [ç] occurs in a few words at the end of a word following [p t k s].

The velars and alternating palatals are distributed as follows:

  1. Initially or at beginning of syllable: Only the four stops [kʰ k cʰ c] can appear.
  2. After [s] that begins a syllable: only [k c].
  3. Between vowels: only [k ɣ c j].
  4. After a vowel, finally or before [v] or [r]: only [kʰ ɣ].
  5. After a vowel, before [ð]: only [ɣ].
  6. After a vowel, before [ɬ]: only [k].
  7. After a vowel, before nasals: only [kʰ k].
  8. After a vowel, before [s t]: only [x].

Although the facts are complex, it can be noticed that [ɣ] only ever contrasts with one of the two velar stops, never with both, and hence can be taken as an allophone of whichever one doesn't appear in a given context. Alternatively, following the orthography, [ɣ] can be taken as an allophone of /ɡ/, where [k] is taken as an allophone of either /k/ or /ɡ/ depending on context, following the orthography.

Alveolar non-sibilant fricatives

In native vocabulary, the fricatives [θ] and [ð] are allophones of a single phoneme /θ/. [θ] is used morpheme-initially, as in þak [θaːk] ('roof'), and before a voiceless consonant, as in maðkur [maθkʏr̥] ('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. Some loanwords (mostly from Classical Greek) have introduced the phone [θ] in intervocalic environments, as in Aþena [ˈaθɛna] ('Athens').

The phone [θ] is actually a laminal voiceless alveolar non-sibilant fricative [θ̠]. The corresponding voiced phone [ð̠] is similar, but is apical rather than laminal (Ladefoged & Maddieson 1996).

Voiceless sonorants

Of the voiceless sonorants [l̥ r̥ n̥ m̥ ɲ̊ ŋ̊], only [l̥ r̥ n̥] occur in word-initial position, for example in hné [n̥jɛː] ('knee'). Only in initial position do the voiceless sonorants contrast with the corresponding voiced sonorants. Finally, before aspirated consonants and after voiceless consonants only the voiceless sonorants appear; elsewhere, only the voiced sonorants appear. This makes it clear that [m̥ ɲ̊ ŋ̊] are non-phonemic. Recently, there has been an increasing tendency, especially among children, to pronounce initial hn as voiced, e.g. hnífur [nivʏr̥] ('knife') rather than standard [n̥ivʏr̥].

Palatal and velar nasals

The palatal nasals [ɲ̊ ɲ] appear before palatal stops and the velar nasals [ŋ̊ ŋ] before velar stops; in these positions, the alveolar nasals [n̥ n] do not occur. [ŋ] appears also before [ɬ] and [s] through the deletion of [k] in the consonant clusters [ŋkl] and [ŋks]. The palatal nasals are clearly non-phonemic, although there is some debate about [ŋ] due to the common deletion of [k].

Aspiration/length contrasts (medial and final)

Modern Icelandic is often said to have a rare kind of stops, the so-called pre-aspirated stops [ʰp ʰt ʰc ʰk] (e.g. löpp [lœʰp] 'foot'), which occur only after a vowel and do not contrast with sequences [hp ht hc hk] (which do not occur in Icelandic). Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996) note that phonetically, in Icelandic pre-aspirated stops the aspiration is longer than in normal post-aspirated stops, and is indistinguishable from sequences [hp ht hc hk] (or with [x] replacing [h]) occurring in other languages; hence, they prefer to analyze the pre-aspirated stops as sequences. For example, Icelandic nótt, dóttir correspond to German Nacht, Tochter.

Following vowels there is a complex alternation among consonant length, vowel length and aspiration. The following table shows the alternations in medial and final position (Ladefoged & Maddieson 1996):

Aspiration/length contrasts (medial and final)
Bilabial Dental Velar
koppar [ˈkʰɔhpar]
'small pot' (nom. pl.)
ttir [ˈcaɪhtɪr]
'doorway' (nom. pl.)
sakka [ˈsahka]
kobbar [ˈkʰɔppar]
'young seal' (nom. pl.)
ddir [ˈcaɪttɪr]
'endow' (2nd sg. past)
sagga [ˈsakka]
'dampness' (obl. sg.)
kopar [ˈkʰɔːpar]
gætir [ˈcaɪːtɪr]
'can' (2nd sg. past subj.)
saka [ˈsaːka]
'to blame'
gætnir [ˈcaɪhtnɪr]
'careful' (masc. nom. pl.)
sakna [ˈsahkna]
'to miss'
kapp [ˈkʰahp]
tt [ˈviht]
'wide' (neut. sg.)
kk [ˈtœhk]
'dark' (fem. nom. sg.)
gabb [ˈkapp]
dd [ˈvitt]
gg [ˈtœkk]
'dew' (nom. sg.)
gap [ˈkaːp]
bít [ˈpiːt]
'bite' (1st. sg. pres.)
tök [ˈtʰœːk]
'grasps' (nom. pl.)

In most analyses, consonant length is seen as phonemic while vowel length is seen as determined entirely by environment, with long vowels occurring in stressed syllables before single consonants and before certain sequences formed of a consonant plus [v r j], and short vowels occurring elsewhere. Note that diphthongs also occur long and short.


As discussed above, the phones [m̥ ɲ̊ ŋ̊ ɲ x ð], probably [ɣ], and debatably [ŋ] are non-phonemic. Beyond this, there is a great deal of debate both about the number and identity of the phonemes in Icelandic and the mapping between phonemes and allophones.

There are a number of different approaches:

Phonetic vs. orthographic:

  1. The "phonetic" approach. This approach tries to stay as close as possible to the phonetics. This would assume, for example, that [k] and [kʰ] should be consistently analyzed in all contexts as phonemic /k/ and /kʰ/, respectively (or perhaps as an archiphoneme /K/ in positions where the two don't contrast), and that [hk] is a phonemic sequence /hk/ (or possibly a unitary pre-aspirated /ʰk/).
  2. The "orthographic" approach (e.g. Thráinsson 1978). This approach takes the orthography (i.e. the spelling) as approximately indicative of the underlying phonemes. This approach generally assumes, for example, phonemes /k/ and /ɡ/ which occur in accordance with the orthography (i.e. /k/ where written k, /ɡ/ where written g), where /k/ has allophones [kʰ], [k] and [x] depending on the context, and /ɡ/ has allophones [k], [ɣ] and [x]. [hk] is analyzed as /k/ or /kk/, while [kk] is analyzed as /ɡɡ/, again consistent with the orthography. A variant would assume that /k/ and /ɡ/ merge into an archiphoneme /K/ in contexts where the two cannot be distinguished, e.g. before /s/ or /t/, where both would be pronounced as [x]. Note that in this approach, a particular phone will often be an allophone of different phonemes depending on context; e.g. [k] would be taken as /ɡ/ initially, but /k/ between vowels.

Maximalist vs. minimalist:

  1. The "maximalist" approach. This approach generally takes the contrasting phones as unit phonemes unless there is a good reason not to. This would assume, for example, that the palatal stops [c cʰ], voiceless sonorants [l̥ r̥ n̥] and perhaps the velar nasal [ŋ] are separate phonemes, at least in positions where they cannot be analyzed as allophones of other unitary phonemes (e.g. initially for the voiceless sonorants, before /l/ and /s/ for the velar nasal).
  2. The "minimalist" approach. This approach analyzes phones as clusters whenever possible, in order to reduce the number of phonemes and (in some cases) better account for alternations. This would assume, for example, that the palatal stops, voiceless sonorants and velar nasal [ŋ] are phonemic clusters, in accordance with the orthography. In structuralist analyses, which passed out of vogue starting in the 1960s as generative approaches took off, even more extreme minimalist approaches were common. An example is (Haugen 1958). Although he presents more than one analysis, the most minimal analysis not only accepts all the clusters indicated in the orthography, but also analyzes the aspirates as sequences /bh/, /ɡh/, /dh/ (or /ph/, /kh/, /th/ depending on how the non-aspirate stops are analyzed) and reduces all vowels and diphthongs down to a set of 6 vowels.

The main advantage of the phonetic approach is its simplicity compared with the orthographic approach. A major disadvantage, however, is that it results in a large number of unexplained lexical and grammatical alternations. Under the orthographic approach, for example (especially if a minimalist approach is also adopted), all words with the root sag-/seg- ('say') have a phonemic /ɡ/, despite the varying phones [k], [x], [ɣ], [j] occurring in different lexical and inflectional forms, and similarly all words with the root sak- ('blame') have a phonemic /k/, despite the varying phones [k], [kʰ], [hk]. Under the phonetic approach, however, the phonemes would vary depending on the context is complicated and seemingly arbitrary ways. Similarly, an orthographic analysis of three words for "white", hvítur hvít hvítt [kʰviːtʏr] [kʰviːtʰ] [kʰviht] (masc. sg, fem. sg, neut. sg.) as /kvitʏr/ /kvit/ /kvitt/ allows for a simple analysis of the forms as a root /kvit-/ plus endings /-ʏr/, /-/, /-t/ and successfully explains the surface alternation [iːt] [iːtʰ] [iht], which would not be possible in a strictly phonetic approach.

Assuming a basically orthographic approach, the set of phonemes in Icelandic is as follows:

Consonant phonemes
Labial Coronal Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal   m () n       (ŋ)
Stop p b t d (c) (ɟ) k g
Continuant sibilant s
non-sibilant f v θ   (ç) j     h
Lateral () l
Tap or trill () r

The parentheses indicate phonemes present in a maximalist analysis but not a minimalist analysis.

There is a particular amount of debate over the status of [ɣ] and [cʰ]. A maximalist analysis sees them as separate phonemes (e.g. /ɟ/ and /c/, respectively), while in a minimalist analysis they are allophones of /k/ /ɡ/ before front unrounded vowels, and of /kj/ /ɡj/ before rounded vowels, in accordance with the orthography. The maximalist approach accords with the presence of minimal pairs like gjóla [couːla] ('light wind') vs. góla [kouːla] ('howl') and kjóla [cʰouːla] ('dresses') vs. kóla [kʰouːla] ('cola'), along with general speakers' intuitions. However, the minimalist approach (e.g. Rögnvaldsson 1993) accounts for some otherwise unexplained gaps in the system (e.g. the absence of palatal/velar contrasts except before rounded vowels, and the absence of phonetic [j] after velars and palatals), as well as otherwise unexplained alternations between palatals and velars in e.g. segi [sɛiːjɪ] ('[I] say') vs. sagði [ˈsaɣðɪ] ('[I] said'; assuming that [j] and [ɣ] are taken as allophones of palatal and velar stops, respectively). (On the other hand, the number of such alternations is not as great as for stop vs. fricative alternations; most lexical items consistently have either velars or palatals.)

The voiceless sonorants are straightforwardly taken as allophones of voiced sonorants in most positions, because of lack of any contrast; similarly for [ç] vs. [j]. On the other hand, [l̥ r̥ n̥ ç] do contrast with [l r n j] in initial position, suggesting that they may be phonemes in this position, consistent with a maximalist analysis. A minimalist analysis, however, would note the restricted distribution of these phonemes, the lack of contrast in this position with sequences [hl hr hn hj] and the fact that similar sequences [kl kr kn] do occur, and analyze [l̥ r̥ n̥ ç] as /hl hr hn hj/, in accordance with the orthography.

The velar nasal [ŋ] is clearly an allophone of /n/ before a velar stop. When it occurs before /l/ or /s/ as a result of deletion of an intervening [k], however, some scholars analyze it as a phoneme /K/, while others analyze it as a sequence, e.g. /nɡ/.


There is less disagreement over the vowel phonemes in Icelandic than the consonant phonemes. The Old Icelandic vowel system involving phonemic length was transformed to the modern system where phonetic length is automatically determined by the syllable structure. In the process of eliminating vowel length, however, relatively few vowel distinctions have been lost, as the loss of phonemic length has been offset by an increase in the number of quality distinctions and diphthongs.

Monophthongs Front Central Back
Close i u
Close-mid j ʏ  
Open-mid ɛ œ ɔ
Open a
Diphthongs Front Back
Mid to close eiøɪ ou
Open to close ai au

/ai/ has a front onset, [a], while /au/ has a back onset, [ɑ].[10]

Vowel length

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

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


  1. Árnason (2011:99, 110 and 115)
  2. Kress (1982:23–24) "It's never voiced, as s in sausen, and it's pronounced by pressing the tip of the tongue against the alveolar ridge, close to the upper teeth - somewhat below the place of articulation of the German sch. The difference is that German sch is labialized, while Icelandic s is not. It's a pre-alveolar, coronal, voiceless spirant."
  3. 1 2 Pétursson (1971:?), cited in Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996:145)
  4. The alveolar non-sibilant fricatives are not contrastive in most languages and so have no dedicated IPA symbols. They are broadly transcribed with /θ, ð/, which nominally denote dental fricatives.
  5. Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996:144–145)
  6. Liberman, Mark. "A little Icelandic phonetics". Language Log. University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved 1 April 2012.
  7. Scholten (2000:22)
  8. 1 2 3 Árnason (2011:60)
  9. 1 2 Einarsson (1945:10), cited in Gussmann (2011:73)
  10. 1 2 3 Haugen (1958:65)
  11. "Icelandic Phonetic Transcription.PDF - ptg_ice.pdf" (PDF). Retrieved 23 March 2015.
  12. As a written letter, g is the most eccentric of all. For instance guð (God) is pronounced [ɡvʏːθ] (nominative and accusative singular) but [ɡvʏːði] (dative singular), [ɡvʏðs] (genitive singular) and the [ð] is always used between vowels.


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