The sounds of Icelandic

A friend of mine wants to learn Icelandic, and I am always looking for someone to study languages with.

As usual, I vowed to start off right - establish a solid study program and build good habits from the get-go. That's harder to do with Icelandic than with many other languages, though; there aren't as many resources out there (especially if you're not in Iceland and not taking a class).

In particular, my favorite self-teaching courses – the Foreign Service Institute courses developed by the US government – don't include Icelandic.

I already owned the Complete Icelandic package from Teach Yourself Books, with two (two!) CDs and a book, due to my habit of accumulating foreign language textbooks (I have at least one language for every letter of the alphabet; before you ask, that includes Quechua, Xhosa, and Zulu). Why research the best possible course when there's an at-least-okay right on the shelf?

When you're learning a new language, the first task is always1 to get a sense of the sounds of the language. And the best way to do that is to find out the International Phonetic Alphabet values for the sounds.

One of the frustrating things in real-life language classes is the teachers who'll say "It's kind of like this English sound, but not quite," or "Just listen and you'll get it." What you really want is to know how the sounds are articulated – where your tongue goes, whether your vocal cords are vibrating or not.

Which, of course, is something most instructors don't know, and most students wouldn't understand.

But, much as a pinch of salt will bring out the flavor of damn year any other ingredient, a pinch of phonology will help you with any foreign language. Instead of puzzling over vague descriptions or memorizing rules – "b becomes p at the end of a word, and d becomes t, and …" you can just learn that obstruents devoice word-finally and get on with your life. And with memorizing thousands of vocabulary words.

Take the Icelandic b. Teach Yourself calls it "like English b, but with a bit more breathing", which is meaningless. "Like p in English spin", the pronunciation guide continues – that's more like it. English b is "voiced" – your vocal cords vibrate when you pronounce it. ("Except, except" – yes, I hear you.)
Icelandic b is pronounced without that voicing; in other words, like English p (in that particular context).

But you don't have to guess at the actual pronunciation from the vague Teach Yourself descriptions. The Wikipedia article on the sounds of Icelandic will help, as will this guide to Icelandic sounds.

So, kids, take Ling 101 (or find an equivalent online guide) and your foreign language pronunciation will benefit!

(Yes, you do still have to listen carefully – but we'll get to that next time.)

1. Yeah, yeah, except when it's a signed language. Smartass (back to article)

Written on November 24, 2015