Icelandic vs. Swedish

The Icelandic and Swedish languages, although both belonging to the North Germanic language family, have distinct linguistic traits and historical backgrounds. Icelandic, the official language of Iceland, has retained a more conservative linguistic structure due to its relative isolation over the centuries. In contrast, Swedish, spoken primarily in Sweden and parts of Finland, has undergone significant evolution under the influence of neighboring languages and modern communication.

Despite these differences, there remains a level of mutual intelligibility between Icelandic and Swedish speakers, particularly among younger generations proficient in other Scandinavian languages. This mutual understanding, however, is not without its challenges, as Icelandic is closer to Old Norse in vocabulary and grammar, while Swedish has diverged considerably over time.

In comparing Icelandic and Swedish, it is important to consider not only the linguistic features, but also the cultural, historical, and contemporary factors that contribute to their distinctiveness. With a thorough understanding of their similarities and differences, one can appreciate the unique characteristics that each language brings to the diverse tapestry of Nordic languages.

History and Origins

Icelandic Language

The history of the Icelandic language began in the 9th century when the settlement of Iceland, mostly by Norwegians, brought a dialect of Old Norse to the island. The oldest preserved texts in Icelandic were written around 1100, with the oldest single text being Íslendingabók followed by Landnámabók. Icelandic shares its ancestry with English, and both are Germanic languages, making them have many cognate words with similar meanings and common roots.

Swedish Language

The history and origins of the Swedish language can also be traced back to the Old Norse dialects spoken by the Vikings. The Swedish language evolved through time into a unique form of communication, distinctly different from Icelandic. Swedish is classified as a continental Scandinavian language, along with Danish and Norwegian, whereas Icelandic and Faroese are considered insular Scandinavian languages, as explained in a Reddit post about the similarities between Icelandic and Swedish.

Phonology and Pronunciation

Vowel Sounds

In Icelandic, there are both monophthongs and diphthongs, which contribute to its rich vowel inventory. The language is known for having fairly minor dialectal differences in sounds, making it quite uniform in its pronunciation. On the other hand, Swedish is characterized by nine vowels that are distinguished in quality and, to some extent, in quantity. This distinction results in 18 vowel phonemes in most dialects.

Consonant Sounds

Icelandic has a stable consonant inventory, with many consonants existing in both voiced and unvoiced forms. The language also features an aspiration contrast between plosives, paralleling Faroese, Danish, and Standard Mandarin, rather than a voicing contrast. In terms of consonant pronunciation, Swedish is more similar to other Germanic languages. One unique aspect of the language, however, is the presence of pitch accent, a characteristic not commonly found in most European languages.

Grammar and Syntax

In comparing Icelandic and Swedish, it is important to note their differences in grammar and syntax. Both languages belong to the North Germanic language family, but they exhibit different characteristics in terms of nouns, verbs, and adjectives.


Icelandic is an inflected language with four cases: nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive. Icelandic nouns can have one of three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, or neuter. Nouns, adjectives, and pronouns are declined in four cases and two numbers, singular and plural.

On the other hand, Swedish nouns have two grammatical genders: common and neuter. They also have two cases: nominative and genitive. Nouns are declined based on gender, number, and case.


Icelandic verbs are conjugated based on mood, tense, voice, and person. Unlike Swedish, Icelandic preserves many of the conservative features found in Old Norse verbs. This makes Icelandic more difficult in terms of verb conjugation.

In contrast, Swedish verbs are easier to learn, as they have a simpler conjugation system, and they are less conservative compared to Old Norse verbs. Swedish has four verb conjugations, which are classified based on the endings of the present tense, infinitive, and past tense.


Icelandic adjectives are more complex than Swedish adjectives. They agree with the noun they modify in terms of gender, case, and number. For example, if an adjective modifies a feminine noun in the dative case, it must take the appropriate form.

Swedish adjectives, on the other hand, are relatively simpler. They generally agree with the noun in terms of gender and number, but they do not have to agree with the case. This results in a more simple and streamlined approach to adjectives in Swedish.

Vocabulary Differences

When comparing Icelandic and Swedish, one will notice several differences in their vocabulary.

Common Words

In spite of the divergence in vocabulary, Icelandic and Swedish still share some similarities, particularly in the realm of common words. This is because both languages have their roots in Old Norse. Some words with similar meanings may be easily recognized by speakers of both languages, such as “hej” (hello) and “takk” (thank you).

False Friends

While some shared vocabulary between Icelandic and Swedish may be helpful for communication, it’s essential to be aware of “false friends.” These are words that sound or look similar in both languages, but have different meanings.

Here are a few examples of false friends between Icelandic and Swedish:

IcelandicSwedishEnglish Meaning (Icelandic)English Meaning (Swedish)
bókbokbookbeech tree
kallkalman, fellowcabbage

Being aware of these false friends can help speakers of both Icelandic and Swedish avoid misunderstandings when trying to communicate with one another.


In comparing Icelandic and Swedish languages, it is essential to consider their historical, linguistic, and cultural contexts. Geographical isolation has played a significant role in the development of Icelandic, allowing it to remain less influenced by other languages. In contrast, Swedish has had more exposure and interaction with neighboring languages.

While both Icelandic and Swedish belong to the North Germanic language family, their grammatical structures and vocabularies have diverged over time. Icelandic has maintained a more conservative grammar, making it closer to Old Norse than Swedish.

In terms of mutual intelligibility, it is worth noting that most Nordic people can understand and speak Swedish or Norwegian, while Icelandic is less readily understood by speakers of other Scandinavian languages. However, knowledge of other Germanic languages can still be helpful in learning Icelandic.

Finally, it is important to consider the role of English in this context, as the majority of Nordic people have a high level of English proficiency. This commonality often facilitates communication between speakers of different Nordic languages, including Icelandic and Swedish.