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We're going to Iceland for the first time in September. Will we be able to get around ok just speaking English, or should we try to learn some rudimentary Icelandic? And is that even what their language is called?

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When I visited Iceland, I didn't meet a single non-English-speaker. In fact, all of the natives with whom I spoke had excellent English. This is partly due to the fact that hardly anyone outside of Iceland speaks their language (well, maybe some Norwegians could get by), so they use English as a bridge language. Also, English is probably easy to learn compared to Icelandic's complex inflection and declension rules. –  ESultanik Jun 24 '11 at 11:31
    
@ESultanik just a small nitpick. Norwegian and Icelandic are not hardly mutually comprehensible. Faroese and Icelandic are the closest to each other. There are many words between English and Icelandic that are similar to each other, but its easier to see the link on paper. –  MatthewMartin Jun 28 '11 at 21:31
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Learn "hello", "please", "thank you", and "cheers" anyway - it will be more fun for you and the locals (-: –  hippietrail Jun 28 '11 at 21:39
    
@MatthewMartin Ah, okay. I made that assumption because, I believe, Icelandic is closely related to Old Norwegian. –  ESultanik Jun 28 '11 at 21:50
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@hippitrail Goðan daginn = good day/hello (colloquially pronounced sorta like goyin-dayin) Takk. Takk. (same word for please and thanks) Skal! (cheers!) –  MatthewMartin Jun 28 '11 at 22:00
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4 Answers

up vote 29 down vote accepted

Yes, most Icelandic people speak very good English, you will be fine.

Their language is indeed called Icelandic, and is fascinating in regards to its history. From wikipedia:

The oldest preserved texts in Icelandic were written around 1100AD. The majority of these texts are poems or laws, preserved orally for generations before being written down. The most famous of these, written in Iceland from the 12th century onward, are without doubt the Icelandic Sagas, the historical writings of Snorri Sturluson; and eddaic poems.

With regards to learning a few Icelandic phrases, as with anywhere, people appreciate non-native speakers making the effort. "Takk" for "Thanks" is an easy one for starters. Some of the pronunciation is nigh on impossible for English speakers who haven't been exposed to it before, so don't think you'll attain even a basic grasp without a lot of study!

Their street naming scheme is charming, and you may also be interested in the exonyms and how people derive their surnames. "Z" was removed from the alphabet in 1973.

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This is just awesome... I asked about speaking English, got a really informative answer, and found out why the travel agent I dealt with by email was named "Matthíasdóttir" by following the culturally related links given by @jozzas. Thanks a bunch - wish I could upvote over and over again! I love this site already! –  DLRdave Jun 24 '11 at 4:35
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+1 very enlightened –  Ginamin Jun 24 '11 at 4:44
    
@DLRDave Thanks! I fell in love with the place when I visited, I'm sure you will too. –  jozzas Jun 24 '11 at 5:01
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Only problem with the exonyms is there's no translation for New Zealand :( I wanted to see what they did with the 'Z' ;) –  Mark Mayo Jun 24 '11 at 7:33
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New Zealand in icelandic is Nýja Sjáland –  Ingó Vals Oct 3 '11 at 13:24
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Recently, I did a volunteering project in Iceland and enjoyed it thoroughly. Most of the people there do speak English, specially if you are friendly and respect their culture/customs/traditions. Also, I found that most of 'em are friendly and approachable.

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I visited Iceland in June 2009 and met very few non-English speakers. Even in some very small villages, we easily ordered meals, hotel rooms, and asked questions of which attractions we should see. Most people were very friendly and eager to chat with us.

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An Icelander will usually start speaking English with you before you have a chance to open your mouth. This is very disappointing to people like me that go to Iceland to learn the language. Other students I know will resort to wearing a sign around their neck that begs people to stick to Icelandic.

The language name in their own language is Íslenska. So you'd say (or write on a card) Ég tala ekki íslensku. Which will be obvious as soon as you open your mouth :-)

Better than learning phrases--unless you are a foreign language hobbyist, I'd learn other factoids, such as the emergency number is 112.

Enjoy your trip.

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The '112' emergency number is part of the GSM standard if I'm not wrong, it works anywhere in the world by automatically redirecting you to the relevant local emergency number. –  Ankur Banerjee Jun 28 '11 at 21:39
    
Interesting! I learn something everyday. I just looked it up. It works anywhere if you have a GSM phone. If you are using a land line, or non GSM phone in, say, the US, you'd have to dial 911. –  MatthewMartin Jun 28 '11 at 21:46
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