Tourist’s guide to some Icelandic words

Like almost every other tourist we struggled with remembering and pronouncing Icelandic names. This is how we referred to places: “Kirk-ju…something something…you know that place in the south…with this… and that…”. It was clearly getting inefficient and embarrassing. So we tried our best to learn at least how to pronounce the most common places.

Many Icelandic place names are actually an amalgamation of a few common nouns. These common nouns might be appended to a proper noun, but not always. For example, Eyjafjallajökull, the infamous volcano that erupted in 2010 can actually be broken down to island-mountain-glacier. So it helps to break these long words into smaller nouns. Knowing the meaning of some of these words helped us remember and pronounce them. So here is a quick guide. This cannot be perfect, because for it to be, it would have to be written by an Icelander with some knowledge of orthography. But we attempt.

First, let us deal with some common special characters and letters so that they are less intimidating.

Letters and special
Pronunciation Example
Æ Like in bye or eye Snæfellsness is pronounced Snye-fers-ness.
Ei or ey Like in laid or paid Leirhnjúkur is pronounced lay-dsh-nu-kur.
J y jar is pronounced bye-yaar.
Ll (double l) Usually tl but there are
many exceptions to the
Fjall is pronounced F-yeah-tl.
Tröllaskagi is pronounced Trotla-skagi.
V This one is tough. It is
pronounced as v or f.
Sometimes when there is a
h before, hv is
pronounced like wh in
why. Often it sounds
like a kh.
In general, breath out or sigh when
you say v and you will be safe.
Myvatn is pronounced Mee-vat-n.
Hverir is pronounced fay-reer
where fay rhymes with day.
Ð dh / th (pronounced like in there) Fjörður is pronounced f-yourr-dhur.
Þ th (pronounced like in thorn or in Athens) Þingvellir is pronounced thing-vet-lir.

Below are some common words, their meanings, nouns in which these words appear and how it sounded to us when the locals said it. Very often the last n or a l that follows another consonant was said so quickly or softly that it was almost a silent letter.

Word Meaning Pronunciation Example
Baejar Farm bye-yaar Kirkjubaejarklaustur
Brú Bridge    
Dalur Valley da-lur Öxnadalur
Eyja Island ei-ya Eyjafjallajökull
(ei-ya f-yeah-t-la yo-kut-l)
Fjall = fi-yeah-tl
Fell = fet-l, less y sound
(ei-ya f-yeah-t-la yo-kut-l),
Fjörður Fjord fi-yourr-dhur Seyðisfjörður
Foss Waterfall foss (rhymes with toss) Skogafoss
Gjá Fissure ge-yeah-oo Rauðfeldsgjá
(we still have not nailed the pronunciation of this one)
Hellir Cave het-lir Vatnshellir
Hlið Mountain side ha-lith Reykjahlíð
Hnjúkur Peak dsh-nu-kur Leirhnjúkur
Höfði Promontory hovu-dhi Stórhöfði
Höfn Harbour See below this table Höfn
(See below this table)
Hraun Lavafield hrr-o-un (rhymes with drone
but with a stronger hr)
Hver Hot spring fay-r Hverfjall
Jökull Glacier yo-ku-tl Vatnajökull
Kirkjan Church kirk-yaan Kirkjubæjarklaustur
Klaustur Convent, Monastery klaus-tur Kirkjubæjarklaustur
Reykur Smoke ray-kur Reykjavík
Sandur Beach san-thur Hellissandur
Skaginn Peninsula skag-inn Tröllaskagi
Staðir Area   Egilsstaðir
Strandir Coast    
Vatn Lake vaat-n (when locals say it
fast, you just hear vaah)
Vík Bay weak Vík í Mýrdal
Viti Hell veet-i Viti crater

The oddest name to pronounce was that of Höfn, a town located in southeast Iceland. It is pronounced Huh-b.

It’s a mix of the word hop and the sound of a hiccup (the latter aptly suggested by a Lonely Planet writer). You must hear a local say it. You would wish there was a replay button because it is so fun. The sound is almost impossible to recreate by non-Icelanders.

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