What’s in a Name?

A lot of Icelandic names seem almost impossible for many foreigners to pronounce. But most place names are actually descriptive, i.e. they are often derived from multiple words that mean something.  So for instance, Reykjavik is a combination of reykja meaning smokey and vik meaning bay, so Reykjavik = Smokey Bay, so called because the first settlers found it very foggy when they came here.

You can find extensive lists of the meaning of place names in Iceland online, but here are some of the most common ones, which we often saw used in place names during our travels:

Bær = Farm, Township

Bakki = River Bank

Bjarg = Cliff, Rock

Borg = City, Crag

Brekka = Slope

Dalur = Valley

Ey = Island

Fell = Mountain, Hill

Fjall = Mountain

Fjörður = Fjord, Valley

Foss = Waterfall

Hamar = Crag

Höfn = Harbour

Hraun = Lava-Field, Lava

Hver = Hot Spring

Jökull = Glacier

Jökulsá = Glacial River

Kirkja = Church

Laug = Warm Spring

Reykur = Smoke, Steam

Sandur = Sand(s)

Staður = Place, Parsonage

Vatn = Lake, Water

Vegur = Road, Track

Vík = Inlet, Small Bay


Then of course there is the pronunciation of words.  Again there are good online resources for detailed information, but here a few basics that easily catch out the first time visitor:

Ð (upper case) or ð is called “eth” and makes a TH sound, not a D sound, i.e. similar to a thorn (below).

Þ (upper case) or þ is called “thorn” and rather than making a P sound it makes at TH sound at the start of a word.

Note that eth never starts a word, a thorn is used instead.

ll (double L) is not pronounced like the long L sound in English, but instead the first L sounds like a T and the second sounds like a short UL, so you end up with a gutteral sound like TUH-UL.

A very popular place to visit in Iceland is Þingvellir, which at first glance one might try to pronounce as “PING-VE-LEER”, but the thorn makes the first syllable “THING”.  I though I was doing well calling the place “THING-VE-LEER” until I eventually found out it should be “THING-VET-UH-LEER”.

So that volcano that shut down all transatlantic air traffic a few years ago is called Eyjafjallajökull, which we drove by on our way to Vik.  It is pronounced something like “Ay-ya-fi-at-ul-la-yo-cut-ul-uh”.

But don’t worry if you can’t same the name, you are not alone.

We met some people who went to a comedy club in Reykjavik and learned that if you just say “I forgot my yoghurt” really fast, it can sound pretty close to volcano’s name!

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