The Medieval Icelandic Saga and Oral Tradition: A Discourse on Method

  Sigurðsson, Gísli. 2004. The Medieval Icelandic Saga and Oral Tradition: A Discourse on Method. Trans. Nicholas Jones. Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature 2. Cambridge, MA: Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature.

Pronunciation Guide

The information given here should help non-Icelandic speakers to make a recognizable attempt at pronouncing the words and names that occur in this book. It does not aim to give comprehensive details of Icelandic pronunciation. It gives only the main rules and ignores the numerous refinements to these rules. In addition, though very good, our knowledge of the pronunciation of Old Icelandic is by no means perfect: for fuller details, see particularly Hreinn Benediktsson, ed. The First Grammatical Treatise, University of Iceland Publications in Linguistics 1, Reykjavík: Institute of Nordic Linguistics, 1972.

Examples are as in General American English unless otherwise stated. OI is Old Icelandic; MI is Modern Icelandic.

Stress. Stress is regularly on the first syllable, e.g. MI Guðmundur Ólafsson has the same stress pattern as Jonathan Robinson.

Consonants. Consonants written double are long (geminate). In MI at least, consonants that are normally voiced are devoiced in certain voiceless environments, e.g. ‘n’ is [n] in vani but [n] in vanta; and consonants that are normally voiceless are voiced in certain voiced environments, e.g. ‘f’ is [f] in haft but [v] in hafa.

Consonants can be pronounced as in English except as follows:

character IPA  
ð/Ð ð as in with, father; called eth
g g variants include [x], e.g. in sagt; [γ], e.g. in saga
h h ‘h’ usually produces voiceless fricative variants of following consonants, e.g. ‘hl-’ []; ‘hr-’ []; ‘hn-’ []; ‘hv’ OI [xw], MI [kv]
j j yap, m[y]usic
l l in MI, ‘ll’ is [dl]
ng ng as in finger rather than singer
r r trilled at the tip of the tongue. In MI, ‘rl’ is [dl], ‘rn’ is [dn]
s s always voiceless as in cease, never voiced as in rose
z   merged with ‘s’ in MI. OI pronunciation is unclear, but perhaps [ts] as in German Witz, Zeit
þ/Þ θ as in think, both; called thorn

Vowels. Phonologically, the vowel systems in OI and MI are very similar; phonetically, i.e. in actual pronunciation, they are very different, especially as regards the OI long vowels. The main systemic difference concerns length: in OI, vowel length is phonemic and marked by an acute accent (or in some cases by a different letter form); in MI, vowel length is phonotactically conditioned, all vowels being long before one or no consonant in a syllable, short before two or more. In early OI, nasality is phonemic in long vowels, e.g. fá- [fa:] (‘few’) but [fā:] (‘get’), but appears to have been lost by the 13th century.

The table gives approximate pronunciations of vowels in OI and their commonest reflexes in MI.

Old Icelandic character IPA closest equivalents Modern Icelandic character IPA closest equivalents Notes
a a German Mann → a a/ɑː German Mann; father  
á father → á cow  
e e bet → e e/ɛː bet; yeah OI ‘e’ is short equivalent of both ‘é’ and ‘æ’
é German Reh → é je yellow  
i i/ɪ(?) bit → i ɪ/ɪː bit; bid  
í need → í i/iː neat; need  
o o French pot → o ɔ/ɔː British dog; British law  
ó German Sohn → ó note; go  
u u/ʊ(?) put → u ʏ/ʏː with tongue position as in bid but with light lip-rounding as in put  
ú food → ú u/uː shoot; food  
y y German hütte → y ɪ/ɪː bit; bid merged with ‘i’ in MI
ý German fühlen → ý i/iː neat; need merged with ‘í’ in MI
æ ɛː yeah → æ write; ride  
ɔ British dog → ö ø German götter; böse (British word)  
ǫ́ ɔː British law → á cow; merged with ‘á’ in MI, and not distinguished from ‘á’ in OI verse or standardized texts  
ø ø German götter; (British work) → ö ø Generally merged with OI ‘ǫ’ but sometimes with OI ‘e’  
œ øː German böse → æ write; ride merged with ‘æ’ in MI
ei day → ei day  
ey eʏ(?) prob. as day but with lip-rounding → ey day merged with ‘ei’ in MI
au cow → au øʏ French feuille  

Other changes between OI and MI. Other very prevalent phonological changes between OI and MI include:

  • The OI inflectional ending ‘-r’, found for example in the nominative singular of most strong masculine nouns and in the 2nd and 3rd person singular present tense of strong verbs, becomes syllabic ‘-ur’ in MI, e.g. OI Hallr (man’s name), MI Hallur.
  • OI ‘vá-’ becomes MI ‘vo-’, e.g. OI Vápnfirðinga saga, MI Vopnfirðinga saga.
  • In words that are typically unstressed, OI voiceless stops in final position become homorganic voiced fricatives in MI, e.g. OI þat, MI það (‘it’); OI ek, MI ég [jeγ] (‘I’).