What the Heck Does the Letter “ð” Sound Like?

A few many posts ago I mentioned the inaccurate tendencies of GoogleTranslate when trying to help out with the Icelandic language. Of course, I still use it for confirmation on certain words, but when looking up the words to ask for the restroom, I came across something very bizarre:

Screen Shot 2014-03-24 at 9.09.09 PM

To any beginner, “talarðu ensku” seems to difficult to misread. But to those who aren’t Icelandic learners, this could easily be taken as truth (because “talarðu ensku” is actually a phrase meaning “Do you speak Icelandic?”) That being said, I would avoid asking Icelanders if they speak English while you have your legs crossed together and can barely walk.

When you break it down though, “talarðu” is not a single word. It is a combination of two words put together, “talar” and “þú,” meaning “speak” and “you” respectively. Before I explain how this happens I’ll have to note that in questions the verb always comes before the subject. So instead of asking “do you speak Icelandic?” you would literally ask “speak you Icelandic?”

So how does “talar þú” become “talarðu” and what the heck are those ð and þ symbols? Well, to make things difficult on us foreign learners, the Icelandic alphabet actually has 32 letters:


Here you can see that á, ð, é, í, ó, ú, ý, þ, æ and ö have become new additions when compared to English. If you’ve studied foreign language, chances are you’ve run into most of those letters. But back to that ð…what is that?? a “d” speared and doubled in on itself? Since when did a P get lazy and drag itself down to a Þ? And how in the world do you pronounce these letters?

The good news is that these two have very similar sounds and follow very simple rules. Let me introduce you to the first letter called the “thorn” or “þorn.”


This letter came from the runic letter called the “thurs” which resembles the thorn but instead of a circular loop, it forms a pointed triangle at the end. It was used in Old Norse, Old English, and Icelandic before shaping itself into what we now know as the digraph “th.” Neatly enough, Icelandic is the only language that did not adopt “th” and still uses the thorn to this day. So where we call the letter “thorn,” Icelandic declares it as “þorn.” And if you haven’t guessed already, that word wouldn’t translate to “porn.” The thorn is most commonly used as a voiceless dental fricative, which is just a fancier way of describing the sound th as in the English word “thick.” So if you adapted the thorn into English, þe language would start looking like þis. You would have moþers and faþers and þanksgiving and þursdays.  It is often at the beginning of a word, and occasionally crawls into the middle, for words like “Alþingi” (Icelandic Parliament) or “óþýður” (harsh/gruff). But you will never see the thorn at the end of a sentence, and that is its most important rule. You will never see ljóþ or stöþ or jörþ. Instead, you’ll encounter the letter called the “eth.”


The right way to write those words above are ljóð, stöð and jörð, (poem, station, and earth) and would sound the exact same to an English speaker as they would if they had þorns at the end. Instead of a voiceless dental fricative though, it is something called a voiced dental fricative which can be described as the th in the English “them.” The eth differs in that it may be used at the end of words but cannot be used at the beginning. An easy way to remember this is to think of “thorn” starting with “th” and “eth” ending with “th.” This is also a letter that is almost exclusive to Icelandic, but the Faroe Islands adopt it as well.

To get an inkling about how these sound in words, I’ll post a video of an Icelander citing examples for each of the letters:

Now that we know what these words are and what their rules are, let’s look back at “talar þú” and “talarðu.” Whenever a verb ends in R and is followed by þú (you), you attach the word to the verb but instead add the eth in place of the thorn. It sounds about the same but the word is abbreviated and flows better. Another example is “spilar þú – spilarðu” coming from “spila” (to play) and þú (you).

So yet again we have an example of Icelanders pushing their words together. One day I will find an entire sentence compressedtogetherintooneword and I will not be the least bit surprised.


Kær kveðja!

(Best wishes!)




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