Icelandic Vowel Shifts

Icelandic Vowel Shifts

Changes in Icelandic pronunciation

In Icelandic vowels change, or “shift” for many reasons, the most common reasons being case endings or tense. The most common shift is the ö shift. This occurs in the plural neuter nominative and accusative and when a syllable proceeding the letter a is a u. For example, the feminine noun taska (case) will become tösku, not tasku, in the singular accusative, dative and genitive. There are however two rules: an accented á does not change and the combination au does not qualify (augu does not become öugu). In unstressed positions, the a changes to u rather than ö

Another vowel shift in Icelandic is the I shift. This shift has many uses, but these will be dealt with when they occur, although the most important use is the present tense of strong verbs. The I shift involves the following changes:

A = e
taka = tek

O = e
koma = kem

Á = æ
fá = fæ

Ú  = ý
búa = bý

Jú = ý
fljúga = flýg 

Jó  = ý
brjóta = brýt

Au = ey
auka = eyk

The I shift never occurs in the plural.

Taka – take
Koma – come
Fá – get
Búa – live
Fljúga – fly
Brjóta – break
Auka – increase

Other Pronunciation Changes


This is purely to ease pronunciation and to lessen the effects of harsh sounds. Fraction is very common, and thankfully, very easy to do. Any nouns or adjectives that have two syllables in the stem lose the second stem vowel when a vowel ending is added. Gamall means old. Fraction would occur here when an ending beginning with a vowel is added. So, instead of becoming gamalan we get gamlan.

Fraction does not apply to nouns with the definite article when it is at the end of the noun. Furthermore, fraction does not occur in adjectives ending in legur. This means that fallegur (beautiful) would become fallegan.

J Insertion

J insertion is used to keep a consistent relationship between spelling and pronunciation. It occurs naturally in speech so you need not worry about pronouncing it too much. The rules for J insertion are simple. Whenever an ending beginning a or u is added to a stem ending ý, æ or ey, a j will be placed between stem and ending. For example, nýr will become nýjum.

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Dr. Jennifer Wagner

PhD in Applied Linguistics, ESL/French teacher, author of two French books, and helping others to learn languages online at