The Little Book of Icelandic

On the idiosyncrasies, delights, and sheer tyranny of the Icelandic language

A book about one of the oldest and most complex languages in the world, Icelandic, and the heart and soul of the people who use it. All in short essays that are light, humorous, and easy to read.

Hardcover copy of The Little Book of Icelandic lying on a cloth
God's feet by the door of a scared man from The Little Book of Icelandic

Icelandic is a complicated language. It’s a bloody mess grammatically, a nightmarish mishmash of inflected nouns, verbs, adjectives, and pronouns, corresponding to four different cases, three different noun genders, moods, voices, and constructions, plus any number of exceptions and rules that seem completely arbitrary, and very often are.

This is not a textbook. It is not about the technicalities of Icelandic. It is not even a book that will help you order a beer in a pub. (Don’t worry. You can use English for that.) Rather it is about the Icelanders’ love of their mother tongue, their zealous attempts at keeping it pure, their often-hilarious way of cobbling together vocabulary, and their idioms and proverbs that are such a strong reflection of the things they consider truly important. In short, this book presents how the very essence of the Icelandic people and their culture is reflected in their language.

Beautifully illustrated by Megan Herbert, The Little Book of Icelandic is the perfect book for all lovers of Iceland. Available in paperback, ebook, and hardcover formats. The paperbacks and ebooks are available from your nearest digital store. The hardcovers ship from Iceland.

Sample chapter

Idioms and proverbs

Idioms and proverbs provide a unique insight into the soul of a nation. They say so much about a people’s history – the heartfelt, the tragic, the monumental, the proud. Icelandic has a vast number of idioms and proverbs that are a direct throwback to our nation’s past, especially idioms relating to the ocean, which is such a massive force in our nation’s history. Many of them we use all the time without ever giving a thought to their origins. What follows is a random sampling – I hope you enjoy reading about them as much as I did.

Idiom: Eins og skrattinn úr sauðaleggnum

Translation: Like Satan out of the sheep’s leg bone

Meaning: Unexpectedly, out of the blue

If someone suddenly appeared, especially someone I didn’t really want to see, I might say hann kom eins og skrattinn úr sauðaleggnum, literally “he appeared like Satan out of the sheep’s leg bone”.

Where the affiliation between a sheep’s leg bone and the prince of darkness comes in I could not tell you. However I can tell you that, in the old days, Icelandic children (being impoverished and everything) had no proper toys. Instead they played with sheeps’ bones, each of which was assigned a role. The jawbones were the cows, the joints of the legs were the sheep, and the leg bones were the horses. So maybe folks were worried that Satan – being the crafty bugger that he was – would install himself in a sheeps’ leg bone when the kids were playing and then suddenly BOO! pop out and scare the bejeezus out of them.

It’s just a theory.

Incidentally, the use of this idiom is not confined to people – it is also successfully used to comment on unwanted happenings, as in: “Damn, this huge phone bill comes like Satan out of a sheep’s leg bone!”



The Language Committee

How Icelanders struggle to keep their language “pure”

Let's make a word

How names for new things are constructed

Old letters, strange sounds

Wrapping your tongue around the Icelanders’ tongue


How Icelanders curse

The missing dialects

Why Icelandic has none

The most beautiful of all

Contests run to find the most lovely word in Icelandic (and the ugliest!)

Quintessential Icelandic words

The ones that describe us like no others

Useful phrases

Impress your new Icelandic friends!


The unexpected origin of the Icelandic word for toilet

And so much more inside!

Hardcover copy of The Little Book of Icelandic standing on other Little Books

Find out how one of the oldest and most complex languages in the world reflects the heart and soul of the people who use it. Get your copy of The Little Book of Icelandic today!



This is an amazingly addictive book on the background of the Icelandic language. It is in English and not intended as a “learn Icelandic” guide. It’s more of a linguistic ethnography and in that it is just about perfection. You come away with a complex picture of how the language evolved and how the people view their language. I found it riveting. […] Earthy and profane at times in a way needed to describe idiom and culture. I loved it.



Alda writes with a humorous style that makes even the convoluted and hard to pronounce Icelandic language interesting and enjoyable. After I read this book I had a better understanding of how the language came to be and how it influences and is influenced by Icelandic culture. Icelandic is the least changed of the Nordic languages and after you read this book you will understand how and why.



This is a little book that is absolutely filled with witty and useful details on the Icelandic language in all its complexity and peculiar aspects. I’ve read it through once and need to read it again to get the full flavor of it, but my favorite section is the one on idioms and proverbs. These are the sayings normally unknown by the visitor to Iceland, and in loving this place for its rich literary heritage, my favorite is “Blind is the man who has no books.“



Most importantly, realize that this is not a book intended to teach you Icelandic words and phrases. It is an examination of the linguistics of the Icelandic language. This looks at how Icelandic history, environment, and culture are reflected in their language and idioms. That said, this book is a wonderful source for getting a feel for the Icelandic culture and people.



This book is cute. It is humorous. It is not an academic book or a book for learning Icelandic but a student who is trying to learn Icelandic will find it fun. It is like having someone to commiserate with as you struggle to learn this complex language.



[…] If you’re a linguist, you’ll enjoy the history of the language, which is comprehensive without being pedantic. If you’re an Iceland-ophile, you’ll enjoy a deeper understanding of the language and culture. If you’re a human being, you’ll enjoy the drawings and the absolute ridiculousness of some aspects of the language, which is a universal trait. Highly recommend!



Geekfest for language lovers! I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It comes with the link to the author’s website where you can listen to her lovely voice pronounce these seemingly impossible words and phrases. The stories behind the expressions are fascinating.


About the author

Alda Sigmundsdóttir the Author of the Little Books about Iceland

Alda Sigmundsdóttir is a writer, and occasional journalist. She runs her own independent press, Little Books Publishing, based in Reykjavík, Iceland.

Alda is the author of ten books, each of which explores an aspect of Icelandic culture or society. Her two latest books, The Little Book of the Icelanders at Christmas and The Little Book of Days in Iceland, are about the Icelanders’ enthusiasm for the Yuletide season, and Iceland’s special seasonal events and holidays, respectively. Alda is active on social media, and may be found on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Our other Little Books

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