Icelandic Language

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Icelandic Language

Old Icelandic manuscript
An old Icelandic manuscript. Photo: Árni Magnússon Institute/Facebook.

Q: To my knowledge only Icelandic and English still retain the Old Norse ‘th’ sound?

Is this true?


Ted T., U.S.


A: According to grammarian Jóhannes B. Sigtryggsson at the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, the unvoiced fricative ‘th’ or ‘þ’ in Icelandic, exists in at least one other language, Greek, where it’s symbolized with ‘θ,’ or ‘theta,’ as in Athens, or ‘Αθήνα.’

What’s special about the sound in Icelandic is the symbol ‘þ’ or ‘þorn,’ which doesn’t exist in any other modern alphabet. It may derive from Old English, where it’s called ‘thorn,’ or from the runic alphabet where it’s called ‘þurs.’

To mark the letter’s significance, the International Day of Þ is celebrated on June 8, to commemorating the day the letter was recognized as part of the Latin alphabet under the Unicode standard in 1994.