Visitors to Iceland should notice very quickly that there are a lot of place names around this amazing island. The whole country is full of small towns and villages, and virtually every farmstead has a name. As you drive, bus, or bike around the island, you’ll notice signs bearing a multitude of place names, and many of them share particular prefixes, suffixes, and other words in common—terms that can tell you a lot about the places you’re visiting. If you spend enough time in Iceland and pay enough attention, you’re sure to figure out many of the words yourself. For many others, however, you’ll need to do some research.
Searching online, I wasn’t been able to find a concise list with the meanings of the most common prefixes, suffixes, and other toponymic terms in Icelandic—so I decided to make one myself! I compiled and double-checked the translations from a variety of sources, including Google Translate and Wiktionary, but I made sure that the list reflected only words that my wife and I have seen in multiple locations during our trips around Iceland.
Of course, this list is not comprehensive in any way; it’s only what I believe to be 25 of the most common and useful geographic terms you’ll see when visiting Iceland. I’ve also included examples for most of them. Here they are:
Á — a suffix for a stream or river, as in Jökulsá
Bær — a town, as in Garðabær or Mosfellsbær
Braut — a road, as in Miklabraut (at six lanes, the widest road in Iceland)
Brú — a bridge
Byggð — a settlement
Dalur — a valley
Ey — a suffix meaning island, as in Heimaey, Grímsey, or Drangey
Fljót — a river, as in Lagarfljót (which is also a lake)
Fjörður — a fjord
Foss — a waterfall, as in Gulfoss, Svartifoss, or Dettifoss
Höfn — a port or harbor, as in the village of Höfn
Holt — a hollow (a small valley), as in Reykholt
Hraun — lava
Jökull — a glacier
Laug — a pool
Nes — a cape or headland, as in Reykjanes
Reyk — smoke, as in Reykjavík
Staðir — a place, as in the town of Egilsstaðir
Tún — a field, as in Fossatún (our favorite place to stay in Iceland)
Vegur — a road, as in Hringvegur (the Ring Road, Route 1)
Vogur — a cove, bay, or inlet, as in Kópavogur
Vatn — water, used for lakes as in Þingvallavatn
Vellir — fields, as in Þingvellir (the fields where Althing assemblies were held)
Vík — a cove, bay, or inlet, as in Vík í Mýrdal (also known as Vík)
Icelanders, please correct me if there’s anything misleading or inaccurate on the list. I definitely don’t understand Icelandic noun cases, so if there are any words that I should write in a different form, let me know.
I hope these terms prove useful to you in your travels around Iceland!