Icelandic grammar

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Icelandic is an inflected language with four cases: nominative, accusative, dative and genitive. Icelandic nouns can have one of three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine or neuter. Nouns, adjectives and pronouns are declined in four cases and two numbers, singular and plural.

Morphology[edit]

Many German speakers find Icelandic morphology familiar. Almost every morphological category in one language is represented in the other. Nouns are declined for case, number and gender; adjectives for case, number, gender and degree; and there are two declensions for adjectives, weak and strong. The comparison with modern German, however, cannot be carried too far. Declension of nouns in German is usually realized by the marking of articles, demonstratives, and adjectives; the inflection of nouns themselves is largely vestigial. By contrast, Icelandic nouns themselves may be marked for several or all cases, depending on the declension to which the noun belongs.

Icelandic possesses only the definite article, which can stand on its own, or, as in other North Germanic languages, be attached to its modified noun. Verbs are conjugated for tense, mood, person, number and voice. There are three voices: active, passive and medial; but it may be debated whether the medial voice is a voice or simply an independent class of verbs. There are only two simple tenses, past and present, but to make up for that there are a number of auxiliary constructions, some of which may be regarded as tenses, others as aspects to varying degrees.[1][2]

Nouns[edit]

See also: Strong noun and weak noun

Icelandic nouns are much like Old Norse, both in form and inflection. They decline in four cases (nominative, accusative, dative and genitive) and vary in gender (masculine, feminine or neuter) and number (singular and plural). There are two main declension paradigms for each gender: strong and weak nouns, which are furthermore divided in smaller paradigms for declension, according to many criteria (sound-shifts, consonant clusters, etc.) Following are four examples of strong declension. Glas means the drinking vessel glass, gler means the material glass. Those are etymologically the same words, but glas is a borrowing and gler is native. The (j) in the declension of gler means that the j is a later intrusion.

number case masculine feminine neuter neuter
singular nom. hattur borg glas gler
acc. hatt borg glas gler
dat. hatti borg glasi gleri
gen. hatts borgar glass glers
plural nom. hattar borgir glös gler
acc. hatta borgir glös gler
dat. höttum borgum glösum gler(j)um
gen. hatta borga glasa gler(j)a

The gender of a noun can often be surmised by looking at the ending of the word:

  • Masculine nouns—often end in -ur, -i, -ll or -nn.
  • Feminine nouns—often end in -a, -ing or -un.
  • Neuter nouns usually have no ending or have a final accented vowel.

Articles[edit]

Icelandic does not have an indefinite article (a/an in English), and the definite article (the) is usually joined onto the end of word in question. The independent article, i.e., not attached to the noun as a suffix, is mostly used in poetry and irregularly elsewhere (there are hardly any rules for the latter case; it is mainly a matter of taste). The table below shows the different suffix forms for the three genders (but be aware that this list is not exhaustive, and there are numerous exceptions in every case):

No article Definite article
masculine feminine neuter masculine feminine neuter
sing. plu. sing. plu. sing. plu. sing. plu. sing. plu. sing. plu.
-ur -ar - -ir - - -urinn -arnir -in -irnar -ið -in
-i -inn
-ll -a -ur -llinn -an -urnar
-nn -nninn

The example below shows three nouns, one for each respective gender, declined in the nominative:

  • masculine: hvalur—“(a) whale” becomes hvalurinn—“the whale”
  • feminine: klukka—“(a) clock” becomes klukkan—“the clock”
  • neuter: heimilisfang—“(an) address” becomes heimilisfang—“the address”

The independent or free-standing definite article exists in Icelandic in the form hinn.

Pronouns[edit]

Personal[edit]

The personal pronouns in Icelandic are as follows:

case 1st person 2nd person 3rd person
masculine feminine neuter
singular nom. ég þú hann hún það
acc. mig þig hann hana það
dat. mér þér honum henni því
gen. mín þín hans hennar þess
plural nom. við þið þeir þær þau
acc. okkur ykkur þá þær þau
dat. okkur ykkur þeim
gen. okkar ykkar þeirra

Icelandic has separate masculine, feminine and neuter words for they; when talking about a group of mixed gender people or items, the neuter form is used.

Like English, the pronoun usually comes before the verb, as in the example below:

ég heiti MagnúsI am called Magnús

But, just as easily, the order of the sentence may be inverted. In this case, the pronoun moves to the end of the sentence:

Magnús heiti égMagnús I am called (or, literally Magnús called am I)

In English, changing of the word order like this would render a phrase nonsensical. This is mainly due to the fact that whilst being a Germanic language, English has lost most of its noun declension. See syntax for more information.

Reflexive[edit]

Icelandic possesses a reflexive pronoun, functioning in much the same way as German sich. The nominative case does not exist.

case pronoun
acc. sig
dat. sér
gen. sín

For example,

hann þvær sérhe washes himself,

as opposed to being bathed by another,

hún klæðir sigshe dresses herself,

as opposed to being dressed. The pronoun does not distinguish gender or number.

Possessive[edit]

The Icelandic possessive pronouns for the respective grammatical persons are as follows,

case 1st person 2nd person 3rd person
singular nom. minn mín mitt þinn þín þitt sinn sín sitt
acc. minn mína mitt þinn þína þitt sinn sína sitt
dat. mínum minni mínu þínum þinni þínu sínum sinni sínu
gen. míns minnar míns þíns þinnar þíns síns sinnar síns
plural nom. mínir mínar mín þínir þínar þín sínir sínar sín
acc. mína mínar mín þína þínar þín sína sínar sín
dat. mínum þínum sínum
gen. minna þinna sinna

where the three columns for each person represent masculine, feminine and neuter genders respectively. Minn means mine, þinn means yours (thine) and sinn means his, her, its or theirs.

Demonstrative[edit]

The Icelandic demonstrative pronouns are as follows,

case "this" "that" "the other"
singular nom. þessi þessi þetta það hinn hin hitt
acc. þennan þessa þetta þann þá það hinn hina hitt
dat. þessum þessari þessu þeim þeirri því hinum hinni hinu
gen. þessa þessarar þessa þess þeirrar þess hins hinnar hins
plural nom. þessir þessar þessi þeir þær þau hinir hinar hin
acc. þessa þessar þessi þá þær þau hina hinar hin
dat. þessum þeim hinum
gen. þessara þeirra hinna

where the three columns for each person represent masculine, feminine and neuter genders respectively. Þessi and roughly correspond to this/that and hinn means the other one of two.

Indefinite[edit]

There are around fifteen to twenty of these, depending on who is counting. For argument’s sake, a paradigm for enginn (nobody) is given below. It is inflected thus:

nobody case Masculine Feminine Neuter
singular nom. enginn (engi) engin (engi) ekkert (ekki)
acc. engan (öng(v)an) enga (öng(v)a) ekkert (ekki)
dat. engum (öng(v)um) engri (öngri) engu (öng(v)u)
gen. einskis (einkis) engrar (öngrar) einskis (einkis)
plural nom. engir (öng(v)ir) engar (öng(v)ar) engin (engi)
acc. enga (öng(v)a) engar (öng(v)ar) engin (engi)
dat. engum (öng(v)um)
gen. engra (öngra)

This is probably the most colourful pronoun in Icelandic, but note that one can never go wrong using the first given forms. The forms in parentheses are either dialectal variations or archaic forms, used for poetic purposes. In time, however, one encounters all these forms. There is at least one more fossilized form, einugi, which is the dative of the singular neuter. It is preserved in the saying:

Fátt er svo illt, að einugi dugi, roughly translates as:
Few things are so bad that nothing helps.

Numerals[edit]

The words for one to four are declined for the respective cases and genders:

one masculine feminine neuter
nominative einn ein eitt
accusative einn eina eitt
dative einum einni einu
genitive eins einnar eins
two masculine feminine neuter
nominative tveir tvær tvö
accusative tvo tvær tvö
dative tveimur
genitive tveggja
three masculine feminine neuter
nominative þrír þrjár þrjú
accusative þrjá þrjár þrjú
dative þremur
genitive þriggja
four masculine feminine neuter
nominative fjórir fjórar fjögur
accusative fjóra fjórar fjögur
dative fjórum
genitive fjögurra

Other numbers are as follows and not declined, except for those that are actually nouns:

five fimm nineteen nítján
six sex twenty tuttugu
seven sjö twenty-one tuttugu og einn
eight átta thirty þrjátíu
nine níu forty fjörutíu
ten tíu fifty fimmtíu
eleven ellefu sixty sextíu
twelve tólf seventy sjötíu
thirteen þrettán eighty áttatíu
fourteen fjórtán ninety níutíu
fifteen fimmtán (one) hundred (eitt) hundrað
sixteen sextán (one) thousand (eitt) þúsund
seventeen sautján (one) million (ein) milljón
eighteen átján zero núll

The word hundrað is actually a neuter noun, þúsund can be either feminine or neuter and the higher multiples of a thousand are either masculine or feminine, according to the ending (e.g. milljón is feminine, milljarður is masculine and so on). Núll is neuter.

Adjectives[edit]

Adjectives themselves must agree with the gender and number of the nouns that they describe. For example, the word íslenskur (Icelandic) agrees as follows:

Icelandic (strong) case Masculine Feminine Neuter
singular nom. íslenskur íslensk íslenskt
acc. íslenskan íslenska íslenskt
dat. íslenskum íslenskri íslensku
gen. íslensks íslenskrar íslensks
plural nom. íslenskir íslenskar íslensk
acc. íslenska íslenskar íslensk
dat. íslenskum
gen. íslenskra

In strong declension, for example:

Ég bý með íslenskri konuI live with an Icelandic woman

Both íslenskri and konu are dative singular. In this case, the preposition með governs the case. (Með can also take the accusative, but the distinction belongs to the syntax.) This is an example of strong declension of adjectives. If an adjective is modified by the article, or most pronouns, weak declension is used, for this word it would be íslenskur:

Icelandic (weak) case Masculine Feminine Neuter
singular nom. íslenski íslenska íslenska
acc., dat., gen. íslenska íslensku íslenska
plural All cases íslensku

An example of weak declension:

Ég sá veiku konunaI saw the sick woman

Veiku is the weak declension of veikur (sick) in the accusative singular. Konuna is also accusative singular, but with the definite article attached (-na), and the article forces the adjective to be weak. Here the verb governs the case. The weak forms of nouns are often found in names of organisations, symbols, days and titles, for example:

  • Íslenski fáninnthe Icelandic flag
  • Sumardagurinn fyrstithe First Day of Summer

Here, at least, there are far fewer forms to learn, three in all, although one has to learn, of course, how they are distributed.

Verbs[edit]

There are four moods in Icelandic: indicative, imperative, conditional, and subjunctive. As with most inflected languages, the verbs in Icelandic determine (or govern) the case of the subsequent nouns, pronouns and adjectives of a sentence. For example:

  • Safna ('to collect or save') governs the dative case.
Ég er að safna peningum til þess að geta keypt jólagjöf handa mömmu.
I am saving money to be able to buy a Christmas gift for Mum. (Peningum is the dative plural form of peningur (coin))
  • Sakna ('to miss') governs the genitive case
Ég sakna þín
I miss you

In the infinitive, most Icelandic verbs end in -a. The exceptions include a few verbs ending in , such as slá (‘hit’); flá (‘flay’). Other exceptions include the auxiliaries munu and skulu; þvo (wash), which was originally þvá; and a verb borrowed from Danish that is frowned upon by purists, ske (happen). The two auxiliaries are important, since they turn up in various places to make up for the poverty of simple tenses. Þvo is, of course, very common, but ske can be avoided altogether. There are three main groups of weak verbs in Icelandic: -ar, -ir, and -ur, referring to the endings that these verbs take when conjugated in the third person singular present. The strong verbs and the irregular verbs (auxiliaries, ri-verbs and valda) are a separate matter. Take the infinitive tala (‘to talk’), for example:

Number Singular Plural
Person ég
I
þú
you (sg.)
hann/hún/það
he/she/it
við
we
þið
you (pl.)
þeir/þær/þau
they
tala
to talk
tala
talk (talke)
talar
talk (talkest)
talar
talks (talketh)
tölum
talk
talið
talk
tala
talk

And compare with the verb vera (‘to be’), a strong verb, and a highly irregular one at that, but useful for comparison:

vera
to be
er
am
ert
are (art)
er
is
erum
are
eruð
are
eru
are

Læra (‘to learn’) is an -i verb:

læra
to learn
læri
learn (learne)
lærir
learn (learnest)
lærir
learns (learneth)
lærum
learn
lærið
learn
læra
learn

And finally velja (‘to choose’), which is an -ur verb:

velja
to choose
vel
choose
velur
choose (choosest)
velur
chooses (chooseth)
veljum
choose
veljið
choose
velja
choose

Note how for each of the verb groups, the conjugations in the singular change, but in the plural, the endings are nearly always predictable (-um, -ið and -a, respectively). Most English present verbs are regular and have only one change in ending (-s for third person singular). In most cases in Icelandic, the conjugation patterns remain regular across most verbs. A verb's conjugation cannot be determined from its infinitive. Speakers must memorize which conjugation group a verb belongs to. Strong verbs fall into six groups augmented by reduplication verbs, each with exceptions (such as auxiliary verbs, the r-verbs, and the only verb in Icelandic that has been called ‘totally irregular’, valda). There is a classification system for all verbs, with the paradigms going into the dozens.

Some Icelandic infinitives end with a -ja suffix. These verbs can be conjugated like -ur verbs, with the suffix lost in the first person singular. When conjugating -ja verbs, the single ‘j’ must be removed, so syngja (‘to sing’) would become ég syng (‘I sing’) in the first person singular and not ég syngj (and syngja is a strong verb (past tense söng), so irregularities are to be expected). The j in itself is not a reliable indicator. Examples could be emja (‘squeal’), which belongs to one class (singular, first person, ég emja, past tense ég emjaði) versus telja (‘count’), belonging to another class, (ég tel, past tense ég taldi).

The six primary conjugation classes are characterized as follow:

1.weak: thematic "-a" verbs, present singular in "-ar", past indicative in aði, past participle in -aður. This is the totally regular class, with the infinitive being the only principal part. The i-umlaut is not used.

2.weak: no visible theme vowel, present singular in "-ir", past indicative with various dental suffix plus i, past participle various. The principal parts are the infinitive, past indicative 1st person singular and past participle. The i-umlaut is not used.

3.weak: with j in infinitive, present singular in -ur, past indicative with various dental suffix plus i, past participle various. The principal parts are the infinitive, past indicative 1st person singular and past participle. The i-umlaut is used (already contained in the present, and regularly used in the second conjunctive)

1.strong: no thematic signs, present singular in -ur, past indicative with various changes and without the i ending, past participle various. The principal parts are the infinitive, past indicative 1st person singular, past indicative 1st person plural and past participle. The i-umlaut is regularly used in the present singular and second conjunctive.

2.strong: no thematic signs, present singular in -ur, past indicative with various changes and i, past participle various. The principal parts are the infinitive, past indicative 1st person singular and past participle. The i-umlaut is regularly used in the present singular and second conjunctive. This class also encompasses most of the ri verbs.

3.strong: also known as preterite-present. no thematic signs, present singular takes the past tense endings from 1.strong class, often with some irregular ending changes in the 2nd person. Past indicative with various changes and i ending, past participle various. The principal parts are the infinitive, present indicative 2nd person singular, past indicative 1st person singular and past participle. The i-umlaut is regularly used in the second conjunctive.

This classification, with its focus on inflectional features rather than etymologies, leaves very few irregular verbs. The verb 'valda' for example, becomes a totally regular one in the 2nd strong class.

Tenses[edit]

Strictly speaking, there are only two simple tenses in Icelandic, simple present and simple past. All other tenses are formed using auxiliary constructions (some of these are regarded as tenses, others as aspects). For example, the present continuous is formed thus:

personal pronoun + vera + að + infinitive verb
ég er að læra
I am learning

However, this construction only usually applies to abstract concepts, and is not used for activities, e.g. to sit would not use this construction. Instead, the simple present should be used.

The collective tenses are:

  • conditional
  • future
  • past
    • continuous
    • perfect
    • subjunctive
  • present
    • continuous
    • perfect
    • subjunctive

Voice[edit]

Icelandic possesses the middle voice in addition to both the active and passive. Verbs in the middle voice always end in -st; this ending can be added to both the infinitive and conjugated verb forms. For the conjugated forms, second and third person endings (i.e. -(u)r, and -rð) must be removed, as must any dental consonants (ð, d and t). Compare the verb breyta (‘to change’) to its middle voice forms, for example:[3]

breyta
to change
breyti
change
breytir
change
breytir
changes
breytum
change
breytið
change
breyta
change
breytast
to change
breytist
change
breytist
change
breytist
changes
breytumst
change
breytist
change
breytast
change

The middle voice form of many verbs carries a slightly different meaning, and in some cases may carry a different meaning altogether. Some verbs survive only in their middle voice form, the other forms having been lost over time. The middle voice is generally used in the following situations to express:

  • Reflexivity—The middle voice form of a verb may be used in lieu of a reflexive pronoun, for example: Þór klæðir sigÞór klæðist (‘Þór gets dressed’)
  • Reciprocity—Here the middle voice is used to mean ‘each other’, for example: Þór talar við Stefán og Stefán talar við ÞórÞór og Stefán talast við (‘Þór and Stefán talk to each other’)
  • An alternative meaning—As previously mentioned, some middle voice verbs carry different meanings than their counterparts. Examples include koma (‘to come’) becoming komast (‘to get there’) and gera (‘to do’) becoming gerast (‘to happen’)
  • The passive—In certain situations, the middle voice may express an idea for which English would use the passive. For example, the phrase, Bíllinn sést ekki, translates as ‘The car cannot be seen’. Most often the middle voice is used in this context when there is no direct reference to any grammatical person.[3]
  • In reported speech—When the subject of reported speech is the same of that reporting, the middle voice may be used. For example, Hann sagðist ekki lesa bókina, translates to, 'He said (that) he didn't read the book'. Note three special features of this construction: 1) the use of the infinitive 'lesa' in the subordinate clause; 2) the placement of 'ekki'; and 3) the lack of the complementizer 'að', corresponding to English 'that'.[4]
  • To form verbs from nouns—The middle voice can also be used to form verbs from nouns. For example, from the noun glanni which means ‘a reckless person’, comes the verb að glannast, meaning 'to act like a reckless person'.[5]

Subjunctive mood[edit]

Like many other Indo-European languages, Icelandic has the subjunctive mood. It is often used to refer to situations with a degree of hypotheticity, but more specifically in the following situations:

  • In reported speech—It is used with the verb segja in the following sense: Jón segir að hún komi (‘Jón says that she’s coming’)
  • To express uncertainty—Used after the verbs vona (‘to hope’), óska (‘to wish’), halda (‘to believe’), búast við (‘to expect’), óttast, vera hræddur um (‘to fear’) and gruna (‘to suspect’): ég vona að henni batni (‘I hope that she gets better’)
  • Interrogative sentences—Specifically after the verb spyrja (‘to ask’): Jón spyr hvort þú ætlir að borða með okkur (‘Jón asks whether you’re going to eat with us’)
  • With conjunctions—The subjunctive is used after the conjunctions nema (‘unless’), þó að/þótt (‘although’), svo að (‘so that’), til þess að (‘in order to’)

Adverbs[edit]

Compared to other lexical categories, Icelandic adverbs are relatively simple, and are not declined, except in some cases for comparison, and can be constructed easily from adjectives, nouns and verbs. These derived adverbs often end in -lega (approximately equivalent to the -ly suffix in English):

nýrnewnýlegalately (lit. newly)

Note: The adverbs ending in -lega can be declined for comparison, which makes a rather large group on its own. Exempli gratia:

hættadangerhættulegahættulegarhættulegast, i.e. dangerouslymore dangerouslymost dangerously.

This is a regular way to form adverbs. Another way is to take the neutral nominative singular of an adjective and turn it into an adverb:

blíttgentleblíttgently, cf. hún sefur blíttshe sleeps gently

Another way is taking the stem of an adjective and add an a:

illurbadillabadly, cf. hann hagar sér illahe behaves badly (illur never takes the -lega suffix).

Like English, very many common adverbs do not stick to these patterns but are, so to speak, adverbs in their own right:

bráðumsoon
núnanow
oftoften
straxright away

The basic adverbs of direction include, among others:

austureast
norðurnorth
suðursouth
vesturwest
innin
innanfrom within
utanfrom outside
útout

Inn and út denote motion, going in and going out.

Other word classes[edit]

Prepositions[edit]

In Icelandic, prepositions determine the case of the following noun. Some examples are given below:

accusative dative genitive acc. or dat. depending on context
um—about að—at, with til—to á—on
gegnum—through af—off án—without eftir—after
umfram—in addition frá—from meðal—amongst fyrir—before
kringum—around hjá—with milli—between í—in
umhverfis—around úr—out of sökum—due to með—with
andspænis—opposite vegna—because undir—under
ásamt—along handan—beyond við—by
gagnvart—towards innan—inside yfir—over
gegn—through utan—outside
gegnt—vis-à-vis ofan—above
handa—for neðan—below
meðfram—along
móti—opposite, against
undan—from under

The case governed by prepositons depends on the context. The most frequent occurrence of this is determined by whether or not motion towards or away from is implied by the context: í, á, eftir, yfir and undir are all affected in this way. The following examples demonstrate this:

Jón fer á veitingahúsiðJón goes to the restaurant

Here the preposition á governs the accusative case because specific motion towards/away from is implied, i.e. going to the restaurant.

Jón er á veitingahúsinuJón is at the restaurant

In this example, the preposition á governs the dative; here the situation is static with no motion towards or away from implied. Yfir, undir and eftir all behave in the same way:

Kötturinn skríður undir rúmiðThe cat crawls under the bed

Here the use of the accusative implies that the cat was not under the bed before, but is on its way there now.

Kötturinn skríður undir rúminuThe cat is crawling under the bed

Here, the use of the dative implies an unchanging situation. Now the cat is still crawling, but within the confines of under the bed. Note that to govern the accusative, the preposition must imply movement towards or away from something, that is to say a changing situation. If the situation is static, i.e., the same at the end as it was at the start, then the preposition governs the dative.

Syntax[edit]

Basic Word Order[edit]

Icelandic word order is SVO (subject–verb–object), generally speaking, with the subject and verb inverted in questions and when a sentence begins with an adverb. However, the inflectional system allows for considerable freedom in word order. For poetical purposes, every combination is possible, even the rare OSV. The phrase Helga Bjarni drap (Bjarni killed Helgi) might well occur in, say, a ríma.

Despite this, certain rules of syntax are relatively inflexible. For example, the main verb must always be the second lexical unit of the sentence (this is a feature known as V2 word order, as is common to many Germanic languages). Take the example below (subject in yellow, verb in blue, object in red):

Mannfjöldinn var 1.500The population was 1,500

Here the element var (the past tense third person singular form of the verb vera, ‘to be’, i.e. ‘was’) is the second lexical unit of the sentence. If we change the sentence, however:

Árið 2000 var mannfjöldinn 1.500In 2000, the population was 1,500 (lit. The year 2000 was the population 1,500)

Here, var is still the second lexical unit of the sentence, despite the fact that it is not the second word in the sentence. The prepositional phrase árið 2000 (highlighted in green) counts as one lexical unit, and so for the verb to be the second lexical unit, it must come after 2000 and not after árið. The subject and object of the verb then follow. An exception to this rule arises when forming questions by inversion:

Stefán er svangurStefán is hungry

and when turned into a question:

Er Stefán svangur?Is Stefán hungry?

Here the subject and verb have been inverted to form a question, meaning the verb is the first lexical unit in the sentence as opposed to the second. This method of forming questions is used in many languages, including English.

Questions[edit]

As we have seen, questions can be easily formed by rearranging the order of the sentence from subject–verb–object to verb–subject–object. For example:

Þú talar íslensku.You speak Icelandic.

can be made into a question as follows:

Talar þú íslensku?Do you speak Icelandic? (lit. Speak you Icelandic?)

It should be noted that often a form of elision occurs when asking questions in the second person; the verb and þú have a tendency to merge to ease pronunciation. This is reflected in writing, and so one would more often encounter talarðu as opposed to the expanded form talar þú. The actual change undergone here is the transformation of the voiceless dental fricative þ into the voiced dental fricative ð. This elision rule applies to many verbs, some having their own special forms (for example vera, ‘to be’, has the form ertu).[3]

The inversion rule still applies when interrogatives are involved, which are simply added to the front of the sentence. The interrogatives in Icelandic are:

  • hvað?what/how?
    • Hvað ert þú að gera?—What are you doing? (lit. What are you to do?)
  • hvaða?which/what?
    • Hvaða hundur?—What dog?
  • hver?who?
    • Hver ert þú?—Who are you?
  • hvernig?how?
    • Hvernig hefur þú það?—How are you? (lit. How have you it?)
  • hvar/hvert/hvaðan?where/whither/whence?
    • Hvar ert þú?—Where are you?
    • Hvert ert þú að fara—Where are you going? (lit. Where are you to go?)
    • Hvaðan kemur þú?—Where do you come from? (lit. Whence come you?)
  • hvenær?when?
    • Hvenær kemur þú?—When do you come? (lit. When come you?)
  • hvers vegna/af hverju/hví?why?
    • Hvers vegna hann?—Why him?
    • Af hverju ekki?—Why not?
    • Hví?—Why?
  • hvort?whether/which?
    • Hvort hann komi, veit ég ekki.—I don’t know whether he’s coming or not. (lit. Whether he comes, know I not.)
    • Hvort vilt þú?—Which do you want? (lit. Which want you?, implying a choice between two alternatives.)

However, interrogative pronouns (hvað/hver) must decline with the verb that they modify, so the case of the pronoun changes depending on the verb. The meaning of a sentence does not change whether hvers vegna or af hverju is used; however they are used in a specific manner in Icelandic. Also of note, hví is rarely used.

Causatives[edit]

Icelandic has a causative construction that can feel quite alien to English speakers (but which is similar to constructions in other languages). The word láta is used to mean "let" or "make". In one use, it is quite similar to English.

  • Hún lét mig byggja húsið.She made me build the house.

However, in another use, the intermediate subject is left out, but the second verb is still in the infinitive.

  • Hún lét byggja húsið.She had the house built. (lit. "She made build the house"; however, see correct French 'Elle a laissé construire la maison' and Dutch 'Ze liet het huis bouwen')

The syntax here seems somewhat similar to a use of the verb help in English, when speakers say She helped build the house.[6]

Sound shifts[edit]

There are a number of sound shifts that occur in Icelandic, detailed below. The shifts occur very frequently across all word classes. For one of the most thorough books about the subject see Íslenzk málfræði handa æðri skólum.[7]

A-umlaut[edit]

This is the oldest umlaut of all, attested in every Germanic language except, perhaps, Gothic. It comes in two varieties:

ie (as for instance in niður vs. neðan).
uo. Well known examples include fugl (cf. English fowl) or stofa (cf. German Stube).

This umlaut is no longer productive.

U-umlaut[edit]

The U-umlaut occurs when a stem vowel a changes to ö because of a u in the next syllable. This affects a only, and not á or au. Some examples:

talatalk(við) tölum(we) talk
farago(við) förum(we) go

If there is an intermediate syllable between the first a and the u, then the U-shift does not take place.

U-umlaut is not to be confused with breaking although they appear similar.

Note that if there are two a's preceding the u, the first a becomes an ö and the second becomes a u. An example:

fagnaðurjoyfögnuðumjoys (dative, plural).

Exceptions to this include several borrowings, for instance bananibananabanönum (dative plural) and ArabiArabAröbum (also dative plural).

Historically, there were four more additional forms of the U-umlaut; these are no longer productive or have been reversed.

I-umlaut[edit]

The I-umlaut is slightly more complex, and consists of the following vowel changes:

ae
áæ
ei
oe
óæ
uy (It sometimes appears as if oy, but this is never the case. An example: Sonur (singular) ⇒ synir (plural) might give the impression of an I-umlaut, but the original vowel in sonur was u changed to o by the A-umlaut.)
ú, and ý
auey

The above effects of the I-umlaut are most visible in strong verbs. Take the verb hafa (‘to have’), for example:

Number Singular Plural
Person ég
I
þú
you
hann/hún/það
he/she/it
við
we
þið
you (pl.)
þeir/þær/þau
they
hafa
to have
hef
have
hefur
have
hefur
has
höfum
have
hafið
have
hafa
have

In the singular conjugation, the I-umlaut has caused the stem a to become an e. If we look at the plural conjugation however, we can see that the stem a remains intact here, with the notable exception of the ‘við’ form, where a U-umlaut has taken place (thanks to the -um ending). The I-shift affects verbs only in their singular conjugations.

(The verb hafa actually has two acceptable conjugations. The first is the above, the second goes (ég) hefi, (þú) hefir, (hann) hefir.)

Less known, non-productive and reversed changes include:

oø
ǫø

Other umlauts[edit]

Historically, there were many more umlauts in Icelandic, including

  • IR-umlaut
  • J-umlaut
  • R-umlaut
  • G-k-umlaut
  • W-umlaut

These are much more limited in scope, and operate more or less in the same way as the above mentioned umlauts (i.e. have more or less the same effect). Having mentioned reversed or non-productive umlauts above, it remains to be stressed that the I- and U-umlauts are very much alive, both as a fixture of the declension system as well as being useful tools for composing neologisms. This applies to breaking as well.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Jón Friðjónsson (1989). Samsettar myndir sagna, Málvísindastofnun Háskóla Íslands, Reykjavík.
  2. ^ Kress, Bruno (1982). Isländische Grammatik, VEB Verlag Enzyklopädie Leipzig.
  3. ^ a b c Neijmann, Daisy (2001). Colloquial Icelandic. Routledge. pp. 201–202. ISBN 0-415-20706-1. 
  4. ^ Einarsson, Stefán (31 December 2000). Icelandic: Grammar, Texts, Glossary. The Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 576. ISBN 0-8018-6357-0. 
  5. ^ Ottósson, Kjartan (1986) Mörk orðmyndunar og beygingar: Miðmynd í nútímaíslensku. Íslenskt mál og almenn málfræði 8 63-119
  6. ^ Thráinsson, Höskuldur (2007). The Syntax of Icelandic. Cambridge University Press. p. 454. ISBN 0-521-59190-2. 
  7. ^ Halldór Halldórsson (1950). Íslenzk málfræði handa æðri skólum. Ísafoldarprentsmiðja h.f., Reykjavík.

External links[edit]