An Icelandic minigrammar

1. Introduction

Icelandic has a complicated inflectional system since nouns, adjectives, pronouns, numerals and the definite article are inflected for gender, number and case and verbs are inflected for person, number, tense, mood and voice. Unlike Danish, Swedish and Norwegian Icelandic has for the most part preserved the Old Norse inflectional system. The normal word order in Icelandic is subject - verb - object and usually the inflected verb is in the second position, in main clauses as well as in subordinate clauses.

2. Nouns

Nouns refer to living, dead and intangible things (hestur "horse", hús "house", fer_ "journey"). One of the most distinctive things about Icelandic nouns is the suffixed definite article -inn, -in or -i_. There are three genders: masculine (m.), feminie (f.) and neuter (n.). Icelandic nouns are declined for four cases: nominative (nom.), accusative (acc.), dative (dat.) and genitive (gen.) and two numbers: singular (sg.) and plural (pl.). When a noun has a final vowel in all cases singular it has a weak declension but otherwise it has a strong declension. Normally the inflectional endings are suffixed to the noun. In table (1) is an example of an inflection of a definite noun where the difinite article is in bold:

(1)

m. strong inflection

m. weak inflection

f. strong inflection

number

case

hesturinn: horse-the

síminn: telephone-the

syndin: sin-the

sg.

nom.

acc.

dat.

gen.

hesturinn

hestinn

hestinum

hestsins

síminn

símann

símanum

símans

syndin

syndina

syndinni

syndarinnar

pl.

nom.

acc.

dat.

gen.

hestarnir

hestana

hestunum

hestanna

símarnir

símana

símunum

símanna

syndirnar

syndirnar

syndunum

syndanna

f. weak inflection

n. strong inflection

n. weak inflection

number

case

tungan: tounge-the

húsi_: house-the

auga_: eye-the

sg.

nom.

acc.

dat.

gen.

tungan

tunguna

tungunni

tungunnar

húsi_

húsi_

húsinu

hússins

auga_

auga_

auganu

augans

pl.

nom.

acc.

dat.

gen.

tungurnar

tungurnar

tungunum

tungnanna

húsin

húsin

húsunum

húsanna

augun

augun

augunum

augnanna

These examples do not describe the whole inflection since some masculine words are suffixed with -ar in the genitive singular and -ir in the nominative plural. In addition there are some strong female words that have the suffix -ar or -ur in the nominative and accusative plural. However it is right to mention that there are some general rules that apply to the declension of nouns. For example the dative plural has a final -um in all genders and genitive plural ends with the suffix -a excepting certain weak female words and most weak neuters that are suffixed with -na instead. The female accusative and dative are the same and the neuter accusative, singular and plural are always the same.

3. Adjectives

Adjectives describe qualities of living, dead or intangible things. Icelandic adjectives agree with the nouns that they qualify and are inflected for gender, number and case.

a.

Hundurinn er fallegur (m.sg.nom.)

-

_etta er fallegur (m.sg.nom.) hundur

 

dog-the is beautiful

-

this is beautiful dog

 

The dog is beautiful

-

This is a beautiful dog

b.

Bækurnar eru fallegar (f.pl.nom.)

-

_etta eru fallegar (f.pl.nom.) bækur

 

books-the are beautiful

-

These are beautiful books

c.

Húsi_ er fallegt (hk.et.nf.)

-

_etta er fallegt (hk.et.nf.) hús

 

house-the is beautiful

-

this is beautiful house

There is a strong and a weak inflection. If an adjective has a final vowel in all cases the inflection is weak but if it has a final consonant in genitive singular it is a strong inflection. Strong inflection is usually used when adjectives qualify nouns that are without the definite article but a weak inflection is used with definite nouns: Hann á ríka (f. sg. acc. str. infl.) konu "he has a rich wife", Ég _ekki ríku (f. sg. w. infl.) konuna "I know the rich woman". When adjectives are used predicatively or as an apposition they only have strong inflection: María er rík (f. nom. sg.) "Marie is rich", Jón dó ríkur (m. nom. sg.) "John died rich". In (2) is an overview of the inflection of an adjective where the inflectional ending is in bold.

(2)

m.str.infl.

m.w.infl.

f.str.infl.

f.w.infl.

n.str.infl.

n.w.infl.

number

case

ríkur: rich

ríki: rich

rík: rich

ríka: rich

ríkt: rich

ríka: rich

sg.

nom.

acc.

dat.

gen.

ríkur

ríkan

ríkum

ríks

ríki

ríka

ríka

ríka

rík

ríka

ríkri

ríkrar

ríka

ríku

ríku

ríku

ríkt

ríkt

ríku

ríks

ríka

ríka

ríka

ríka

pl.

nom.

acc.

dat.

gen.

ríkir

ríka

ríkum

ríkra

ríku

ríku

ríku

ríku

ríkar

ríkar

ríkum

ríkra

ríku

ríku

ríku

ríku

rík

rík

ríkum

ríkra

ríku

ríku

ríku

ríku

As can be seen from this table, the weak inflection is the same in all genders plural.

In Icelandic the adjective is also inflected for comparison and the most common endings in the comparative and the superlative are -ari/-astur in masculine, -ari/-ust in feminine and -ara/-ast in neuter, see (3).

(3)

gender

suffix

positive

comparative

superlative

m

-ari/-ast

rík-ur "rich"

rík-ari "richer"

rík-astur "richest"

f

-ari/-ust

rík "rich"

rík-ari "richer"

rík-ust "richest"

n

-ara/-ast

rík-t "rich"

rík-ara "richer"

rík-ast "richest"

4. pronouns

In Icelandic pronouns are inflected for gender, number and case. Pronouns can be used attributively and agree with the nouns that they qualify: Ég á _ennan (m.sg.acc.) hund (m.sg.acc.) "I own this dog", _ú átt _essa (f.sg.acc.) kisu (f.sg.acc.) "you own this cat". Pronouns are divided into many categories but most of them get the same inflectional suffixes as strong adjectives. However the inflection of personal pronouns is rather irregular as can be seen in the overwiev in (4):

(4)

number

case

1.person ég "I"

2. person _ú "you"

3.pers. m. hann "he"

3. pers. f. hún "she"

3. pers. n. _a_ "it"

sg.

nom.

acc.

dat.

gen.

ég

mig

mér

mín

_ig

_ér

_ín

hann

hann

honum

hans

hún

hana

henni

hennar

_a_

_a_

_ví

_ess

   

vi_ "we"

_i_ "you"

hann "he"

hún "she"

_au "they"

pl.

nom.

acc.

dat.

gen.

vi_

okkur

okkur

okkar

_i_

ykkur

ykkur

ykkar

_eir

_eim

_eirra

_ær

_ær

_eim

_eirra

_au

_au

_eim

_eirra

5. Numerals

In Icelandic, some numerals are inflected for gender, number and case. Ordinals normally get the same inflectional suffixes as weak adjectives but the numerals tveir "two", _rír "three" and fjórir "four" get strong inflectional endings: Tveir hestar (m.) "two horses", Tvær bækur (f.) "two books", Tvö börn (n.) "two children". The numeral einn "one" can get both weak and strong inflectional endings: Einn hestur (m.) "one horse", Ein bók (f.) "one book", Eitt auga (n.) "one eye", Eini ma_urinn (m. weak infl.) "one man-the: the only man". Cardinals higher than four are not inflected at all: Fimm hestar (m.) "five horses", Fimm bækur (f.) "five books", Fimm augu (n.) "five eyes". In (5) is an overview of the inflection of numerals.

(5)

 

m.

f.

n.

m.

f.

n.

case

einn: one

ein: one

eitt: one

tveir: two

tvær: two

tvö: two

nom.

acc.

dat.

gen.

einn

einn

einum

eins

ein

eina

einni

einnar

eitt

eitt

einu

eins

tveir

tvo

tveimur

tveggja

tvær

tvær

tveimur

tveggja

tvö

tvö

tveimur

tveggja

6. Verbs

Verbs denote what happens: Vi_ förum í sund "we go swimming", Ég bor_a fisk "I eat fish". Icelandic verbs are conjugated for person, number, tense and mood. Most verbs have weak conjugation but some have strong conjugation. The weak conjugation is characterized by the past tense suffixes -_, -s or -t: Ég skrifa "I write", Ég skrifa_i "I wrote". Strong verbs are on the other hand without inflectional endings in first person, singular, past tense and form the past with a change in the stem vowel: Ég les "I read", Ég las "I read" (past tense).

There are six moods in Icelandic. The Indicative is the most common one and is for example used in statements: Hann talar miki_ "he talks much", _i_ lesi_ bókina "you read the book". The Subjunctive is used to express hope, wish or something unreal: læsir bókina er _ú gætir "you would read the book if you could", Ef ég væri sterkari lemdi ég hann "if I was stronger I would hit him". Subjunctive is also used with some conjunctions and in indirect speech: _ó hún sofi miki_ er hún alltaf _reytt "though she sleeps much she is always tired", Hann sag_i a_ skipi_ færi á morgun "he said that the ship would leave tomorrow". The Imperative is used for commands and normally it is formed by the suffixes -du, -_u or -tu, but they are derived from the personal pronoun "you": Lestu bókina! "read the book!", Komdu strax! "come immediately!", Far_u! "go!". The imperative plural has the same form as indicative and subjunctive: Lesi_ bókina! "read the book!". The present participle is formed by the suffix -andi and is uninflected: _ú kemur gangandi "you come walking", S_ni_ gangandi vegfarendum tillitssemi "pay attention to walking passers-by". The past participle is formed with auxiliaries like hafa "have" and geta "can": Ég hef lesi_ bókina "I have read the book", Ég get lesi_ bókina "I can read the book". In the passive voice the past participle agrees with the nominative subject in gender, number and case: _eir (m. pl. nom) voru handteknir (m. pl. nom.) "they were arrested", _ær (f. pl. nom.) voru handteknar (f. pl. nom.) "they were arrested". The Infinitive is formed by the suffix -a: Lesa "to read", koma "to come", skrifa "to write". In (5) the conjugation of the strong verb bíta bite’ is shown:

(5)

 

Indicative

Subjunctive

number

person

present

past

present

past

sg.

1. person

2. person

3. person

bít

bítur

bítur

beit

beist

beit

bíti

bítir

bíti

biti

bitir

biti

pl.

1. person

2. person

3. person

bítum

bíti_

bíta

bitum

bitu_

bitu

bítum

bíti_

bíti

bitum

bitu_

bitu

There are two tenses in Icelandic, the present and the past tense. The present tense is used for things that take place in the present, in the future and for conventional acts: Ég veit svari_ "I know the answer", Hann fer á morgun "he goes tomorrow", _au hjóla oft í vinnuna "they often bicycle to work". The past tense is used for things that take place in the past: _au hjólu_u í vinnuna "they bicycled to work", Hann fór í gær "he went yesterday". Compound tenses can be made by auxiliaries, e.g. perfect tense and future: Ég hef hjóla_ í vinnuna "I have bicycled to work", Vi_ munum fara í dag "we will go today".

Some verbs are conjugated for three voices: Active voice, passive voice and middle voice. Active voice is used most: Ég baka_i brau_ "I baked bread". Passive voice is formed with the auxiliaries vera "to be" or ver_a "to become": Brau_i_ var baka_ "the bread was baked". Middle voice is formed with the suffix -st: Brau_i_ baka_ist vel "the bread was well baked".

In Icelandic, u-umlaut is active in conjugation. It changes the letter a into ö if u is in the next syllable: Ég kalla "I call", Vi_ köllum "we call". U-umlaut has an affect in the declension of nouns and adjectives as well: Kaka "cake" - kökur "cakes", Gla_an "glad" (acc.) - glö_um "glad" (dat.). U-umlaut is ocasionally used in inflection: Barn "a child" - börn "children", Gla_ur "happy" (m.) - glö_ "happy" (f.).

7. Word order

Icelandic is an SVO language which means that the normal word order puts the subject in the first position, the verb in the second position and the object comes after the verb. Icelandic is also an S2-language and that means that the tensed verb is usually in the second position after the first constituent, whether it is a main verb or an auxiliary. This can be seen in the following examples where the tensed verb is in bold and the first constituent is underlined:

Stóra uglan át litlu músina í gær

big owl-the ate little mouse-the in yesterday

The big owl ate the little mouse yesterday

Í gær át stóra uglan litlu músina

in yesterday ate big owl-the little mouse-the

Stóra uglan haf_i éti_ litlu músina í gær

big owl-the had eaten little mouse-the in yesterday

Litlu músina haf_i stóra uglan éti_ í gær

little mouse-the had big owl-the eaten in yesterday

The big owl had eaten the little mouse yesterday

In wh-questiones the wh-constituent is in the first position but in yes/no questiones the tensed verb is in the first positon:

Hva_a mús át stóra uglan í gær?

what mouse ate big owl-the in yesterday?

What mouse ate the big owl yesterday?

Hvenær haf_i stóra uglan éti_ litlu músina?

when had big owl-the eaten little mouse-the?

When had the big owl eaten the litthe mouse?

Át stóra uglan litlu músina í gær?

ate big owl-the little mouse-the in yesterday?

Haf_i stóra uglan éti_ litlu músina í gær?

had big owl-the eaten little mouse-the in yesterday?

The rule of the tensed verb in the second position is also valid in subordinate clauses. This can be seen by the fact that the verb comes after the negation:

a.

Ég held a_ [ stóra uglan éti ekki litlu músina ]

 

I think that big owl-the eat not little mouse-the

 

I think that the big owl will not eat the little mouse

b.

Ég held a_ [ stóra uglan hafi ekki éti_ litlu músina ]

 

I think that big owl-the has not eaten little mouse-the

8. Case assignment

As already mentioned, nouns, adjectives, pronouns and numerals are declined for four cases; nominative, accusative, dative and genitive. Words are normally in the nominative unless they are governed by some other word or constituent in the sentence. Prepositions and verbs can assign accusative, dative and genitive and nouns can assign genitive:

a.

Hann skrifa_i bók um mig

he wrote book about me

(the prep. um assigns acc. to mig)

b.

_eir eru undir rúminu

they are under bed-the

(the prep. undir assigns dat. to rúminu)

c.

Ég skrifa_i bréf til _ín

I wrote letter to you

(the prep. til assigns gen. to _ín)

d.

Hann skrifa_i bókina

he wrote book-the

(the verb skrifa_i assigns acc. to bókina)

e.

Ég b__ _ér til veislu

I invite you to party

(the verb b__ assigns dat. to _ér)

f.

Hann saknar hennar

he misses her

(the verb saknar assigns gen. to hennar)

g.

gró_ur jar_ar

vegetation earths

the vegetation of the earth

(the noun gró_ur assigns gen. to jar_ar)