Basic Word Order
Basic word order is the first thing you want to learn when speaking a new language, and for good reason: it’s the key to the language, the foundation on which everything else is built. Basic Icelandic word order is not terribly complex as it is largely similar to English word order.
Statements in Icelandic are basically identical to English. First the subject, then the verb, and finally an object, if there is one. Subject -> verb -> object, or SVO as the cool kids call it.
- Ég heiti Inigo Montoya > My name is Inigo Montoya.
- Þú drapst föður minn > You killed my father.
- Ég skil ekki > I do not understand.
- Ég tala ensku > I speak English.
- Ég er frá Bandaríkjunum > I am from the United States.
Note that the Icelandic verb að heita roughly translates as to be named, to be called, to have a name. There’s no literal translation in English, but it’s easy enough to grasp. This is why the Icelandic version of the first example has no equivalent to the English name.
Useful Sentence Formulas
There are three sentence formulas that a beginner should learn from day 1:
1. Ég var að ___ > I was ___-ing.
2. Ég er að ___ > I am ___-ing.
3. Ég ætla að ___ > I am going to ___.
These are very simple but immensely powerful formulas. They allow even a beginner to express a huge number of concepts just by substituting in the appropriate verb, no conjugation necessary.
The verb að vera means to be, with var being the past tense and er the present tense. Að ætla means essentially to intend to or to plan to and is used to talk about the future. If you’d like to learn other ways of talking about the future, you can read this guide.
- Ég var að læra íslensku > I was learning Icelandic.
- Ég er að drekka kaffi > I am drinking coffee.
- Ég ætla að hlusta á tónlist > I am going to listen to music.
To negate a sentence, you just put the negation word ekki right after the verb.
- Ég tala ekki íslensku > I do not speak Icelandic.
- Ég er ekki frá Írlandi > I am not from Ireland.
- Ég var ekki að tala við þig > I was not talking to you.
- Ég ætla ekki að fara í bíó > I am not going to go to the movies.
If you have more than one verb, the negation goes right after the first verb. A common beginner’s mistake is to put the negation after the að, like “ég ætla að ekki fara í bíó”. Don’t do that. The negation comes right after the verb. „Ég ætla ekki að fara í bíó“ is the correct version.
Also Other Adverbs, Actually
This same pattern works for a whole truckload of adverbs, not just the negation ekki. I just didn’t want to dump everything on you at once.
- Ég er aldrei / sjaldan / stundum / oft / alltaf að læra íslensku > I am never / rarely / sometimes / often / always learning Icelandic.
- Ég ætla kannski / líklega / pottþétt að fara í bíó > I am maybe / probably / definitely going to go to the movies.
We can separate questions into two basic types:
- yes-no questions
Yes-no questions are so called because you can answer them with a simple yes or no. They are formed by simply flipping around the subject and the verb.
- Heitir þú Róbert? > Is your name Róbert?
- Ert þú frá Ástralíu? > Are you from Australia?
- Talar þú ensku? > Do you speak English?
- Getur þú talað aðeins hægar? > Can you speak a little slower?
If you want to ask a negative yes-no question, the negation word ekki goes after the verb and subject. Check out my article on Já and Jú to learn how to answer these!
- Heitir þú ekki Róbert? > Isn’t your name Róbert?
- Talar þú ekki kínversku? > Don’t you speak Chinese?
Hv-questions have a question word which starts with hv (such as hver, hvað, hvar). The English equivalent is wh-questions (who, what, where). For an overview of the question words, I’ve got you covered right here.
Hv-questions are formed by putting a question word first, and then flipping around the subject and verb, just like with yes-no questions.
- Hvað heitir þú? > What is your name?
- Hvaðan ert þú? > Where are you from?
- Hvaða tungumál talar þú? > What language do you speak?
Icelandic loves this subject and verb flip; it’s integral to upholding the verb-second principle, or V2. What’s V2, you say? Glad you asked! Open it in a new tab here and then read that after you finish up here. That’s the next step in learning about Icelandic word order.
Useful Question Formulas
When you begin your Icelandic learning journey, you should learn these two question formulas from day 1, hour 0. Then use each question 50-100 times a day. If you think that was hyperbole for humour, you are wrong.
1. Hvað þýðir „___“? > What does “___” mean?
2. Hvernig segir maður „___“ á íslensku? > How do you say “___” in Icelandic?
In case you’re wondering, yes, maður literally means man, but it is used like the general you or one. Just like how the English you doesn’t ask about you, specifically, in your own unique way but people in general, maður doesn’t ask about people with penises, but people in general. Men, women, and genderqueer folk use it. In recent years, with the push for gender-neutral language, some people have started using kona (woman) or man. This is still non-standard.
- Hvað þýðir „óhugsandi“? > What does “inconceivable” mean?
- Hvernig segir maður „I’m bloody cold“ á íslensku? > How do you say “I’m bloody cold” in Icelandic?
Learn and practise these statement formulas. Use them as models for word order.
- Ég var að ___ > I was ___-ing.
- Ég er að ___ > I am ___-ing.
- Ég ætla að ___> I am going to ___.
You can negate them by putting ekki immediately after the first verb. You can use these sentence formulas as models for negations.
- Ég var ekki að ___ > I was not ___-ing.
- Ég er ekki að ___ > I am not ___-ing.
- Ég ætla ekki að ___ > I am not going to ___.
To make yes-no questions, just flip the subject and verb. Use these question formulas as models for yes-no questions.
- Varst þú að ___? > Were you ___-ing?
- Ert þú að ___? > Are you ___-ing?
- Ætlar þú að ___? > Are you going to ___?
Learn and practise these question formulas. Use them as models for word order of hv-questions.
- Hvað þýðir „___“? > What does “___” mean?
- Hvernig segir maður „___“ á íslensku? > How do you say “___” in Icelandic?
“I’m bloody cold” is “mér er skítkalt” in Icelandic. You didn’t think I was gonna leave you hanging, did you?
Consider buying me a cup of coffee =)