Basic Word Order – V2

Word order in Icelandic is generally very similar to English, with only a few notable changes. The biggest, most impactful of those changes is the verb second principleV2. Almost all of Icelandic sentence structure revolves around this principle. In this lesson, we’ll take a look at basic word order in relation to V2.

To begin, we will posit three rules. We will add one more later in the lesson, but it is not relevant to our first few examples.

1.    The verb is always in the second position.

2.    The subject is next to the verb (by default before, but possibly after).

3.    The negation comes right after the subject and verb.

Basic Word Order

Let’s start by looking at basic word order.

  • 1[Hann] 2[borðar] (ekki) hamborgara > He eats / doesn’t eat hamburgers.

Immediately we see our 3 rules in action: the subject is next to the verb (before it), which is in the second position, and if we have a negation it comes right after the verb and subject. It is worth noting that the negation ekki is not unique in taking this position, only the most common among those adverbs that can. Other adverbs that may also come in this position after the subject and verb are alltaf, aldrei, oft, sjaldan and stundum, among others.

To explain the disparate translation, it may be worth mentioning that English used to be a V2 language just like Icelandic. In modern English you can see traces of this in negative sentences. “He not eats hamburgers” sounds like caveman speech because there is no verb in the second position. “He does not eat hamburgers” sounds much better because of the verb does in the second position.

Fronting

Sometimes we want to emphasise different things in a sentence, such as when an event took place. We can do that by moving the important bit to the front of the sentence – into the first position where the subject used to sit. This is called fronting.

When this happens, the subject and verb switch places – the verb comes first, in the second position, and the subject follows. Thus we still maintain our three rules: the subject is next to the verb (after it this time), the verb is in the second position (of course), and the negation comes after the two.

  • 1[Í gær] 2[borðaði] 3[hann]    (ekki) hamborgara > Yesterday, he ate / didn’t eat a hamburger

Position is Not the Same As a Word

The subject does not have to be just one word. If it is longer, the entire subject takes the first position. The same idea applies if we front something to the beginning of the sentence: it if is more than one word, it all occupies the first position together. In the examples below, the subject or fronted phrase are bolded.

  • 1[Strákurinn í gulu peysunni] 2[borðaði] (ekki) hamborgara > The boy in the yellow sweater ate / didn’t eat a hamburger.
  • 1[Klukkan korter í fjögur í gær] 2[borðaði] 3[hann] (ekki) hamborgara > At a quarter to four yesterday he ate / didn’t eat a hamburger.

Our three rules are followed: the verb is in the second position, the subject next to it (before or after, depending), and if we want to add a negation it follows the other two.

Conjunctions

Now is the time to introduce our fourth rule.

1.    The verb is always in the second position.

2.    The subject is next to the verb (by default before it).

3.    The negation comes right after the subject and verb.

4.    Conjunctions occupy a “null” position.

Conjunctions are words that connect clauses together. In a sense, they connect without being part of what they’re connecting, like how a chain connecting an anchor to a ship is not a ship or an anchor. Thus, they can be said to occupy a sort of “zero-th” position, or a null position. Conjunctions are sometimes formed of more than one word: the length of the conjunction makes no difference to our rules. The conjunction as a whole occupies the null position. Here the conjunction is af því að (because).

  • 1[Ég] 2[fór] (ekki) 0[af því að] 1[ég] 2[er] (ekki) latur > I went / didn’t go because I am (not) lazy.

Just like how we can use fronting to emphasise when something happened, we can front entire clauses to change the emphasis. When this happens, we follow the same fronting rules from before: the entire fronted clause occupies the first position. In the following example the fronted clause, "af því að ég er ekki latur", occupies the first position. Note that our first three rules are still respected inside the fronted clause: the verb is in the second position, the subject next to it (in front), and if we wanted to add a negation it would go right after the two. In this example the fronted phrase is bolded.

  • 1[0[Af því að] 1[ég] 2[er] (ekki) latur], 2[fór] 3[ég] (ekki) > Because I am (not) lazy, I went / didn’t go.

Hv-questions

Hv-questions are questions using any of the hv-question words (hver, hvaða, af hverju etc.). They are equivalent to the English wh-questions, where the answer cannot be a simple yes or no. Recall that English used to be a V2-language, and that traces of this are apparent in negations. This trace also appear in wh-questions: “Why you smoke?” sounds like caveman speech because there is no verb in the second position. “Why do you smoke?” sounds much better, because of the verb do in the second position. Icelandic works exactly the same.

  • 1[Af hverju] 2[borðaðir] 3[þú] (ekki) hamborgarann? > Why did you (not) eat the hamburger?
  • 1[Hvernig] 2[er] 3[húsið] þitt á litinn? > What color is your house?

Breaking V2

Two common types of sentences break V2: yes-no questions, and orders.

Yes-no Questions

Yes-no questions are exactly what it says on the tin: a question which can be answered with a simple yes or no. Yes-no questions don’t follow the V2 rule, as the subject and verb switch places so the verb is in the first position. Fronting is not done in yes-no questions, which would pull the emphasis away from what matters – the fact that it is a question.

  • 1[Ert] 2[þú] (ekki) að borða hamborgara? > Are / aren’t you eating a hamburger?

Note that the subject is still next to the verb, and if we want to insert a negation it comes right after the two. Only the V2 rule is skirted.

Orders

The imperative mood is used to give commands and orders. The imperative doesn’t follow the V2 rule, but inverts the subject and verb so the verb is in the first position, just like yes-no questions do. Negative commands (don’t do something) have the negation in the first position. Note that in the imperative, the subject is often realised as part of the verb. The -ðu or -ið in the words below stand for þú (you) and þið (you plural, you all, y’all, yous).

  • Farðu! > Leave!
  • Hlustið á mig! > Listen to me!
  • Ekki fara! > Don’t leave!
  • Ekki hlusta á hann > Don’t listen to him!

Summary

The verb is in the second position. Everything else plays around that.

We have the four rules.

  1. The verb is always in the second position
  2. The subject is next to the verb (by default before it)
  3. The negation (or other adverb) comes right after the subject and verb.
  4. Conjunctions occupy the null position.

We can also picture this graphically.

Yes-no questions and imperatives invert the subject and verb so the verb is in the first position.

Cases and Verbs

Cases are hard. We make them easier with this instalment in our series on cases.

Cases and Prepositions

Cases are hard. We make them easier with this instalment in our series on Cases

Cases and Impersonal Verbs

Verbs that don't change, dative sickness, and the language police: Impersonal verbs are an interesting topic.