Some of the Icelandic question words can be a headache to parse. Fortunately for us, almost all of that headache goes away with some very simple explanations. In this article we’re taking a look at hver, hvað, hvaða, hversu and hvor, which are the most common sources of confusion for people learning Icelandic question words. If you’re interested in a basic overview of ALL the question words, I’ve got you covered with Question Words Overview.
We’ll look at the challenging question words in pairs.
Hver er vs. hvað er
Hver generally means who and hvað generally means what. So far, this really couldn’t be easier. Why are you even reading a guide about this?
But hver er often translates as what is, not who is. Now this seems confusing. Probably why you’re reading a guide about this.
The core difference between them is this:
Essentially, it’s the same as the difference between asking a dictionary what “problem” is (define “problem”, hvað), and asking a plumber what the problem is (specify the problem, don’t define it, hver). What is “a” problem, versus what is “the” problem, if you will.
In addition, hver inflects with whatever you’re asking about while hvað doesn’t. Notice that in the examples above it’s hvert er vandamálið but hver er munurinn. Bin.arnastofnun.is is your friend for finding how a word inflects.
As a final note, hvað is becoming more popular, even when it shouldn't “technically” be used. Thus you can easily ask any of the following, and don't be surprised if you hear natives do this “wrong”.
Some people find it hilarious to purposefully misunderstand this.
In these last examples Þórhalla is being an incredible pedant, but she is technically correct. She always is.
Hvað vs. hvaða
Both hvað and hvaða translate as what.
The difference is simply that hvað always stands alone, while hvaða always stands with another word.
The English language makes this a teeny bit more complicated by making what and which interchangeable in certain cases. If this confuses you, blame English, not Icelandic.
Hvað vs. hversu
Both hvað and hversu can mean how + adjective, in the sense of how much, how big, how weird, how hungry, etc.
There are two differences between the two words. The first is that hvað is for things which are quantifiable or countable, while hversu is for unquantifiable or uncountable things. The following sentences would be the standard way to say these things.
However, you can make yourself sound more formal by using hversu for quantifiable things, or more colloquial by using hvað for unquantifiable things.
That sounds complicated. You can make your life (and Icelandic) a little easier by just picking either hvað or hversu, and then always use that one. You’ll maybe sound slightly formal (or colloquial, depending on your choice), but you’ll always be perfectly understood.
To summarise, here’s a handy dandy chart.
You may have noticed the difference in the word order depending on which word you use. Hversu works identically to English, with the adjective right next to the question word hversu. Hvað works a little differently. Note the word order here.
An easy way to think about this is to start with a yes-no question, and then just throw hvað in front. No mucking about with moving things.
Hvor vs. hver
Remember how hver means who? Well, I’m about to rock your world. Don’t freak out, it’s still true. The word is just a little bit more versatile than you initially thought. Let’s start with hvor, because it’s pretty simple: it just means which one (of 2). It can stand alone, or with a noun (or a pronoun, but taking over for nouns is kind of what pronouns are all about so that goes without saying).
Now that we’ve established a word that means which one (of 2), we need a word that means which one (of 3+). Why not reuse hver?
In the examples above, hver always stands with another word (hver þeirra, hver strákanna). If it stands alone, it necessarily means who.
The following chart summarises all of the word pairs we’ve looked at in this article.