Challenging Question Words

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 (both can mean what is)
  • Hvað vs. hvaða (both can mean what)
  • Hvað + adjective vs. hversu + adjective (both can mean how + adjective)
  • Hver vs. hvor (both can mean which)

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?

  • Hver er þetta? > Who is this?
  • Hvað er þetta? > What is 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.

  • Hver er munurinn á hafa og vera með? > What is the difference between hafa and vera með?
  • Hver er munurinn á geitaosti og venjulegum osti? > What is the difference between goat cheese and regular cheese?
  • Hver er kennitalan þín? > What is your identification number?

The core difference between them is this:

  • Hvað er asks about a definition (what’s a “capital”?)
  • Hver er seeks an actual answer (what’s the capital of Iceland?)

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.

  • Hvað er “vandamál”? > What’s “problem”? (define “problem”)
  • “Vandamál” er eitthvað sem veldur vandræðum, efa, eða óvissu > A “problem” is something that causes difficulty, doubt or uncertainty.
  • Hvert er vandamálið? > What’s the problem? (specify the problem) 
  • Vandamálið er að það er óþétt kítting í kringum baðkarið > The problem is that there is some faulty sealant around the bathtub. 
  • Hvað er “munurinn” > What is “difference”? (define “difference”)
  • Hver er munurinn á hafa og vera með? > What is the difference between hafa and vera með? (specify the difference)

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”.

  • Hver er höfuðborg Úkraínu? > What’s the capital of Ukraine?
  • Hvað er höfuðborg Úkraínu? > What’s the capital of Ukraine?
  • Hver er kennitalan þín? > What is your kennitala?
  • Hvað er kennitalan þín? > What is your kennitala?

Some people find it hilarious to purposefully misunderstand this. 

  • Hvað er höfuðborg Úkraínu? > What is the capital of Ukraine?
  • Höfuðborg Úkraínu er sú borg Úkraínu þar sem ríkisstjórnin hefur aðsetur > The capital of Ukraine is the city in Ukraine where its government resides.
  • ÞÚ VEIST HVAÐ ÉG Á VIÐ, ÞÓRHALLA! > YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN, ÞÓRHALLA!

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.

  • Hvað er þetta? > What is this?
  • Hvaða strákur er þetta? > What boy is this?

The difference is simply that hvað always stands alone, while hvaða always stands with another word.

  • Hvað ertu eiginlega að gera við þessa skjaldböku? > What on earth are you doing to that turtle?
  • Hvað viltu að ég geri við þessa skjaldböku? > What do you want me to do to this turtle?
  • Hvaða mynd viltu sjá? > What movie do you want to see?
  • Þú og hvaða her? > You and what army? 

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.

  • Hvaða mynd viltu sjá? > Which movie do you want to see? 
  • Hvaða mynd viltu sjá? > What movie do you want to see?

Hvað vs. hversu 

Both hvað and hversu can mean how + adjective, in the sense of how much, how big, how weird, how hungry, etc.

  • Hvað kostar þetta mikið? > How much does this cost?
  • Hversu mikið kostar þetta? > How much does this cost?

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.

  • Hvað ertu hávaxin? > How tall are you? (you can answer in centimetres)
  • Hversu svangur ertu? > How hungry are you? (there is no SI unit for hunger)
  • Hvað eru mörg ‘s’ í Mississippi? > How many s’s are there in Mississippi? (anywhere between 2-6, but definitely a real number)
  • Hversu bilaður þarf maður að vera til að spila Quidditch í alvörunni? > How crazy do you have to be to play Quidditch in real life? (there’s no SI unit for crazy)

However, you can make yourself sound more formal by using hversu for quantifiable things, or more colloquial by using hvað for unquantifiable things.

  • Hvað ertu hávaxin? > How tall are you? (standard)
  • Hversu hávaxin ertu? > How tall are you? (formal)
  • Hversu svangur ertu? > How hungry are you? (standard)
  • Hvað ertu svangur? > How hungry are you? (colloquial)

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.

  • Hversu svangur ertu? > How hungry are you?
  • Hvað ertu svangur? > How hungry are you?
  • Hversu mörg ‘s’ eru í Mississippi? > How many s’s are there in Mississippi? 
  • Hvað eru mörg ‘s’ í Mississippi? > How many s’s are there in Mississippi? 

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.

  • Langar þig í marga ketti? > Do you want many cats?
  • Hvað langar þig í marga ketti? > How many cats do you want?
  • Ertu svangur? > Are you hungry?
  • Hvað ertu svangur? > How hungry are you?

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).

  • Þú sagðist eiga tvo kærasta. Hvor er þetta? > You said you had two boyfriends. Which one is this?
  • Hvor strákanna meig í gosbrunninn? > Which one of the (two) boys peed in the fountain?

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

  • Þú sagðist eiga þrjá kærasta. Hver þeirra er þetta? > You said you had three boyfriends. Which one is this?
  • Hver strákanna meig í gosbrunninn? > Which one of the (three or more) boys peed in the fountain?

In the examples above, hver always stands with another word (hver þeirra, hver strákanna). If it stands alone, it necessarily means who.

  • Hver meig eiginlega í gosbrunninn? > Who peed in the fountain?!
  • Hver ykkar fávitanna meig í gosbrunninn? > Which one of you idiots peed in the fountain?

Summary

The following chart summarises all of the word pairs we’ve looked at in this article.


Conjunctions

What are the most common conjunctions in Icelandic? What are the weirdest?

Question Words Overview

What - or who? - are the Icelandic question words?

Why So Many Whys?

Want to get an Icelandic philosophy degree? You're gonna have to read a whole lot more than this guide, but it'll get you started. Learn all the different ways of asking why!