Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? How is that even done in Icelandic? Comparisons in Icelandic are generally pretty similar to English, but there are a few tricky parts to it as well!
Icelandic adjectives, just like in English, can be in one of three degrees of comparison: positive (small, big, adventurous), comparative (smaller, bigger, more adventurous), or superlative (the smallest, the biggest, the most adventurous). The comparative is, as its name suggests, used to compare things, and it is the basis of all comparison in Icelandic.
In this article we'll look at how the comparative degree works in Icelandic, direct comparisons, comparing countable and uncountable things, and finally we'll learn about the dative degree of difference.
Icelandic generally forms its comparative with a suffix, just like the -er in smaller and bigger; not with an extra word, like more adventurous. You can find the suffix for any adjective on bin.arnastofnun.is, as well as comprehensive inflections for every word in the language. In the following examples, the comparative adjective is bolded.
- Jón er skemmtilegur, en Guðrún er skemmtilegri > Jón is fun, but Guðrún is more fun.
- Húsið hennar Önnu er flott, en húsið hans Sigurðar er miklu flottara > Anna's house is cool, but Sigurður's house is much cooler.
Note that while English uses “more” a lot (more satisfying, more adventurous etc.), Icelandic generally doesn't.
Jafn…og is the Icelandic equivalent to as…as. This phrase is idiomatic, that is, og does not mean and in this context.
- Margrét er jafn góð í súrdeigsgerð og í lausn diffurjafna > Margrét is as good at sourdough baking as in the solving of differential equations.
- Ég hlakka til jólanna jafn mikið og krakki > I look forward to Christmas as much as a kid.
- Umfangsefni laga hans eru jafn fjölbreytt og dagurinn er langur > The topics of his songs are as varied as the day is long.
Comparative…en is the Icelandic equivalent to comparative…than, such as bigger than, sweeter than, more adventurous than. This phrase is also idiomatic, that is, en does not mean but in this context.
- Guðmundur er betri hnífabardagamaður en Sigríður > Guðmundur is a better knife-fighter than Sigríður.
- Hún talar meira við Kristínu en við Gunnar > She talks to Kristín more than to Gunnar.
- Ég má þetta af því að ég er stærri, sterkari, feitari og frekari en þú > I can do this because I'm bigger, stronger, fatter and pushier than you (a common expression among children, basically meaning “might makes right”).
Countable and Uncountable
Icelandic makes a distinction between things which can be counted (such as sheep, enemies, and IME articles read while on the toilet) and things which cannot be counted (such as wheat, water, and learning). One can say one enemy, two enemies but not one wheat, two wheats (at least not outside of a game of Settlers of Catan).
Fleiri and meiri are the Icelandic equivalents to the English more. Fleiri is used for countable things, such as bricks and chairs, and meiri for uncountable things, such as soup or coffee. Fleiri and meiri can change with the gender of the noun they describe.
- Viltu meiri súpu? Eða meira kaffi? > Do you want more soup? Or more coffee? (soup and coffee is uncountable)
- Ég væri til í fleiri kartöflur > I’d be up for some more potatoes (potatoes are countable).
Færri and minni are the Icelandic equivalents to the English fewer and less. Færri is used for countable things, and minni for uncountable things. Just like fleiri and meiri, færri and minni can change with the gender of the noun they describe.
Note that minni can also be used for countable things, but this changes the meaning: instead of meaning less, it means smaller. This means that the proper use of the countable or uncountable word is important in Icelandic (unlike in the fast checkout lane at Walmart).
The enemy-examples below show what happens when the wrong comparative word is used. Enemies are countable, so færri is correct. Minni changes the meaning to smaller.
- Leyfum þeim að deyja. Færri óvinir fyrir okkur > Let them die. Fewer enemies for us.
- Leyfum þeim að deyja. Minni óvinir fyrir okkur > Let them die. Smaller enemies for us.
- Ég hef minna að gera núna út af Covid > I have less to do now because of Covid.
- Ég á færri gæludýr en þú > I have fewer pets than you do.
For a visual summary, here is a chart with the countable and uncountable comparatives.
The Dative Degree of Difference
When you want to quantify by how much two things are different, the dative case (dat) is used to indicate the degree of difference.
- Hann er höfðinu(dat) hærri en ég > He's a head taller than I am.
- Margrét er fjórum(dat) árum(dat) eldri en Helga > Margrét is four years older than Helga.
- Ólafur er tvöþúsundkalli(dat) fátækari eftir kvöldmatinn > Ólafur is poorer by two thousand krónur after dinner.
Icelandic comparisons are, in the basics, quite similar to English. Both languages form a comparative degree with a suffix (bigger, stronger; stærri, sterkari). Icelandic’s jafn…og and comparative…en are perfect equivalents to the English as…as and comparative…than. Just like English, Icelandic distinguishes between countable and uncountable nouns, but takes it a step further with two words for more where English only has the one. The dative case is used to indicate the degree of difference.