Conjugating Hybrid Verbs

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by Siggi
Feet with one red shoe and one yellow.

The verbs we’re talking about here are often labelled as “irregular”. I think that’s painting with too broad of a brush because in many (or most) cases, these verbs aren’t irregular – their group is just small. Hybrid verbs are those verbs that don’t neatly fit into the weak-strong dichotomy.

A note on the terminology: there is no generally accepted terminology for these verbs other than “irregular”, so I had to come up with something. Since these verbs pull their conjugations from both weak and strong verbs, “hybrid” seemed fitting. Don’t be surprised if you don’t see that term elsewhere.

These verbs aren’t a single cohesive group except in the loosest possible sense. Rather, consider this a way of thinking about categories too small to have their own names. If this model helps you, then that’s awesome! If it’s too involved for you and you prefer to just think about "irregular" verbs and memorise them, then that's fine too.

To show you the conjugation of these verbs I’ll be using principal parts (Icelandic: kennimyndir), the foundational conjugation forms you need to know to predict all the others. You can read up on how those work here.

Rule of Thumb 

Basically, it works like this:

Hybrid verbs combine features of strong verbs and weak verbs, and thus are hard to categorise entirely as strong or weak. They may have:

  • a strong present tense, but a weak past tense
  • a weak present tense, but a strong past tense, or even
  • a weak past tense ending combined with a strong-verb-like vowel shift.

Most of them aren’t actually irregular; they’re just in a small category. We’ll spend the rest of the article building up a cohesive model for this, but this table sums it up. Don’t be surprised that it looks confusing if you haven’t read through the article; it’ll all make sense after we walk through it.

 The preterite-present verbs can be thought of as a sort of blended category, as well, but I consider them unique enough to be in a separate category all to themselves, so they won’t be making an appearance here.

Basically, Verbs 

To understand verbs that don’t follow the main categories, we need to understand the main categories. Here’s a super-quick primer on the Icelandic verb system.

Most Icelandic verbs belong to one of two main categories: weak or strong.

-a verbs and -i verbs are weak. That means that they form:

  • the ég present with a vowel ending (-a and -i, respectively). Ég ætla (I am going to), ég geri (I do)
  • the ég past with an -aði, -ði, -di, or -ti ending. Ég ætlaði (I was going to), ég gerði (I did)

Strong verbs are the opposite. They form:

·  the ég present with no ending and a vowel shift where appropriate. ég get (I can), ég fer (I go).

·  the ég past with no ending and a vowel shift. ég gat (I could), ég fór (I went).

What Are Hybrid Verbs?

Most verbs in Icelandic belong to just one category: they’re either weak or strong. This is usually seen as a dichotomy, with anything that doesn't neatly fit into one of these two categories labelled as irregular.

But if we view verbs not as existing on only one axis (weak or strong) but add in the dimension of when they’re weak or strong, then we get a fuller picture.

Now, we have a larger space of possibilities. Our regular categories fit in there perfectly, as you can see, but now we have more room to explore nuances. 

Let’s explore our fancy new possibility space! 

Present Tense: Strong

Past Tense: Weak

​​ This group is perfectly regular strong verbs in the present tense, and perfectly regular -i verbs in the past. Here are the principal parts of these verbs (and the present tense).

Hafa is one of the most frequently used words in the Icelandic language, so this group is very important to get the hang of. In fact, this category accounts for 10% of all verb use, which is even more than the preterite-present verbs.

Þvo and skilja aren’t perfectly regular: þvo has an irregular vowel shift in the present tense, and both have an unusual supine.

Now, let’s fill in the other open slot of our widened possibility space.

Present Tense: Weak

Past Tense: Strong

 These are perfectly regular -i verbs in the present tense, and perfectly regular strong verbs in the past.

Now our possibility space looks full, but we can actually extend it. There are verbs whose past tense has BOTH a weak ending AND a strong vowel shift.

Present Tense: Weak

Past Tense: Weak + vowel shift 

 These are perfectly regular -i verbs in the present tense, but in the past tense they have a twist in the form of a vowel shift.

Segja is a behemoth of a verb. It’s one of the most frequently used in the language and its group is responsible for 5% of all verb use, so it’s well worth learning. 

Þegja isn’t perfectly regular, having a slightly unusual ending in the supine, but it’s not that unusual: some -i verbs do that.

In addition to the segja verbs, there are three pretty irregular verbs here: sækja, þykja and yrkja. They’re all irregular in the same way, though: unusual vowel shift + a consonant change. Irregular or small category? You decide!

 Let’s fill in our last open spot.

Present Tense: Strong

Past Tense: Weak + vowel shift

 The ey-j-ur verbs form a category of around 35 verbs. Together, they account for 3% of all verb use. I’ve written a whole article on how to conjugate them, so check that out for details. Here, we’ll settle for this table of examples with their principal parts.

In addition to the ey-j-ur verbs, there are three quite irregular verbs here: valda, þiggja, and heyja.

Summary 

Maybe there aren’t quite as many “irregular” verbs as we think. Maybe the verb system is just a bit more nuanced than the binary weak-strong model. It’s still a lot to learn, so remember to take it one step at a time. You’ve got this.

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