Strong verbs are a step up in complexity from the weak verbs (-a verbs and -i verbs) because of the regular-ish vowel shifts that characterise them. However, conjugating them in the present tense is more than doable, as both the endings and sound shifts are quite regular.
The strong verbs are a small category, numbering fewer than 200 verbs in the entire language. They’re incredibly frequently used, though: those fewer than 200 verbs account for 26% of all verb use.
If you’d like a more general overview of all the verb categories, you can check that out here. If you’d like to check out how to conjugate strong verbs in the past tense, I’ve got you covered right here.
Now, let’s make conjugating strong verbs in the present tense a little easier!
Rule of Thumb
Basically, it works like this:
- remove the infinitive ending
- change the stem vowel (if necessary), and
- add the appropriate ending
This table summarises the endings. It’s here at the top so it’s easy for you to reference later, but it’s going to look overwhelming until you’ve read the article, where we actually build this table step-by-step. If it feels daunting now, come back to it after reading, when it all makes sense. You can revel in how smart you are!
Changing the Stem Vowel
The sound shift that sometimes happens to the vowel is an art unto itself, and thus merits an article unto itself. In this article, we want to just focus on the endings, so wherever possible we’ll only consider verbs that don’t have a vowel shift to make things easi(er).
Adding the Ending
Now, which ending we use for what word depends on the last letter of the stem of the verb.
The stem of a verb is what we’re left with after removing the infinitive ending. The infinitive ending can be:
- -a (like verða, geta, vinna)
- -ja (like deyja, hlæja, flýja)
- -va (like stökkva, slökkva, höggva. These are rare), or
- no ending at all (like fá, sjá, þvo)
Here are a few examples.
Now that we understand the terminology, let’s plough ahead!
Words Whose Stem Ends in a Vowel
Simply remove the infinitive ending, then add the appropriate ending. So far, so easy!
There are a couple things worth noticing in this table:
- The plural endings (við, þið, þeir, þær, þau) are identical to -a and -i verbs. Convenient!
- The j from the -ja infinitive ending pops back up in the 1st person plural (við). That’s to make it easier to pronounce.
Now let’s take a look at words like verða, geta, and vinna: words whose stems end with a consonant.
Words Whose Stem Ends in a Consonant
This subgroup is by far the biggest and most important of the strong verbs. It’s also extremely common, coming up even more frequently than -a verbs and -i verbs combined, so it’s well worth learning.
If we try to treat words whose stems end with a consonant the same way we did deyja, hlæja, and flýja, we would end up with the following hard-to-pronounce forms.
In Icelandic, these consonant clusters are pretty much impossible to pronounce. That doesn’t mean we just give in and shut up: we simply make them a little easier to pronounce.
Notice that these forms are only slightly different from the hard-to-pronounce forms above. Language doesn’t like things to be TOO different, so we make the smallest change possible to get something pronounceable.
Now, let’s consider words like bera and lesa – words whose stem ends in r or s.
Words Whose Stem Ends in r or s
Ok, ok, so I guess the previous section on “Words Whose Stem Ends in a Consonant” should have been “Words Whose Stems Ends in a Consonant Other Than r or s”, but that’s a mouthful and confusing.
If we were to treat these words like the words whose stem ends with a vowel, we would get the following hard-to-pronounce forms.
Here, the smallest change that will make them pronounceable isn’t quite the same as with the other consonants.
You might have noticed that the j from the -ja infinitive ending pops back up not only in the við form, like it did with words like deyja, hlæja, and flýja, but also in the þið form. That’s because Icelandic spelling has some frankly convoluted rules about when to write j, which are beyond the scope of this article. Focus on the sound, not the spelling.
Vaxa (grow) and skína (shine) have a bit of a simplified conjugation: their singular endings are all empty.
This honestly isn’t an irregularity so much as it is the natural phonological result of their stem ending with x and n, but our stem table is big enough as it is and nobody wants to add two categories for just two words.
Here’s nearly everything you need to know about the ending of strong verbs in the present tense in one handy-dandy table!