The vast majority of Icelandic conjunctions have simple and intuitive equivalents in English and do not bear repeating outside of a dictionary. In this lesson we’ll focus on those conjunctions that do not have simple equivalents, or are common enough to still be of interest to the second language student.
First we will take a look at the most common conjunctions in Icelandic: en, og, eða, að, ef and sem. Then we will look at less common conjunctions which, for whatever reason, may cause confusion for the learner. These will be heldur, enda, and þegar, as well as an honorable mention, “ástæðan fyrir því að”. But first we will get a recap on what conjunctions actually are.
Conjunctions are essentially connectors. They connect either phrases or clauses.
A phrase is a group of words which functions as a single unit which can be replaced with one word. “Those big apples over there” is one noun phrase, as it can be replaced with one word: “He wanted those big apples over there: he wanted them.” “Cheated on the exam” is one verb phrase, as it can also be replaced by one word: “They cheated on the exam: did you do that?”
A clause is a group of words that includes a subject and a verb. “He passed” is a clause. So is “he cheated”. “He passed even though he cheated” is a sentence composed of two clauses connected by the conjunction “even though”.
With the grammatical background out of the way we can get to talking about the Icelandic conjunctions.
En is equivalent to the English but. It has slightly more use in Icelandic, also being used to change the topic where English uses and. It can connect both phrases and clauses.
Og is equivalent to the English and. It can connect both phrases and clauses. It features in a few idiomatic “multi word” conjunctions, such as eins og (like) and bæði…og (both…and). As these are idiomatic, the meaning of the phrase as a whole is not necessarily related to the meaning of its individual words. Just as it is meaningless to ask what ants means in the word pants, it is meaningless to ask what og means in the phrase eins og.
Eða is equivalent to the English or. It can connect both phrases and clauses. In informal spoken language eða can be “dangled” at the end of a phrase. This would usually translate to “or what”, “or something”.
Að is equivalent to the English that, following words of thinking, saying, believing etc. It connects clauses.
In addition to its role as a conjunction, the word form að can mean different things depending on context. This versatility can give the Icelandic student a hard time. In addition to a conjunction it can be, for example, a preposition (hann fór að húsinu > he went up to the house) or an infinitive particle, much like English to (ég ætla að tala > I’m going to talk). Context will in most cases make the meaning clear, once you are familiar with the different uses.
Að may sometimes be added to the end of conjunctions that do not need it, such as ef (að) and sem (að) (see below). This has absolutely no effect on the meaning whatsoever, and its inclusion or exclusion is entirely up to the whims of the speaker at any given moment. In poetry or music this may be used to add or remove a syllable to maintain the meter.
Ef (að)…(þá) is equivalent to the English if…(then). Að can optionally be added and doesn’t affect the meaning. Þá can optionally be dropped, just like the English then. Ef connects clauses. Note the word order: when the ef clause comes first, the entire clause takes the first position, so it is followed by the verb of the main clause in order to maintain V2 (verb second position).
Sem (að) has no single equivalent in English, but rather a legion of them: who, whom, that, which, what, and where. Að can optionally be added and doesn’t affect the meaning. Sem connects relative clauses, that is, clauses that describe a noun, much like an adjective would. Note that the subject in the relative clause may sometimes be omitted, such as in the first example.
When sem translates as what or where, it is joined by það or þar.
Heldur is equivalent to the English rather, but rather or but when it is used in the context of comparison or preference. It connects both phrases and clauses. When used to connect clauses, the subject and verb must be inverted.
Enda connects clauses, and it has no true English equivalent. It indicates that there is some expected relationship between the two sentences it connects. Note that this expected relationships is not necessarily causal, so because is by no means an accurate translation. Possibly the closest thing to an English equivalent is the semicolon or the dash.
Þegar (að) is equivalent to the English when. Hvenær, the Icelandic question equivalent to the English when, can only and exclusively be used for questions. Að can optionally be added and doesn’t affect the meaning. Þegar connects clauses. Note the word order: when the “þegar” clause comes first, the entire clause takes the first position, so it is followed by the verb of the main clause to maintain V2 (verb second position).
While not strictly a conjunction, an honorary mention should go to the phrase “ástæðan fyrir því að”, as it translates to a conjunction. It connects clauses. This is equivalent to the English why. Af hverju, the Icelandic question equivalent to the English why, can only and exclusively be used for questions. The að here is not optional.