-i verbs in the past tense take one of three dental suffixes: ð, d or t. A dental suffix, by the way, is a sound you make with your teeth (hence the dental) and add to the end of the word (hence the suffix).
But how do you know whether to add the ð, d, or t? Don’t worry: there is a system to it. It depends on the final sound of the stem of the word, which is the part before the infinitive ending.
How Should You Study This?
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, it’s worth it to take a moment to examine our assumptions.
How should we study this? The answer is, “we probably shouldn’t”.
That’s because this is one of those things where our subconscious mind excels but our conscious, analytic brain sucks.
I’m about to put up a huge table. Trying to make sense of it analytically is a huge endeavour - it’s going to feel overwhelming and confusing, but I promise you this: the second you start practising with some actual examples yourself, or just reading some Icelandic and noticing this stuff, your brain is going to realise that it’s no problem. Your subconscious mind will make light work of this. So don’t fret.
Huge Table Time
There are 2 things we need to discuss in this table:
- the words whose stem changed a bit, like þýða – ég þýddi or virða – ég virti
- the exceptions
And there is one thing to note, as well: this table is not perfectly exhaustive. I made it to cover common vocabulary, but rare words have been purposefully excluded. By definition, you won’t run into those words a lot, but it’s good to be aware that they exist.
Pronouncing the Unpronounceable
There are many words where, if we were to try to apply our table to them religiously, we would end up with really hard-to-pronounce forms. The following are a few examples.
In Icelandic, these consonant clusters are pretty much impossible to pronounce. If we were machines, we could just return a 404-error: sound not found. But we’re humans, so we just make them a little easier to pronounce.
Words like these are quite common. Practise letting your subconscious brain take the wheel, because your analytic brain will just have an information overload and crash into a tree.
Good news: there aren’t many exceptions to our table. Better news: most of them are quite unimportant, so if you want to just ignore ’em, feel free!
Kenna (teach), renna (slide), brenna (burn); fella (trip) and kvænast (marry) are straight-forward exceptions. Just memorise them.
Senda, meina, and mæla are a little more interesting.
Senda (to send)
Natives use ég senti so frequently you can really ignore the idea that this is wrong. Unless you’re writing for a newspaper or academia, nobody cares if you use ég senti instead of the “correct” ég sendi.
I suspect that in a few dozen years, ég senti will be an accepted form for this verb and ég sendi will be outdated. Good riddance!
Meina (to mean, to refuse)
Basically, there are two words with the infinitive meina:
- one with the meaning to mean, which conjugates like an -a verb in the present tense but like an -i verb in the past tense, and
- one with the meaning to refuse, which is a regular -a verb.
Similarly to meina, there are actually two words with the infinitive mæla:
- one with the meaning measure, which is totally regular, and
- one with the meaning speak, which isn’t.
Context should really always make it clear which to use.