Decoding Dictionary Shorthand

If you use a dictionary (and as a second language learner, you really, really should), you’ve already come across dictionary shorthand. Most of it is easy enough to guess or google, but because Icelandic is apparently an obscure dialect of Narnian, resources can be scarce when it comes to figuring out the Icelandic parts. We‘ll try and make it easier to decode this information.

Eitthvað and einhver

Two very common words that get abbreviated in dictionaries are eitthvað (something) and einhver (somebody). You should probably tattoo this chart on your arm until you’ve memorised it.

In English, the shorthand is pretty see-through: sth for something and sb for somebody. The Icelandic case system makes things a touch more complicated, as these abbreviations are also how you can tell what case a verb takes. That is why you’ll often see these abbreviations alongside verbs in the dictionary.

  • Að brjóta e-ð > to break sth (accusative).
  • Að gleyma e-u > to forget sth (dative).
  • Að hlakka til e-s > to look forward to sth (genitive).
  • Að kæra e-n > to sue sb (accusative).
  • Að bjóða e-m > to invite sb (dative).
  • Að sakna e-s > to miss sb (or sth) (genitive).

Note that the choice between eitthvað and einhver does not imply that the verb exclusively refers to things / people. Lexicographers (dictionary writers) just make a judgement call on what they consider the most natural usage. You can still break people and invite things (if you insist).

Because of this, the fact that the genitive forms of sth and sb are identical (e-s) doesn’t invite confusion. Usually, it genuinely doesn’t matter whether it refers to a person or a thing. 

Also, yes: the nominative and accusative are identical for eitthvað (e-ð). In general, dictionaries don’t note when something is in the nominative, so when you see e-ð, you can be fairly sure it’s the accusative.

Learning with Dictionary Shorthand

It can be a good idea to use the same system in your vocabulary studies. When you make your flashcards (side note: if you‘re not using flashcards to practice vocabulary, you should be using flashcards to practice vocabulary), put in the case that follows the verb using the appropriate abbreviation from the chart above.

This has a few benefits, namely that it:

  1. helps you memorise what case a verb takes,
  2. helps you recognise patterns in the verbs and cases, and 
  3. speeds recall when actually using the word in conversation.

In addition, marking the case using a real word (eitthvað and einhver) instead of with grammatical terminology (accusative, dative, genitive) helps to make the grammar less conceptual and more real in your mind. Appealing to naturalistic language memory like this rather than intellectual abstractions will help you with remembering the word properly when you need it.

As a case in point, one of these sentences feels like computer programming, and it’s not the one with dictionary shorthand.

  • Að borða e-ð > to eat sth
  • Að borða + accusative > to eat + accusative

Of course, the most important factor is what works for you, so if you mark cases with the grammatical jargon and you like it, keep it up! The only learning method that absolutely doesn‘t work is doing nothing.

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