Mixing up í and fyrir, when talking about time, is an extremely common pitfall for second language learners of Icelandic. And little wonder: they’re false friends. False friends, or false cognates, are word pairs which sound the same (like í and in, or fyrir and for), but which don’t mean the same thing. And they’re annoying as all hell.
For a deep-dive into fyrir, you can take a look at my article on Point-Relative Timing. But, y’know, open that in another tab and come back to it. Finish this first. Don’t leave í and fyrir hanging.
Focus on Meaning, not Translation
The trick to sorting out false friends like í and fyrir is to think about meaning, not translation. Í translates as in, sure, and fyrir as for, but thinking of those translations is what got you confused in the first place. Just remember that í indicates duration, and fyrir really means ago, and you’ve got it. Let me say that again, but louder, for the people in the back:
Let’s look at some examples.
- Ég kom til Íslands fyrir fjórum árum > I came to Iceland four years ago (fyrir = ago).
- Ég hef verið á Íslandi í fjögur ár > I have been in Iceland during four years (í = during).
Should you rephrase that second example to use for, like “I have been in Iceland for four years”? Yeah, of course - it sounds wonky as hell as is - but we’re focusing on meaning, not translation! Why would you insist on using the confusing version when during is perfectly clear? In the following examples, focus on the meaning, not the translation.
- Við höfum ekkert fengið nema ormétið brauð í þrjá helvítis daga! > We ain't had nothing but maggoty bread for three stinking days!
- Fyrir áttatíu og sjö árum komu forfeður okkar með nýja þjóð í þessa álfu > Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation.
- Ég er búinn að vera að læra íslensku í mánuð > I’ve been learning Icelandic for a month.
- Ég lærði íslensku fyrir tveimur árum > I learned Icelandic two years ago.
Sometimes, you’ll see the word síðan accompanying fyrir. It is optional and doesn’t change anything about the meaning. Keep it or don’t; it really doesn’t matter.
- Þátturinn byrjaði fyrir korteri > The show started fifteen minutes ago.
- Þátturinn byrjaði fyrir korteri síðan > The show started fifteen minutes ago.
As is usual with case, it’s easy to summarise but hard to internalise. Simply put:
- í takes the accusative.
- fyrir takes the dative.
I’ve put some of the most common time increments into tables for easy reference. For the love of god, don’t try to memorise this; it’s a reference.
- Sekúnda > a second
- Mínúta > a minute
- Klukkutími > an hour
- Dagur > a day
- Vika > a week
- Mánuður > a month
- Ár > a year
You might notice that some people will use tveim and þrem, instead of tveimur and þremur. There is no difference: tveimur and þremur are much more common, but Icelanders don’t seem to notice any difference between the forms. Interestingly, absolutely no one ever says fjór instead of fjórum.
This may be the easiest summary ever.