The question words are one of the first things that a student of Icelandic wants to learn, and for good reason: if you can just master a few basic questions, the person you’re talking to will do all the talking and can’t tell you don’t know any Icelandic! There’s a lot of nuance to some of the Icelandic question words, but you can use this article as a primer to get a running start.
First we’ll look at the question words that inflect, then we’ll take a look at all the other question words. We’ll take a special look at question words of location (where) and ways of asking why.
Hver, hvað and hvor are pronouns, so they inflect like pronouns. That simply means they change with case, gender, or number. You can check out bin.arnastofnun.is for more details on their inflection. They’re the only question words that inflect (YAY!).
Hver > who, which (of 3+) (and whom, if anybody cares)
Hvað > what
Hvor > which (of 2)
Some of the question words can be a little confusing at first glance, for example hvað + adjective vs. hversu + adjective and hvað vs. hvaða. This is an overview article, so I won’t get into it here, but I’ve got you covered with Challenging Question Words.
Hvað + adjective > how + adjective
Wait, why is hvað on here again? Because it inflects when it means what, but it doesn’t inflect when it means how + adjective. Thanks for asking, convenient pretend reader!
Hversu + adjective > how + adjective
Hvaða > what, which (of 3+)
Hvernig > how + verb, what kind of + noun
Hvenær > when
Note that in the answer, we don’t use hvenær, but þegar. Hvenær is for questions, þegar is for statements.
There are three words for saying where in Icelandic, depending on if you are at, going to, or coming from the location. Words changing depending on motion is quite common in Icelandic: you can read more about it in Cases and Motion.
Hvar > where (no motion)
Hvaðan > from where, whence (motion from)
Hvert > to where, whither (motion towards)
Icelandic has an unnecessary amount of ways of asking “why”. You can get by just using af hverju, though; everything else is just a bonus. If you want a deep dive into the different ways of asking why and answering because, I’ve got you covered with Why so Many Whys?.
Af hverju / hvers vegna > why
Af hverju and hvers vegna are identical. They mean the same thing, neither is more common than the other, neither is more formal…no difference.
Til hvers > what for
Út af hverju > how come
What do you mean, you want a summary? This whole article is a summary!