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.
Inflecting Question Words
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)
- Hver rakaði af mér yfirvaraskeggið? > Who shaved off my moustache?
- Hver ykkar rakaði af mér yfirvaraskeggið? > Which one of you shaved off my moustache?
- Ég vil vita hverjum(dat) ég á að refsa! > I want to know whom to punish!
Hvað > what
- Hvað er þetta? > What is this?
- Hverju(dat) gleymdirðu? > What did you forget?
Hvor > which (of 2)
- Hvor ykkar rakaði af mér yfirvaraskeggið? > Which one of you two shaved off my moustache?
- Hvorum(dat) á ég að refsa? Jón Oddi eða Jón Bjarna? > Which one shall I punish? Jón Oddur or Jón Bjarni?
Non-Inflecting Question Words (AKA the Rest)
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
- Hvað tekurðu mikið í bekk? > How much do you bench?
- Hvað ertu gamall? > How old are you?
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
- Hversu klikkaður þarf maður að vera til að spila Quidditch? > How crazy do you have to be to play Quidditch?
- Hversu frábært er Anki til að æfa orðaforða! > How amazing is Anki for practising vocabulary!
Hvaða > what, which (of 3+)
- Hvaða stelling er uppáhaldið þitt? > What position is your favourite?
- Hvaða Pokémon er bestur? > Which Pokémon is the best?
Hvernig > how + verb, what kind of + noun
- Hvernig segir maður „svifnökkvinn minn er fullur af álum“? Ég er að spyrja fyrir vin > How do you say “my hovercraft is full of eels”? Asking for a friend.
- Hvernig bíl keyrirðu? > What kind of car do you drive?
Hvenær > when
- Hvenær er best að planta tré? > When is the best time to plant a tree?
- Hún vill vita hvenær þú verður tilbúinn > She wants to know when you’ll be ready.
- Ég verð tilbúinn þegar þú hættir að spyrja > I’ll be ready when you stop asking.
Note that in the answer, we don’t use hvenær, but þegar. Hvenær is for questions, þegar is for statements.
Question Words of Location
There are three words for saying where in Icelandic, depending on if you are at, going to, or coming from the location. These are just one of a group of adverbs of location that do this.
Hvar > where (no motion)
- Hvar ertu? > Where are you?
- Hvar viltu borða? > Where do you want to eat?
- Hvar varstu að skokka? Í garðinum, við sjóinn? > Where were you jogging? In the park, by the sea?
Hvaðan > from where, whence (motion from)
- Hvaðan ertu? > Where are you from?
- Jesús, hvaðan kom þetta?! > Jesus, where did that come from?!
Hvert > to where, whither (motion towards)
- Hvert fórstu eftir djammið í gær? > Where did you go after the partying yesterday?
- Hvert varstu að skokka? Í vinnuna, heim? > Where were you jogging to? To work, to your house?
Why So Many Whys?
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.
- Af hverju ertu svona? > Why are you like this?
- Hvers vegna ertu svona? > Why are you like this?
Til hvers > what for
- Til hvers varstu að þessu? > What did you do that for?
- Til hvers lærðirðu íslensku? > What did you learn Icelandic for?
Út af hverju > how come
- Út af hverju svindlaðirðu í Veiðimann? > How come you cheated at Go Fish?
- Út af hverju lærðirðu íslensku? > How come you learned Icelandic?
What do you mean, you want a summary? This whole article is a summary!