Verb Second – V2

One of the more interesting features of Icelandic for English speakers is verb-second word order, also known as V2 (because linguists are lazy bastards and also I don’t want to type it out every time).

If you haven’t read about basic word order yet, what’re you waiting for? GO! Read the thing! If you’re a little further along on your language learning journey and wish to take the next step, read on.

V2 is easy enough to summarise:

  • The verb must be in the second position.

So What’s on First?

V2 is one of those things that’s easy to learn but hard to master (don’t worry, we’ll make it easier!). With basic word order, the subject is in the first position and the verb in the second. So far, V2 is pretty easy to maintain.

  • Eiríkur kláraði kókaínið í gær. Rasshaus > Eiríkur finished the cocaine yesterday. Butthead.
  • Hver er á fyrstu höfn? > Who’s on first?


Of course, the subject isn’t the only thing that can be at the front of a sentence. We may want to move something else to the front to emphasise it, such as when or where something happened. If we do, we’ll need to flip the subject and verb to maintain our precious V2.

  • Eiríkur kláraði kókaínið í gær > Eiríkur finished the cocaine yesterday.
  • Í gær kláraði Eiríkur kókaínið > Yesterday, Eiríkur finished the cocaine.
  • Hann lætur eins og djöfull í skólanum > He behaves like a demon at school.
  • Í skólanum lætur hann eins og djöfull > At school, he behaves like a demon.

 

Structuring those sentences in the same way we would in English, with the verb in the third position - “í gær Eiríkur kláraði kókaínið” - would sound strange to natives. Understandable, but strange.

Also note that while the English version separates the fronted word with a comma, Icelandic does not.

Negations (and Other Adverbs)

We learned in Basic Word Order that the negation word ekki (or other adverb) comes right after the subject and verb. Flipping the subject and verb doesn’t really change anything here: the adverb comes after the subject and verb, regardless of the order in which they appear.

  • Eiríkur tekur ekki kókaín á daginn > Eiríkur doesn’t take cocaine during the day.
  • Á daginn tekur Eiríkur ekki kókaín > During the day, Eiríkur doesn’t take cocaine.
  • Ég veit ekki hver er á þriðju höfn samt > I don’t know who is on third base, though.
  • Samt veit ég ekki hver er á þriðju höfn > Still, I don’t know who is on third base.

Position Is Not the Same As a Word

The first position can be occupied by more than just one word. We’ve seen this already with í gær, which is technically two words, but there’s not really any limit to how many words can go together in the position.

  • Eftir ekki nema korter verður Eiríkur búinn með þetta kókaín > In only fifteen minutes, Eiríkur will be finished with this cocaine.
  • Klukkan hálf átta í gær byrjuðum við að drekka > At half past seven yesterday, we started drinking.

If this is bending your brain in a knot, it can be helpful to think of a “position” as one idea, or as the answer to a single question.

  • Hver setti bensín á díselbíl? > Who put gas in a diesel engine?
  • Fávitinn hann sonur þinn setti bensín á díselbíl > Your idiot of a son put gas in a diesel engine.
  • Hvenær verður Eiríkur búinn með þetta kókaín? > When will Eiríkur be finished with this cocaine?
  • Ekki á morgun heldur hinn verður Eiríkur búinn með þetta kókaín > The day after tomorrow, Eiríkur will be finished with this cocaine.

Since ekki á morgun heldur hinn (the day after tomorrow) answers the question hvenær (when), it is one idea and thus occupies one position.

A Whole Goddamn Clause Can Be One Position

Of course, there are many possible answers to a question such as hvenær (when). The answer can even be a whole-ass clause! If you’re unsure as to what a clause is, they make an appearance in Conjunctions. Suffice to say they’re the bolded parts here.

  • Eiríkur sturtaði kókaíninu áður en löggan náði honum > Eiríkur flushed the cocaine before the cops got him.
  • Áður en löggan náði honum sturtaði Eiríkur kókaíninu > Before the cops got him, Eiríkur flushed the cocaine.
  • Ég hélt að tannálfurinn væri til í alvöru þegar ég var barn > I thought the tooth fairy really existed when I was a child.
  • Þegar ég var barn hélt ég að tannálfurinn væri til í alvöru > When I was a child I thought the tooth fairy really existed.

Of course, in order to connect clauses we need something to connect them. That something is conjunctions. What a segue!

Conjunctions

Conjunctions occupy a sort of “zero-th” position in the sentence, or null position. That means they connect clauses without affecting V2. In practical terms, conjunctions work almost exactly like in English, are very easy, and you don’t really need to worry about them. This’ll make a lot more sense with some examples and a chart. The most common conjunctions are en, og, eða (but, and, or).

  • Viltu sturta kókaíninu eða viltu að löggan nái þér, Eiríkur? > Do you want to flush the cocaine or do you want the cops to get you, Eiríkur?
  • Ég skal halda honum og þú kýlir > I’ll hold him and you punch.
  • Ég er kannski trúgjarn en ég er ekki heimskur > I may be naïve but I’m not stupid.
  • Eiríkur sturtaði kókaíninu áður en löggan náði honum > Eiríkur flushed the cocaine before the cops got him.

Summary

Summarising V2 is simple: the verb should be in the second position. Similarly, learning V2 is easy, but internalising V2 can be a hell of a ride. On the upside, you don’t really need to worry about getting it wrong; it won’t change the meaning of what you say, just make you sound a bit like Yoda. Clear, his speech is, but catch the ear, it does.

Just make sure to get plenty of practise and if you’re still struggling in two weeks… well, practise some more.

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