Við can be a tricky word for the student of Icelandic. It pops up everywhere in the language but never seems to mean the same thing. This lesson will guide you through all the possible meanings of við, and at the end summarise them into a handy step-by-step guide to understanding.
Personal Pronoun (we)
A personal pronoun is a word that indicates a person or people and can replace a noun. In English those are words like I, him, they.
As a personal pronoun, við simply means we. When you see or hear við in Icelandic and you’re not sure what it could be, this should be your first stop: could it mean we?
Preposition (to, with, at, by, alongside)
A preposition is a small word that comes before a noun and expresses relation in time or space. In English those are words like to, with, and at.
Við can translate to to, with, at, by or alongside. Don’t be intimidated by the large number of possible translations: they’re just there for completeness’ sake. By far, to, with, and at are the most common translations for við. Besides, when it comes to prepositions the exact translation is rarely important for understanding; context is everything. Just remember that a preposition expresses a relation in time or space, and context will usually do the heavy lifting.
When you see við in Icelandic and you’re not sure what it could be, but it can’t mean we, check: could it be to, with, or at?
A phrasal verb is a verb followed by an adverb or preposition, creating new meaning independent from the original words. In English those are phrases like to look forward to something, to let somebody down, and to mess up.
In a phrasal verb, remember that the meaning usually has nothing to do with the meaning of the original verb or the original preposition. To let means to allow, and down is a direction: to let sb down means to disappoint them; not allowing them to descend. So when you see við, and it doesn’t make sense as we or as indicating direction, see if it could just be part of a phrasal verb. Then maybe look up that phrasal verb and add it to your vocabulary. Phrasal verbs need to be learned and memorised as if they were one independent word.
An adverb is hard to define, as it is a bit of a „catch-all“ category for words that don’t fit into other categories. They can stand on their own, like here, there, and everywhere, or join other adverbs to form adverbial phrases, like over there, or now and then. There’s more to adverbs, but this is all that is relevant to við.
Við as an adverb (outside of a phrasal verb) is relatively uncommon compared to the first three possibilities above, but for completeness’ sake it should be mentioned. It is rare on its own, as it tends to form part of a verb phrase or join other adverbs to form an adverbial phrase. Those adverbial phrases usually indicate directionality or location.
Viður means wood. The accusative case of viður is við.
This is perhaps the simplest form of við. If you run into við in Icelandic, and it doesn’t make sense as we, or to indicate direction or location, or as part of a verbal phrase, consider: could it be wood?
Now, to bring it all together. When you see við and get confused, just run through these steps:
As a fun little exercise, armed with all this new learning we can create a phrase like this:
As an addendum, what follows is a (nowhere near exhaustive) list of phrasal verbs and adverbial phrases using við.
Standard dictionary notation is employed in this list to indicate case. The Icelandic word eitthvað is equivalent to the English something and it is abbreviated e-ð in the nominative and accusative cases. The dative case, einhverju, is e-u, and the genitive einhvers is e-s.
Adverbial phrases with við