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?
- Við erum tvö > There’s two of us (lit. “we are two”).
- Í gær fórum við í vinnuna > Yesterday we went to work.
- Við ætlum að vinna keppnina > We’re going to win the competition.
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?
- Það á að vera góður við dýr > You should be kind to animals.
- Hann var reiður við mig > He was angry with me.
- Hún situr við borðið > She’s sitting at the table.
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.
- Hver tók við pakkanum mínum? > Who got my package from the deliveryman? taka við = receive.
- Jón talaði við mömmu sína > Jón spoke to his mother. tala við = talk to.
- Ég gerði við borðið í stofunni > I repaired the table in the living room. gera við = repair.
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.
- Flugvélin flaug niður á við í boga > The plane flew downwards in an arc.
- Laugavegurinn er hinum megin við Hverfisgötu > Laugavegur is on the other side of Hverfisgata.
- Vinur þinn er svolítið utan við sig > Your friend is a bit absent-minded.
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?
- Það þarf að höggva við í eldinn > We need to chop some wood for the fire.
Now, to bring it all together. When you see við and get confused, just run through these steps:
- Does it make sense as us? (personal pronoun)
- Does it make sense as indicating a location or direction? (preposition or adverb)
- Does it make sense as being part of a verb? (phrasal verb)
- Could it be wood?
As a fun little exercise, armed with all this new learning we can create a phrase like this:
- Við og við tókum við við við við við > Every now and then we accepted some wood by some wood.
- Við og við > Every now and then.
- Tókum við við > We accepted.
- Við > Wood.
- Við við > By some wood.
Phrasal Verbs With við
As an addendum, what follows is a (nowhere near exhaustive) list of phrasal verbs and adverbial phrases using við.
Standard dictionary shorthand is employed in this list to indicate case. That's what those e-ð and e-u is all about.