Icelandic has a preposterous number of ways of asking why and saying because. Fortunately, you only really need to know a few of them. Today we’ll be taking a look at the many ways to say why in Icelandic! If you want to learn to ask anything else, you're looking for my overview article on question words.
tl;dr: You can get away with just using af hverju to ask questions. Everything else is a bonus.
Icelandic essentially has three “categories” of why, each with a different emphasis. They have some pretty good equivalents in English, which makes our lives easier.
- Af hverju / hvers vegna > why (general).
- Út af hverju > why, how come (reason or cause).
- Til hvers > why, what for (purpose or goal).
Let’s get this straight right out of the gate: there’s no difference between af hverju and hvers vegna. They mean the same thing, they’re about equally common, there’s no difference in formality…they’re the same. Make sure to understand them both, but then you can stick with just using af hverju. Or hvers vegna. I picked af hverju, so that’s what we’ll be using for the rest of the article.
- Af hverju er himininn blár? > Why is the sky blue?
- Hvers vegna er himininn blár > Why is the sky blue?
The difference between af hverju, út af hverju, and til hvers, while important to understand and recognise, is frankly not huge.
You can live your whole life only ever asking af hverju and do just fine.
- Af hverju keyptirðu nýtt sjónvarp? > Why did you buy a new TV?
- Út af hverju keyptirðu nýtt sjónvarp? > How come you bought a new TV?
- Til hvers keyptirðu nýtt sjónvarp? > What did you buy a new TV for?
Very occasionally you may see hvers vegna inverted: vegna hvers. In those cases the meaning may be closer to út af hverju. This is fairly rare, though, and mostly used in spoken language.
The answers fall into the same basic camps as the questions.
- Af því að / vegna þess að > Because (general)
- Út af því að > Because (reason or cause)
- Til (þess) að > In order to, to (purpose or goal)
To say because of sth, with a noun instead of a whole phrase, you have two options.
- Út af e-u > Because of sth (reason or cause) (common)
- Vegna e-s > Because of sth (reason or cause) (formal)
If you’re wondering about the e-u and e-s with út af and vegna, it’s dictionary shorthand (an article on that is coming soon!). You may have noticed that most of the answers are basically just the questions rephrased. Af hverju becomes af því að, til hvers becomes til þess að, etc. There are a couple important takeaways.
- There’s no difference between af því að and vegna þess að. Pick one (I’m going with af því að) and stick to it.
- Út af and vegna mean exactly the same thing, but don’t bother with using vegna; it’s formal and much more rarely used.
Út af is unique among the answers in that it’s the only one that can stand with a noun instead of a whole phrase (plus vegna, but that’s posh speak and nobody likes a snob). The noun with út af is in the dative case.
- Ég keypti nýtt sjónvarp af því að mig vantaði sjónvarp > I bought a new TV because I needed a TV.
- Ég keypti nýtt sjónvarp út af því að búálfar skemmdu sjónvarpið mitt > I bought a new TV because leprechauns ruined my TV.
- Ég keypti nýtt sjónvarp út af búálfum(dat) > I bought a new TV because of leprechauns.
- Vegna búálfa(gen) keypti ég nýtt sjónvarp > Due to leprechauns I bought a new TV.
- Ég keypti nýtt sjónvarp til þess að geta horft á Brooklyn Nine Nine > I bought a new TV to be able to watch Brooklyn Nine Nine.
There are three versions of af því að that you may run into: af því að, því að, and því. There is no real difference between them, though in academic writing því að is recommended over því. But who cares what stuffy academics think? Just stick with af því að - it’s easiest.
There are two versions of til þess að: til þess að and til að. There is no difference between them. Pick one and stick with it.
This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things
In Icelandic, question words stick to questions. This is logical and right. English is weird and makes question words do things they clearly weren’t made for, like not-questions. There are two options for Icelandic equivalents to the English why outside of questions:
- Ástæðan fyrir því að > the reason why
- Þess vegna > that’s why
Basically, if the English equivalent is the reason why or could be rephrased that way (like the second example below), use ástæðan fyrir því að. If the English equivalent is that’s why, use þess vegna.
- Ástæðan fyrir því að ég hætti er að yfirmaðurinn var hræðilegur > The reason why I quit is that the boss was terrible.
- Sérðu hvað vaktaplanið er lélegt? Þetta er ástæðan fyrir því að ég hætti > See how bad the shift plan is? This is why I quit / This is the reason why I quit.
- Yfirmaðurinn var hræðilegur, þess vegna hætti ég > The boss was terrible, that’s why I quit.
You can finish the article here, honestly. All the important stuff is above. For the sake of completeness I’ll give an honourable mention to two exclamations - that aren’t technically question words but kind of work like one, anyway - and a couple of archaic, outdated question words that you’ll almost certainly never need.
Nú and ha
An honourable mention should go to the exclamations nú and ha.
While it is not technically a question word, but an exclamation indicating surprise, it does tend to imply a strong expectation of an answer much like a question word. In this way, it’s similar to af hverju (why).
- „Ert þú yfirmaður hér?“ „Já, nú?“ > “Are you the boss here?“ “Yes, why do you ask?“
- „Kalli var að kaupa sér nýtt sjónvarp.“ „Nú?” > “Kalli just bought a new TV.“ „Really? Why did he do that?“
Nú can also just be a polite way of saying “Oh? Keep talking”. Intonation should make this very clear.
Again, not technically a question word, but ha? would almost always be translated into English as what?. This is most commonly used to indicate you didn’t hear the other person properly.
- Svo presturinn gekk inn- > So the priest walked in-
- Ha? Hesturinn? > What? The horse?
- Nei, PRESTURINN gekk inn > No, the PRIEST walked in.
Hví and því
Hví and því are archaic, very similar to the English wherefore. You’ll almost never hear them in spoken language, but might run into them in written language. They’re identical in meaning: why (but outdated).
- Hví ert þú Rómeo? > Wherefore art thou Romeo?
- Því ert þú Rómeo? > Wherefore art thou Romeo?
You don’t really need these unless you’re going to take an ancient lit class at the University. If you ARE taking ancient literature: you’re welcome!
You can get away with just using af hverju, always, for anything. As a general why, you can use it to ask about the cause or purpose of something, no problem.
You can get away with just using af því að and út af, always, for anything. As a general because, af því að works to explain the reason for or goal of something, no problem. Út af is necessary to say because of something. Til þess að can be nice, though.