Why So Many Whys?
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.
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.
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.
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.
To say because of sth, with a noun instead of a whole phrase, you have two options.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.