Tuesday, 6 September 2011

På svenska, tack

Sorry for the recent silence.  Life got a bit busy, and such periods are likely in my life.  I am hoping for things to settle down around October, so until then just bear with me.  I am not actually going to talk about any Icelandic grammar in this post, so if that is really the only reason you are here, you need read no further.  Otherwise, read on.

I recently returned from a week-long trip to Stockholm.  The trip as a whole was great, and everyone is welcome too peruse my photos.  Being the language nuts you are, though, I thought I would instead tell you about my experiences with Swedish.

 I began learning Swedish less than a year ago, after I came back from Iceland.  I wanted to learn another Nordic language so that I could communicate with the rest of Scandinavia, and Swedish was both my favourite and the one for which I had access to a native and willing speaker.   This trip was my first experience using Swedish in the wild, and I have to say that it was rather positive.  I restricted myself to using it at shops, restaurants, and cafés, this time, as that is mostly the extent of my ability. Most of the time, it was simply to order coffee or a bit of food.  Even this felt extremely silly at first; Swedish still feels heavy on my tongue and the pitch accent of Swedish can make one feel a bit ridiculous.  (The pitch accent, btw, is the rules governing the rising and falling of pitch when you pronounce Swedish. Yes, there are rules, they don't just speak like that because it's more fun).  

Compared to my attempts to use Icelandic the first time I went, this went much better.  Not only is my command of Swedish better (though not that good ;) than my Icelandic was, but the attitude of the Swedes I communicated with was much more positive.  Nearly every time I attempted Swedish, people responded in Swedish even if it was bad Swedish (which I like to think it wasn't all the time, but some of the time).  The few times people switched to English, they usually apologised and switched back to Swedish immediately.  This happened a handful of times, and they were so apologetic that I think I must have broadcast my disapproval on my face when they did it.  Either way, it got me what I wanted!

Nevertheless, I didn't get to use Swedish as much as I wanted, and I wasn't as persistent as I might have been, especially if Fiancé and I were both ordering and he used English.  The reason is that, as it often does, it felt highly uncomfortable using Swedish in such contexts, as it did when first learning Icelandic.  I think I finally put my finger on why:  In Sweden, when someone has offered to use English, and you switch to Swedish, you are both making an obvious effort to change and asking them to do the same.  After you make this sort of implicit request, the last thing you want to do is make them have to switch back the moment they say anything that you don't understand.  Many people might recognise this phase in their language learning; they can mostly ask for what they want, but they don't always understand what they get in return.  In a situation where you don't have another common language, this doesn't feel as silly.  After all, you need to communicate somehow, even if imperfectly, and it's quite nice that you are making the effort to do it in their language.  If the other party speaks your language better than you speak theirs, though, it feels very weird to make them switch back and forth for you.  Consequently, having such a safety net actually increases my anxiety, because now I feel I have to justify my use of Swedish when the whole mess would have just been easier if we had used English.

I can now recall that this is the same anxiety I felt when I first went to use Icelandic; it had to not only be Icelandic, but good Icelandic.  Otherwise, the entire exchange would be a failure that devolved into English, and if I asked them to switch back to Icelandic, I really didn't want to mess up, then.  This pressure, more than any difficulty with the mechanics of the language, probably keeps many a learner from progressing in Nordic languages or others where the native speakers are very, very good at English.  They never reach a point where they feel they can force their bad language skills on the other party, even though this is essential to progress in the language.  I can remember the exact opposite feeling in Italy.  I speak almost no Italian, and when I do, it is usually littered with guesses based on my Spanish.  Nevertheless, I feel far less anxiety; the people usually appreciate it, and it is actually necessary in many cases, as the other party's English is no better (or even worse).

Despite this pressure hanging over my head, I had some very fun experiences.  First there were some very patient service people who were willing to be very patient and kind in helping me muddle through in Swedish when the conversation confused me.  This was especially true for the first woman I spoke to.  I wasn't "planning" on speaking Swedish when I ordered dinner for Fiancé and myself, but she started in Swedish and I just thought, "Screw it".  And screw it, I did. And  when she said the price, I had no idea, and just handed her all my money in a clump. Without even a hint of amusement, she counted it out for me, saying the numbers slowly so I knew what she said and what they all were.  If I ever go back to Gamla Stan, I'm bringing her a present.  Second, there were two older people who ran some shops and spoke minimal English, meaning they enjoyed having me speak Swedish (one of them didn't know what a reading lamp was in English, and my useless explanation, translated meaning "it's something that one uses to read...", was accompanied by Fiancé making a pinching gesture to simulate the clip, and it turns out the word was simply boklampa).

The small practice I did have, along with hearing Swedish all around me (i.e. eavesdropping), gave me a huge boost up.  I understood a lot more and spoke much more confidently at the end of my week than at the beginning.  It also helped seeing all signs, hearing all announcements, etc, in the language.  I strongly believe that the brain absorbs a lot more of the language from such an environment than we assume, especially in really developing an ear for the phonology of a language.  It has also left me with a stronger resolve to improve my Swedish, and helps me see the light at the end of Awkward Tunnel (which is a term I will now use to describe the period when you want to use the language but can't always understand responses).  It may come as no surprise to many people, but I highly recommend to anyone learning a language that they subject themselves to such immersive situations as much as possible.  They can be painful, but they are also extremely rewarding.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

A small fraction of what you wanted to know about Icelandic verbs: The Present Tense Part I

Recently, my friend Nick, who is learning Icelandic, started asking me a bunch of questions about verbs, and it turns out he has never been given a proper treatment of them.  I offered to write a small bit about them for him, and then realised that it might be of interest of some of my readers.  I hope that native Icelanders are tickled by the lengths we outlanders go to when learning their language.  Now, let us begin:

Depending on who is doing the talking, Icelandic verbs can be divided up into 5, 6, or even 7 (I think?) groups for their present tense formation.  As my most reliable grammar references these days is Íslenska fyrir útlendinga*, I shall be grouping verbs as they do. Note, however, that the groupings are all shuffled around when we talk about the past tense, where verbs are divided into weak and strong.  

The easiest groups to conjugate are groups 1-4, and they also contain the vast, vast majority of verbs, so we'll start there.  First, recall (or learn, if this is your first time 'round) that Icelandic infinitives usually end in -a (e.g. tala - to speak) or  (e.g. sjá - to see).  Some verbs also end in -ja, where the j is also sometimes treated as part of the ending.  (A rather common exception to this is the verb þvo - to wash, which we will not be dealing with today!) These groups are distinguished by how they form their 1st person singular, so if you remember the 1st person singular of these verbs, you know how to conjugate the entire present tense (and, as we will reveal later, this gives you some hints about the past tense).

We'll start conjugating the singular forms.  This may seem weird, but there is a method to my madness.

Group 1 verbs are those that end in -a where this is also a part of the stem of the verb.  This means that, unlike other groups, the -a is not simply an ending used for the infinitive; it is carried through in many conjugated forms.  Such verbs can be identified by the fact that their 1st person singular form is the same as the infinitive, for example the verb tala - to speak becomes ég tala - I speak.  In the 2nd and 3rd person, an -r is added to the end:


Group 2 verbs drop the -a in their infinitive add an -i to the stem to form the 1st person singular, (e.g. heyra - to hear, ég heyri - I hear).  These verbs get -ir in the 2nd and 3rd person endings:


Not too bad, right? Next, we come to the slightly difficult groups, 3 and 4 (don't worry, you can still handle them).  They form their verbs similarly, and many people treat them as the same group (I probably would in the absence of my trusty grammar bible). An example of a group 3 verb is telja - to count.  This is one of those aformentioned -ja verbs, and the entire -ja disappears in the singular conjugations.  In fact, many of the -ja verbs belong to this group. If you see a -ja verb you don't know, this would be the group to guess (though this is by no means a hard and fast rule, byrja - to begin is a group 1 verb, for example).  (This is not to say that all verbs in this group end in -ja, as there are plenty that do not and simply drop their -a in conjugation). The 1st person singular is simply the stem of the verb with no ending, so telja becomes ég tel - I count.  The 2nd and 3rd parts get the ending -ur


Group 4 verbs are formed with exactly the same endings.  The only differences is that the vowels of their stems change according to the i-shift, called i-hljóðvarp or B-víxl in Icelandic.  What is the i-shift, you may ask?  The i-shift is one of two vowel changes that permeate Icelandic conjugation and declension.  Its details will be the subject of an upcoming post.  For now, it suffices that, as you must learn the 1st person singular along with a verb, note if there is a vowel change.  As an example, take the ubquitious verb taka, to take.  It becomes ég tek - I take.  The vowel shift carries through to the 2nd and 3rd person singular, but the endings are the same as group 3


Note that the split between group 3 and 4 is particularly artificial.  They have the exact same conjugation patterns, but group 3 verbs are those that just happen to have a stem vowel that is unaffected by the i-shift, whereas that is ALL that group 4 contains.  Therefore, you will never encounter a group 3/4 verb that could take the i-shift but doesn't, and can happily treat them as one group, if you wish.

If the situation seems a bit complicated for conjugating the singular forms, take heart! The plural forms are the same for all verbs in the present tense, including the more troublesome verbs that we have no yet discussed.  Group 1 verbs drop the final -a of their stem, and then all verbs get -um in the 1st person, -ið in the 2nd person, and -a in the 3rd person (that's right, the 3rd person plural is always the same as the infinitive).


Okay, so you might have noticed that there's some strange stuff going on.

First, if you aren't familiar with the u-shift, tölum probably looks very strange to you.  Remember how I said that the i-shift was one of TWO vowel shifts?  Well, the u-shift is the other one (u-hljóðvarp or A-víxl in Icelandic).  It is much simpler, because it only affects one vowel: a.  If an ending starts with a u (as -um does), and the preceding vowel starts with an a, it becomes ö if it is the stressed syllable, or u if it is unstressed.  And why tökum? The i-shift only affects the singular conjugation of taka.  So in the 1st person plural, it would be *takum, but because of the u-shift, it becomes tökum.  This can also affect a chain of  a's. For example, the past tense of tala is ég talaði, but við töluðum.  The first a, which is stressed, becomes an ö, but the second a becomes u.  Do not stress about the formation of the verb, the important thing to get is the vowel shift.  Note that this only affects an a that is in a syllable next to the ending that starts with u or another u-shifted a.  The presence of any other vowel will break the chain. Want an example of this? I can't bloody find or think of one, so if someone has one, please share =p  The u-shift applies not only to verb conjugation but declension as well, and I will cover it more fully in a separate post.

The second thing that you might have noticed is that the j came back for some verbs ending in a.  It does that in the plural.  The only exception is that you never insert a j between g or k and i  (e.g. syngja (to sing) - við syngjum, but þið syngið). The reason for this delves deeper into phonetics than you want to go after you've just learned all this about Icelandic verbs.

That's all for now.  I will cover the remaining groups of verbs in another post.  For now, get conjugating, ask questions in the comments, etc.

*The example verbs for groups 2, and 3 are taken from Part II, Chapter 1 of Íslenska fyrir útlendinga.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011


I've changed the font for post text in order to try and keep the web page feel the same but make it more readable. Note that I am not a web designer and quite crappy at such æsthetic considerations, so you best say something if you want it changed =) I don't do anything that I can't do with Blogger's point-and-click interface because, despite having the technical expertise to do so, giving myself the ability to change more will just let me make it even uglier.

So, use this blogpost to complain/suggest in the comments, but it's time limited to a week before you have to live with what you get ;) If it is still intolerable at the end, I suggest you read the blog through the RSS feed, in which I will syndicate whole blog posts, not just snippets.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

A verb that is weak in Icelandic but strong in English

Thank you to Olof for supplying me with a verb that is weak in Icelandic but strong in English.  In English, “write” has the past tenses “wrote” and “written”.  The cognate verb in Icelandic is “rita”.  In Modern Icelandic, “rita” has been displaced by “skrifa”, a loanword from Latin, in many of the instances where we would use “write”, although it still carries this meaning as well as many others, especially in compounds.  Its conjugation is very regular: rita - ritaði - rituðum- ritað.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Some help with “hólpinn”

Yesterday, I came across the word “hólpinn” in Icelandic for the first time (that I recall). Tragically, the word came up because people were tweeting about the attacks in Norway yesterday. Fortunately, this word means “safe, secure”, and it was used in a positive context.

Looking at “hólpinn”, it looks a lot like the past participle of a strong verb, having the -inn ending, and also declining as one (note that “-in” is treated as part of the stem, and the masc. sg. acc. matches the nom.):


the question then remains, which verb? 

The clue, for me, lay in the verb “to help”, in English.  If I asked you to give the past tense forms of “to help”, you would hopefully respond with “helped” for the simple past (e.g. I helped yesterday) and also for the past participle (e.g. I have helped before).  This is because “to help” is a weak verb in English.  This was not always the case, however.  At one point, “to help” was a strong verb with the past tense “holp” and past participle “holpen” (i.e. I help today, I holp yesterday, I have holpen before). The “-en” ending on strong verbs (e.g. bitten, fallen) is cognate to the “-inn” ending in Icelandic.  Looking at the dictionary entry for “hólpinn”, we can see that it mysteriously points to “hjálpa”, despite the fact that the past participle of “hjálpa” is now “hjálpað”.  At some point in the past, “hjálpa” changed from a strong verb to a weak one, but the past participle stuck around, perhaps because it had this extra meaning that wasn't necessarily attached to the verb itself (this is just my guess, though).

This is a common trend in Germanic languages that can be observed by comparing the inventory of strong verbs across them and seeing that most languages have a weak verb that corresponds with a strong one in another language.  Icelandic, as a more conservative language, has more strong verbs than English, although Icelandic's set of strong verbs does not necessarily contain all of those still strong in English. (I wracked my brain to come up with an example of this and couldn't find one, though I recall that such do exist.  Anyone want to help me out?)