The Icelandic Struggle : An Adventure in Weak and Strong Adjective Endings

An Icelandic puffin. Image from freeimages.com

The struggle is real. Icelandic adjective endings can be a real pain.

Granted, declining adjectives is not an exclusively Icelandic trial. Adjectives that decline for gender, number – and, where applicable, case – crop up in many languages. French, Italian, Russian and Spanish learners will have to tackle their variable nature at some point.

But strongly declined Germanic languages – I’m looking at you, German and Icelandic – add a very special complication to the mix:

There are two sets of adjective endings when used attributively in noun phrases like “good food” or “the brown dog”: strong and weak.

So why two sets? Well, the strong set is used when there is no other determiner with the noun, like the. These strong declensions are more marked according to gender, number and case. Conversely, the weak set comes into play when a word like the or this is present in the noun phrase. These are more generalised and show less variation than the strong set. Compare the German:

Strong gutes Essen good food
Weak das gute Essen the good food

That -s on the strong version of that adjective? It is the typical neuter nominative -s ending. In the weak version, the article das already shows that, so the adjective no longer needs to.

I always remember the way my A-level German teacher, Mr Wenham, put it. The weak kind is excused from having to reflect the full details about gender, number and case, since the article does all the hard work. A nice explanation from a very nice teacher (you always remember the good ones!).

The Icelandic struggle

The split between weak and strong adjective declensions is something that comes naturally in German now. But I did start learning German when I was just eleven, so that’s over thirty years to get my head around it. (Needless to say, it only really all clicked into place when I started reading more extensively in the language in my twenties.)

On the other hand, Icelandic has been another story. The system itself works in exactly the same way as German, giving us, for example:

Strong góður matur good food
Weak góði maturinn the good food

But for some reason or other, I have trouble with the weak endings in particular. You might expect the opposite, since strong endings are the ones that display all the variation, being excused from carrying all the grammatical markers. But that’s probably why they do stick – they much more obviously fit the specific gender/number/case mix.

Conversely, the weak endings have taken a long time to stick. They seem more abstract, lacking a real hook to memorise each particular flavour and combination.

Here is the full set of them, taken from the excellent Litli málfræðingurinn, the free grammar e-book:

Weak adjective declension in Icelandic.

Weak adjective declension in Icelandic (taken from Litli málfræðingurinn).

Now, as much as I love a good grammatical declension table, this must look boggling to anyone at first glance. So how to break it down and get a grip on each use case?

Pattern spotting

Our first instinct with grammar tables is usually to search for patterns. Instantly, a couple leap out here. The plural weak endings are all -u, for example. Likewise, all the neuter singular ones are -a, which is also helpful. And we can simplify that larger table by just looking at the top section, since the other two are just illustrating different classes of adjective – the endings are the same. That gives us something like this, colour-coded to show common patterns:

Spotting patterns in Icelandic weak adjective endings.

Spotting patterns in Icelandic weak adjective endings.

But as handy as this is, spotting abstract patterns is just that – learning on an abstract level. Great for writing, when you have time to consult your visual memory. Less snappy for speaking. After all, native speakers hardly look up tables of endings in their minds when speaking fluently, so this might not be the best approach for long-term foreign language fluency. As a grammar geek, learning tables by rote has its appeal, but is not always the best route to talking.

Thankfully, there is something even more powerful than abstract pattern spotting. It is the power of learning ready-declined, bite-sized model noun phrases.

Ready-made chunks

Theories of first language acquisition generally focus on infants consuming models of intelligible input. Taking this as a starting point, the temptation might be to start inventing model noun phrases to memorise, like “the big dog”, “the red car” and so on.

This can be helpful, but there is an even better way – to seek out examples from real-life, which will have greater salience, and are therefore more likely to settle swiftly in long-term memory.

We can find these real-world mental anchors all over the place when we move around in the target language world, physically or virtually. Rich sources include place names – famous and everyday – as well as book and film titles. Some of of my mnemonics are cafés and restaurants from previous trips to Iceland, for example. Here are a few:

But wait – no feminine examples? I must admit that I struggled to find any very well-known ones. (There must be some – please share in the comments if you know any!) So what then?

Desperately seeking adjectives

If you flounder when seeking out famous or prêt-à-porter declined snippets, all is not lost. Simply use your grammar and/or teacher to make up your own. But be mindful about it: use phrases that are relevant to your target language world or ambitions. They will be much easier to remember if they relate to your world.

Let’s fill out those feminine noun gaps, then. Enjoy chatting politics? Learn “the best policy” (besta stefnan) as  your model. Music buff? Try “the Icelandic singer” (íslenska söngkonan).

It can also be fun to enlist well-known song titles or lyrics in the fight to memorise endings. Here are a couple you might recognise:

  • Stærsta ástin (The Greatest Love)
  • Græna hurðin (The Green Door)

Pivoting to other cases

So far, so good. But these are all in the nominative case. The next step is to extend these examples to all the other cases to provide a complete set of examples. For instance, pop the preposition frá before them to give you a model for the dative case:

  • frá Hvíta húsinu (from the White House)

Or for the genitive, learn the phrase with vegna (because of):

  • vegna stærstu ástarinnar (because of the greatest love)

For sure, you will have to come up with a fair few examples to work through the full set of endings. But you can approach this gradually, slowly but surely expanding your bank of useful chunks.

Worth the slog

The phrase-model technique is similar to that particular school of Anki use that recommends that we forget individual words, but always learn sentences (see the link for an example of the age-old debate). The argument goes that learning phrases, you have a ready-to-use bank of flowing language, rather than a mental dictionary that still needs a lot of conjugational work after the point of look-up. In fact, the Icelandic noun phrase approach here is a nice bridge between the two – learning discrete chunks of pre-declined model noun phrases that can slot into your speech.

If you are learning Icelandic, I hope these tricks help those endings to stick. And if not, you can take a similar approach to get a grip on your particular language’s twists and turns. Or maybe, just maybe, it might even entice you to dip your toe into Icelandic, too. It is worth the slog!

Of course, the biggest lesson for me in all this is: if you really want to learn those endings, then write a blog article about them!

Richard West-Soley

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