I’ve been working my way through the Icelandic Online program offered by the University of Iceland so that when I arrive in September I can pass a test that shows that I know enough Icelandic to be taught Icelandic (at a BA level). I’ve been particularly poring over declension, or “the inflection of nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and articles to indicate number (at least singular and plural), case (nominative or subjective, genitive or possessive, etc.), and gender.” [Thanks again, Wikipedia.] If that doesn’t make sense to you–and it didn’t to me until I started learning all this–it basically means that you change the ending of pretty much everything in a sentence (nouns, verbs, pronouns, adjectives) so that they match (each other) based on a bunch of contextual factors, which I’m not even going to try to summarize because it would take a really long time and I’m still figuring this all out myself.
I studied Spanish in high school and college, which doesn’t have declensions, and although English does actually use them (minus the gender bit), they aren’t learned as such, so these are without a doubt the hardest linguistic patterns/grammatical rules that I have ever tried to learn, let alone teach myself.
But no matter–things were going okay. I’ve stared taking note and trying to memorize the gender of nouns as I learn them and also learning what case (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive) each verb “governs.” There are different conjugation patterns for each set of options, so I’ve taken copious notes (with charts! lots of charts!), which I refer to throughout each of my grammar exercises. I haven’t managed to memorize all the patterns yet, but I’ve been getting the gist.
And then, the ringer. Yesterday, my Icelandic lesson introduced declensions for nouns that have a definite article attached (meaning: THE house vs. just any (‘a’) house). And suddenly, this all seemed about a million times harder.
Suppose you want to say, “I see a tree” in Icelandic. In order to do so, you have to know the following things (besides, of course, the basic vocabulary and conjugation pattern for the verb):
- What case the verb “see” (sjá) ‘governs’ (accusative)
- What the first person, present tense conjugation of “see” is (sé)
- What gender the noun “tree” (hús) is (neuter)
- Whether “tree” is a strong or a weak noun (this is a whole separate can of worms, just trust me)
(almost all neuters are strong nouns, so that’s a bit easier–whoot!)
- What the conjugation ending is for strong, neuter, singular nouns in the accusative (no additional ending in this case–whoot x2!)
Got that? Okay, so now that we’ve done all our cross-checking:
I see a house = Ég sé hús.
(I’m almost positive that’s right…)
In order to now say “I see THE house,” you need to know all of the above, plus:
- What the definite article for neuter nouns is (-ið)
- How to attach that to your singular neuter noun (hús-ið)
- Whether there is an ending change for the case that you are in(in this case, no! hurray!)
I see the house = Ég sé húsið.
But…Just for fun, let’s say you want to say “I forget the house,” which is maybe a strange thing to say out of context, but “forget” is always used in these Icelandic grammar examples because it is a verb the governs the dative case. So in this new example, you go through all of the above, but at the last minute, there’s a bit of a curve ball because there is, in fact, a different ending for neuter singular nouns with definite articles in the dative case. So “húsið” becomes “húsinu.”
I forget the house = Ég gleymi húsinu.
And you have to do all that, every single time you want to say a basic sentence. (I am exhausted.)
There must be a point at which this clicks, and I’m hoping that I’ll just get a sense of how things should sound, even if I can’t memorize all the declension charts. That happens for me in English, after all. I can’t articulate the grammatical rule that explains why “I see he” isn’t correct and “I see him” is–I just know that one of those sounds right.
But whoa. Here’s hoping.