Grammar is Hard: Declensions Are Really, Really Hard.

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.

Because:

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…)

But!

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!)

So:

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.

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11 thoughts on “Grammar is Hard: Declensions Are Really, Really Hard.

  1. haha i found this post after google icelandic grammar for ages after getting my head done in by all this on icelandic online – im exactly where you are !!- does it click eventually? or do you just have to memorise it all……….

    • Hi, Dan!

      Good to hear from you. I wrote this particular post before I had started any formal classes in Icelandic. For me, the concept of declensions made sense, but it didn’t really click until later. And that clicking did involve a lot of memorization and sitting at my kitchen table and drawing out charts of words over and over again. So don’t discount the value of memorizing! One minute, you’re just reciting a list of words and then, later, you find that you’re able to just call the right word forms to you in a short conversation.

      Are you learning Icelandic independently? What made you start studying the language?

      Gangi þér vel!

      • Hmm sounds like ill have to do some charts of my own – yes I’m learning from the Icelandic online website and teach yourself books – my partner is Icelandic so I wanted to pick some of it up

  2. For native English speakers learning languages with sumerous cases and declentions, there’s no avoiding memorizing declernsion patterns; sounds like yo’re on the right path. You can take cheer that Icelandic only has 4 cases: Russian has 6, Czech 7, Hungaerian and Finninsh – somethng like 16! Having started with the same course out of intrigue in Icelandic and a desire to visit the country, for me the trickiest aspect seems to be pronunciation. However much you attempt to learn the patterns, sense for the these patterns can only come with much practice speaking and listening. At least that’s probably how it would be for me. I think the language sounds very pleasant. It;s fascinating seeing syntax in Icelandic, no longer posssible in the other North Germanic languages, which resembles Middle English. Good luck

    • Hi there, Tom—you’re right that it is all about memorizing patterns, and I am quite glad to only be dealing with the four cases, thank you very much. I wrote this post well before I arrived to study in Iceland a bit over a year and a half ago. I’m happy to say that a lot has changed in the meantime, and the declensions and patterns are making a lot more sense now!

  3. Hello! First off, I wanted to let you know that I admire what you are doing, translating Icelandic literature.

    Secondly, I know this is an old post, but figured it would be the appropriate one to post this question in. Where would I be able to find a website that explains the grammar of Icelandic? Or is there a book that you could possibly refer to me?

    Thanks!

    • Hi, Jimmy-

      Thanks for your comments and my apologies for the very late reply! This semester has been quite a busy one for me, so my blogging has been far more sporadic. If you are still looking for good resources to explain Icelandic grammar, I have two suggestions: the Icelandic Online website that is run by the University of Iceland and one of the textbooks that we use in the introductory year of Icelandic study here. Icelandic Online is a (free) language-learning program that starts with the very basics and then works into more complicated grammar and language study. I believe there are six levels right now. I think this program works best if you are using books or taking classes at the same time, though, since it doesn’t involve a lot of in-depth explanation—just teaches you in a quazi-immersion style. Here’s the website: http://icelandiconline.is/index.html

      Here’s the textbook I mentioned, too: http://www.nordicstore.net/icelandic_books_learning_icelandic_dictionaries_1156_ctg.htm

      It isn’t super advanced, but it’s great for fundamentals, and it has a good grammar section in the back that is really useful.

      I hope this helps!

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