Why I love studying Icelandic

It’s been a long time since I’ve kept up with my previously treasured “Sentence of the Day” or even posted anything to this blog at all. Unsurprisingly, I see that the last posting was right around the date that Hugo was due to be born. Since then, all my time has gone into work or Hugo, or occasional valuable down time with family… but not the blog…

So now, here I am, in an airport on a long layover, waiting for an even longer red-eye flight. After that flight, I and my red eyes will do a lot of driving all day tomorrow (getting the dogs, bringing them to Connecticut, etc.), and then I start teaching on Monday. I am too tired to work, but not tired enough to nap, and too bored to just relax. I’m also feeling inspired from the LSA, and simultaneously sorely missing Hugo. So my solution — I thought I’d write out some of the reasons why studying Icelandic is so awesome. I don’t know how many there will be, but maybe I’ll add some more from time to time. I should note that there should be no implication here that other languages are not interesting, or that Icelandic is unique in these properties. But still — studying Icelandic is endlessly fascinating.

Here it goes…

  1. Lots of case morphology, a rigid word order. Starting with an obvious one: This of course drives a lot of what makes Icelandic so interesting: in many cases, there aren’t a lot of alternative analytical possibilities to consider. The case morphology tells you where something comes from, and the rigid syntax tells you where it ends up. Icelandic doesn’t bend do your theoretical wishes — you must bend to Icelandic!
  2. Three ways of form partitives. And that’s not counting adjunct partitive phrases, like “3 among us.” A phrase like ‘many of the boys’ (in nominative subject position) can be expressed as (1) many.NOM the.boys.NOM (2) many.NOM the boys.GEN or (3) many.NOM “of” the.boys.DAT. And that’s not all there is to it: different quantifiers allow different subsets of these constructions.
  3. Rich case agreement. Not only do you have to keep track of which DPs get which case, but case agreement is everywhere: in predicate adjectives and predicate noun phrases, “as”-type phrases, modifiers of all kinds, etc.
  4. Rich verb agreement, no pro drop. (Although see the next line.) Icelandic has a very rich verbal paradigm. Some verbs take six distinct forms in the present tense, although many verbs have at least one syncretic pair. And generally you get 1st and 3rd person syncretism in the past tense and in the subjunctive. Oh and there is a present and past subjunctive, in addition to the present and past indicative. But in general — there’s a lot of finite verb agreement to keep track of. But none of that lets you off the hook for pronouncing the subject: Icelandic subject pronouns must be pronounced! Except when they aren’t…
  5. Icelandic also has proIt’s not enough that Icelandic is not pro drop… it also has proPro shows up most clearly in the impersonal modal construction, and with pro expletives of weather verbs (maybe) but Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson had a nice argument back in 1993 that pro shows up in conjunction reduction structures. The latter case isn’t discussed as much anymore, but the facts are still pretty convincing.
  6. The subjunctive, and the modal subjunctive. Okay, so I hear that the subjunctive is fading somewhat from colloquial speech. But since it isn’t gone completely… Höskuldur Þráinsson in his dissertation talked about how you have some verbs that select for indicatives, others that select for subjectives, and others that select for a modal like skulu ‘should’, which itself must be in the subjunctive. Some people have suggested that English uses modals to stand in for the way other languages use subjunctives. Icelandic does both.
  7. Two ways of forming ability adjectives. You can say something is ‘unreadable’ but using a kind of stative participle (óles-andi) or by using morphologically complex derivational morphology (óles-an-legur). They seem to have slightly distinct semantics, but the differences are hard to pin down.
  8. Classes of reflexives. In Reuland’s book on binding, he classified Icelandic as the most complex kind of system, with four classes reflexive construction. To look at the paper by Tolli, Einar and Hlíf, even that’s oversimplifying it a bit. All this is not even including -st verbs, which can sometimes be reflexive, or at least reflexive-ish. Speaking of which…
  9. -st verbs. Ahhh -st verbs… what a wonderful love affair we have had.Some people have called them middles, others medio-passives, but I think that they’re wonderful complexity can only be appreciated by calling them -st verbs. I probably shouldn’t get too carried away here, because of how much of my linguistic life I’ve spent studying verbs that end in -st. Still, they seem to deserve several categories…
  10. -st verbs are not passive, except when they are: Generally, -st cannot be used to form a passive. But before you write off Icelandic as irrelevant to your medio-passive research, –st passives actually can productively form passives in modal contexts.
  11. -st verbs can themselves be passivized: so don’t put too much of your middle morphology in voice, because you can turn a verb into an -st verb, and then passivize that verb… as long as your structure conspires to make sure that the passive participle is guaranteed not to try to agree with anything. If it tries, it will fail, and the passive will not be possible.
  12. -st verbs do all the regular things: they can be anticausative, reflexive(ish), reciprocal, etc. That is, it’s your ordinary Indo-European “reflexive verb” morphology… except for all the other ways of actually doing reflexives. (See #8 above.) And it’s not that -st is the inherent reflexive of Icelandic. Nope. Icelandic has it’s own inherent reflexives that take reflexive pronoun objects (which can be accusative, dative, or genitive). But don’t turn away just yet: Icelandic does have plenty of inherent -st verbs.
  13. -st verbs can be productively formed from nouns: one of my favorite ‘functions’ of –st, forming denominal activity verbs. These are often considered quite slangy, but they are really productive.
  14. -st verbs — one last entry. To keep this from becoming a list about -st verbs only, I’ll just say… nominative-accusative -st verbs, deponent -st verbs, figure reflexive -st verbs, control verbs, raising verbs… and on and on.
  15. Stylistic Fronting. What syntactician hasn’t looked at Icelandic and thought about taking a crack at solving SF completely. And yet, we keep learning more, and we keep falling just short of a full picture. SF is the syntactic carrot dangled in front of our eyes, just barely out of reach.
  16. The new impersonal passive: Yes, Icelandic has non-promotional passive type constructions as well. Or maybe they are impersonals, or somewhere in between. Either way, they challenge our understanding of what a passive is, and have forced use to re-examine every diagnostic we use through the largest magnifying glass we can find. Whatever position you take on them, they are fascinating.
  17. Left branch extraction: To a limited degree, but there you have it. Extremely, it is interesting.
  18. Strong NPIs: NPIs that need a little more than non-veridicality for licensing. They act almost like negative concord, except that Icelandic has a whole separate set of negative quantifiers, which do not allow negative concord. So … Icelandic has negative concord and has no negative concord.
  19. NEG/Quantifier-movement: Showing that you can A’-move to the vP edge… or something like that. Lower than CP, for sure. (So A’-movement can’t be defined as movement to the CP area.)
  20. Topicalized negation: Not that negation is the topic, but something allows you to move ekki to the beginning of the clause, and it’s not just Stylistic Fronting. (Although that works too, as long there’s a subject gap, etc.)
  21. Free article, suffixed article. Icelandic has both — with wonderfully intricate factors conditioning the choice. Just go read everything Alexander Pfaff has written in the past 5-10 years and tell me you’re not fascinated. To top it all off, something that looks a whole lot like a free article can be used as demonstrative meaning ‘the other NOUN’. (Yes, I’m aware that there is a distinction in the neuter — but they still look a whole lot a like.) Which reminds me…
  22. The word annar. Which can mean ‘second’ as in ‘first, second, third’. Or it can mean ‘the one’ as in, ‘The one is like this, the other (=hinn, from #21) is like this.’ Or it can mean ‘another’. Or be part of the reciprocal pronoun.
  23. Object drop: Possible in conjunction contexts, but only if the subject is also dropped. I study Icelandic, and (*I) admire.
  24. Universal quantifers: A lot of languages have existential quantifiers which are basically just a special use of a bare wh-word. Icelandic uses it’s bare wh-words as universal quantifiers.
  25. Get-passives: Not as frequent as English, and different in some respects, but there they were, just reminding us that there is a lot left to be discovered in Icelandic.
  26. ECM with a preposition: Constructions like He listened to her sing.
  27. The preposition umWhich has a syntax of its own, in things like hér er um að ræða…
  28. Morphologically complex particles:a particle like ‘in’ takes different forms whether you “go in” (inn), come “from in” (innan), or just “are in” (inni). Same goes for ‘home’, and various other locative particles.
  29. The construction ‘need on you to hold’: Which looks almost exactly like an intermediate step in the Larson et al. derivation of the complements of verbs like ‘need’.
  30. Case connectivity in clefts: So ‘Mary’ can be either nominative (without connectivity) or accusative (with connectivity) in a sentences like ‘It was Mary that I saw.’
  31. Three ways of saying ‘have’: Depending on the sense of possession, ‘have’ is either hafa, eiga, or vera með.
  32. Three ways of doing DP-internal possession’: DP-internal possession is no less interesting. Actually more than three ways, if you consider pronominal vs. non-pronominal possessors. But at the very least, you can express possession with a PP, with a genitive + definite-suffixed noun, or with a genitive plus non-definite suffixed noun. Then you have the proprial article for proper names — which is subject to dialect variation — and even dative possessors, as long as the whole thing is embedded inside a PP. Actually, there’s really a lot more than three.
  33. V3 orders: Icelandic is strictly V2 — so don’t leave it out of conversations of V2 languages. Except when it’s not — so don’t leave it out of discussions of non-V2 order either.
  34. Contrastive left dislocation: How in the world do you get case connectivity between something that seems clearly dislocated, outside of a main clause that has no gap. (Resumed by a pronoun.) Dennis Ott has an interesting recent answer… whether it is right or not (it might be), it is interesting.
  35. Progressives: One of the few languages that has a very productive progressive construction.
  36. Progressive passives: Which are non-promotional! So instead of “I am being assisted”, it’s, “Now is been assisting me”.
  37. No VP-topicalization: Why not??
  38. No VP-ellipsis: Why not??
  39. No ‘free datives’: Why not??
  40. Dative-accusative constructions: So Icelandic is not Faroese (at least not yet), but Dat-Acc constructions are starting to make a appearance, as shown by Einar and Hlíf.

Okay — I’m starting to get seriously tired now, and we’ll be boarding soon, so I’m going to stop there. But… I could keep going. :-)