Jim Wood

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. :-)

Sentence of the day

Today’s SOTD was uttered by my wife last night, while discussing the strange job of being a reality show host. (In this case, we were watching “So you think you can dance.”)

And you have to be generally likable by the public.

Here, we see a by-phrase that corresponds to the subject of a sentence like The public has to like you.

The question of whether true, passive-like byphrases are possible with -able adjectives is an old and interesting one. While it is clear that by-phrases do occur with -able adjectives, the question has been whether these really correspond to the thematic subject of the underlying verb, or whether it is just a general prepositional phrase that introduces agents. Einar Freyr Sigurðsson and I have, in recent work on Icelandic, taken the position that these are by-phrases of the passive sort, where the interpretation of the by-phrase depends on the underlying verb, not on the preposition by

One argument in favor of this, raised for nominalizations by Benjamin Bruening in his recent Syntax paper, is that the by-phrase is not necessarily an agent. Today’s SOTD is an example of this. Here, the by-phrase corresponds to an experiencer of the exact sort that we find as the subject in sentences with the active verb like

Sentence of the Day




Today’s SOTD comes from Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson, who noticed the following advertisement for a music festival. 


Here, we see an example of the -st morpheme occurring outside the weak imperative subject. That is, it says fylg-du-st rather than fylg-st-u. The festival is in Sauðárkrókur, in the north of Iceland, and Eiríkur says he remembers noticing this positioning of -st when he moved there in 1967. He also says he finds it a bit in other places in the north, such as Akureyri. I did some googling, and found one more example, coming from a whale-watching website in Húsavík (also on the northern coast, but further east).

Fylgdust með okkur á fréttasíðu okkar eða finndu okkur á Facebook, Twitter, YouTube og Flickr. (source)

So I’ll say that today’s SOTD is any sentence positioning -st to the right of an imperative weak subject pronoun. Thanks to Eiríkur and Einar for discussion! 

Sentence of the Day

Today’s SOTD comes from Tricia Irwin, who noticed on her old stove top coffee maker, the following sentence:

Coffeemaker introduces oneself.

Not a grammatical sentence, but it’s fun to think about how/why. 


Sentence of the day

“Alright, let’s everybody calm down.”

– A nice hortative with an overt subject, said by my mother (while telling a story)

Icelandic Imposter

Einar Freyr Sigurðsson found a nice example of a this reporter-type imposter in Icelandic:

Gestir skiptust í tvo hópa eftir því hvort þeim þótti þetta frábært eða glatað, og þessi gagnrýnandi er í fyrrnefnda hópnum. (source)
‘The guests were divided into two groups depending on whether they considered this great or not, and this critic is in the former group.’

Thanks for the example, Einar!

Sentence of the Day

Today’s SOTD is one that was pointed out to me by Larry Horn. I was talking with him about the There’s no VERBing this construction, which has an “ability” meaning like One is not able to VERB this. He mentioned that one test for “ability” semantics is whether the verb fathom can be used. For example, you can say I can’t fathom this but it is unacceptable to say *I didn’t fathom this when I was a kid

By my judgment (and his), fathom is possible in the There’s no VERBing this construction. We both searched Google for attested examples of There’s no fathoming X and found many. Larry’s favorite, and I’m inclined to agree, is:

Though they seem independent, aloof and unpredictable, cats are creatures of habit. And yet, there’s no fathoming a cat. Why would one choose a small, cramped box, sink or cubbyhole over a more open space with all its possibilities? (source)

I’ll (somewhat reluctantly) admit that this isn’t the most natural instance of There’s no fathoming X that I found. But there is just something so wonderfully amusing about this example that I couldn’t help myself. Thanks Larry!

Sentence of the Day

I’ve been meaning to post this for a little while now. A simply wonderful, wonderful quote from Moonrise Kingdom. Sam sees that Suzy has bandaging wrapped around her hand, and says:

Sam: What happened to your hand?
Suzy: I got hit in the mirror.
Sam: Really? How did that happen?
Suzy: I lost my temper at myself.



There’s no analyzing this construction.

The construction in the title seems to be an impersonal(-like) or passive(-like) construction which might resemble, to some extent, a middle(-like) Icelandic construction with -andi participles. The meaning is similar to This construction is unanalyzable. That is, there is some “ability” modality in there somewhere. And it seems to require a polarity marker, which is usually negative:

1) There’s no analyzing this. ‘One can’t analyze this’

2) * There’s analyzing this. intended: ‘One can analyze this’

But the polarity marker can be contrastive. The underlined portion of the following example, found online, has the contrastive/emphatic polarity marked with too and is acceptable to me:

3) A: There is no denying that the writers seem to have taken two or three steps backwards, rather than continuing where they left off at the GF.

B: There is too denying it! Them taking a break from the shipping for an episode doesn’t mean that they’ve taken a step backwards, it means that they’re taking a pause.

For me, I think affirmatives are possible with contrastive focus on the copula, as in I disagree; I think that there most certainly is denying the usefulness of that research program.

Finally, even though I don’t accept affirmative examples, I think I can say something like There’s no analyzing this construction… or is there? Tags also seem fine, as in There’s just no talking to him, is there?, while simple yes/no questions are unacceptable, as in *What’s John like? Is there talking to him?

Even more interestingly, there are examples with a by-phrase; though this might be marginal in many cases, it is acceptable at least with exceptives, as in the example in (4) (also found online, and acceptable to me):

4) There is no denying Zardari’s stellar behavior and performance, not even by his critics and naysayers.

Sentence of the Day

The title of a Simpsons episode, “The spy who learned me.” 

Sentence of the Day

Today’s SOTD is another sporadic advancement construction, this time with a coordinated infinitive complement:

While the past decade has seen the indie kids go dance and the dance kids go indie, Doves’ 1998 formation was ironically predicated on an abrupt, 180-degree break from their former house-production guise as Sub Sub, absconding rhythmic propulsion for a space-rock sway. (source)


Sentence of the Day

A sporadic advancement construction, with a passive small clause complement:

“a poll organised by Blender and MTV2 saw Yorke voted the 18th greatest singer of all time,”


Sentence of the day

Today’s sentence of the day was uttered by my aunt, who was talking with my mother and my other aunt about a time when they were looking for a grocery store while traveling:

There was no grocery store to be had.

This one wins just for being a great example of passivized have, and for being related to those fascinating accusative subject constructions in Icelandic:

Þar   er enga orkugjafa               að hafa
there is no    energy.source.acc to have

nema  brennisteinsvetnið. (source)
except hydrogen.sulfide

‘There is no energy source to be had there other than hydrogen sulfide.’

And a good time was had by all. :-)

Sentence of the day

The sentence of the day is the following, found at the database at http://mim.hi.is:

Það er nú    eitt  af því  góða  við      jólin           að
that is now one of the good  about Christmas that

þá    er  daginn            farinn         að   lengja      aftur : )
then is  day.the.m.acc gone.m.acc to   lengthen again

‘Now that’s one good thing about Christmas, then the day starts getting longer again.’

This one wins today’s competition not only for being seasonally appropriate, but for showing the unambiguous subject position of the accusative (between the auxiliary and the participle), for being one of those lovely weather/fate-type accusatives, and, most importantly, for conditioning gender/case agreement on the participle, like a nice and well-behaved structural accusative (cf. discussion of variation in early work by Avery Andrews, if I remember right). For all these reasons, this is the sentence of the day.

Un- and by-phrases

My brother yesterday said something which was a nice example of a by-phrase with an un- prefixed verbal participle. (He was just talking, not making any point about language or anything like that.)

This area was basically untouched by the hurricane

Un- can look pretty “clausal” sometimes.