Non-binary pronouns in Icelandic.

Posted on 26. Feb, 2015 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs, Icelandic grammar

Icelandic grammar offers a gender neutral option for personal pronouns. Does that therefore mean that referring to non-binary people is easy and straight-forward?

Alas, no. Icelandic gender structure is very strict and merciless and the local non-binary folk have had to give this matter a great deal of thought. When the whole world of Icelandic language seems split into hann (M), hún (F) and það (N) it’s understandable if you’d think the neuter would work where the other two don’t, but that’s really not the case.

Who is non-binary?

Being non-binary simply means you don’t fall under male or female gender exactly. A non-binary person may be intersex with no strong preference to either one gender, agender, genderfluid or one of many other possibilities (link). Non-binary people are rare but they do exist up here as well so on an occasion you may have to use some other pronoun than hann or hún.


The existing neuter pronoun is very deceiving because you see it sometimes used for humans. Neuter words such as barn, -ið (= child) and fólk, -ið (= people) would have a foreigner think that the use of það would be much more flexible than the it-pronoun of English. It’s partially true – certainly calling any person an “it” rings badly in English while Icelanders ok it for those aforementioned cases – but when it comes to individuals the pronoun það should only be used if the person requests it of you. Never, ever assume that it’s a safe pronoun because it’s actually everything but.

Referring to a singular person as það will definitely raise eyebrows. The meaning that you’re getting across by using it is that you’re diminishing the person in question into some kind of a lifeless object, an absolute non-person, quite on par with calling someone an “it”. Það only works with the few already neuter human-referring words. If it helps you can think of the word fólk referring to a group/a people (even though the group is obviously made of human beings).

The rule of using barn is very blurry. The general guideline is that much like fólk, börn, -in (= children) is often used for a group of them. Barn, -ið is typically used when you know a child is involved in some topic but you don’t actually know the child in question very well. When your friend has a baby you’d use barn at least until name-giving. When you’re talking of an associate’s child you’ll be using barn as well. When you know the child in question or have some kind of connection with said child you’re far more likely to use their name rather than barn. It’s never wrong to use the word barn, however, so the rule is more of a guideline than an actual rule.

Outside of the grammatical use of það one should never, ever treat it as if it were a safe non-gender noun. The plural forms þau / þau / þeim / þeirra are totally fine though.

What to use instead?

With the lack of a suitable pronoun Icelanders had to come up with suggestions for a new one. The most popular ones are hán, and hín and they decline thus:

Hán / hán / háni / háns
Hé / hé / hé / hés
Hín / hín / híni / híns

However, for Icelanders this is only the start of their troubles. When the grand majority of the language declines in genders, how will you ever add an adjective to a non-gender pronoun? The answer is not as simple as just using neuter forms because like mentioned, they may bring along the idea of a lifeless object, so the topic is still under discussion.

All languages change with time and the decisions regarding non-gender pronouns and how the language should work with them is best left for those that it touches the most. Meanwhile we just have to wait and see how this will affect Icelandic and follow the newest developments. For a language learner all you need to know is that if someone asks you to use a non-gender pronoun it’s within the most basic rules of politeness to do so. As for the rest of the language, try your best but don’t panic: any mistakes with adjectives are very likely forgiven on the spot. Icelandic learners confuse gender declension all the time anyway so unless you’re really making a point of being rude no offense is taken.

More about the topic in Icelandic

Hán – nýtt persónunafn? (link)
Passar ekki inn í hefðbundnar kynjaskilgreiningar. (link)
Minningardagur intersexfólks. (link)
Hin þráláta kynjaskipting. (link)

Buns, explosions and ash.

Posted on 18. Feb, 2015 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs

The SO’s mother makes some of the best bolla in town!

There are three days in February that are far more important than Valentine’s Day, at least if Icelanders are asked: the Bun Day, the Explosion Day and the Ash Day (also known as Ash Wednesday but with some Iceland-specific traditions and nowadays almost no religious meaning). Originally they were the days right before the Lent and although Icelanders have long since left out the fasting part, the habit of eating certain foods on these days in celebration of them remains.

Sandholt is a close second. They sometimes make smaller bolla just so you can try many different fillings!

Bolludagur , the Bun Day

The first one of the three is named after a seasonal treat that’s typically only available for a few days before and of course on the day itself: the vatndeigsbolla, filled buns. They can be filled with cream, fruit, berries, jam etc. and have a chocolate topping – or maybe caramel or royal icing, if that’s what you prefer.

Children prepare for the day by making colourful bolluvendir, decorated paper sticks, with which they’ll try to beat their parents – you read that right – while chanting “Bolla! Bolla!” If you manage to do this your parents are required to give you a bolla, or one for each hit you successfully land on them. In the past children tried to sneak upon their parents early in the morning while they were still asleep and defenseless, thus guaranteeing victory.

Soups of all kinds were a staple food in days of old, especially since ingredients such as salted meat and dry peas could be stored for a long time. This soup is from the Viking Festival though – alas, I devoured mine so fast this year I forgot to take a photo!

Sprengidagur, the Explosion Day

Although the name would have you believe it, no fireworks or other kind of actual explosions happen on this day. Instead you’re supposed to eat until you explode! The treat of the day is saltkjöt og baunir, yellow pea soup with salted meat. It can take hours to make which is why people nowadays rarely cook it on other times than the Sprengidagur. In the past however yellow pea soup with salted meat was quite an everyday dish.

The recipe for the pea soup may vary a little from family to family, but besides the peas and salted meat, potatoes, rutabaga and carrots are often added to the soup. Many other countries have similar types of soup for this day but whereas the typical pea soup has pork in it Icelanders use lamb instead. By the way, the Icelandic version of “Shave and a haircut, two bits” goes “Saltkjöt og baunir, túkall” (= salted meat and peas/beans, a two kronur coin).


On a candy hunt at the shopping centre Mjódd. Sometimes parents tag along and may even help drive the children from place to place.

Öskudagur, Ash Day

The most showy of all the days is the Icelandic Ash Wednesday. In the past people made small, decorated pouches for ash and tried to pin them onto each other’s coats but nowadays I haven’t seen anyone actually do it. Children still make the pouches though, you can see a few examples here.

Besides the ash pouches, Ash Day is a day for children to dress up in costumes! It’s a bit like Halloween, only the Icelandic version of it. Children will dress up and go from store to store singing songs and receiving candy from the shop owners. If you’re walking downtown or even in the suburbs you won’t miss the groups of children. The Icelandic flavour in this is that they indeed don’t make house calls – it’s businesses that they’re after.

It’s always a joyous occasion so naturally it makes the news. Here‘s a collection of the best costumes people have sent to Visir and here are the two daughters of Helgi Hjörvar, a politician, one dressed as Tauriel and the other one as Helgi himself. :D


Looking at me? by Hafsteinn Robertsson at

And now – the weather

This picture probably says it all, Iceland is dangerously windy in February. The jeep belongs to Björgunarsveitinn, the Icelandic voluntary rescue unit. Luckily no one was injured in the accident.

“Voru þeir í óveðursútkalli þegar jeppinn bókstaflega fauk út af veginum en mikið hvassviðri var á þessum slóðum í gærkvöldi.”

Lit. transl.:     [were     they     on     bad weather call     when     the jeep     literally     blew     out     of     the road     because     big     wind weather     was     at     this     area     in     last evening]

“They were called out on a matter caused by bad weather when the jeep literally blew off the road because of the strong winds that were around this area in the previous evening.”

I like using this sentence as a quick, bite-size Icelandic lecture on the word en: it usually translates as “but” but it can also be used in this way to link two sentences together, and is then usually translated as “because”.

How to romance a viking.

Posted on 11. Feb, 2015 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs, Icelandic history


Kerið couple by big-ashb at

You know what day is just around the corner, so let’s get prepared with some relevant vocabulary!

The important days

Valentínusardagur = Valentine’s Day. The tradition caught on in Iceland perhaps a little earlier than the rest of the Nordics, but since the country was occupied by the USA since the WW2 it may not be too surprising. People do take note of the day and couples sometimes plan something romantic for it, but other than that it does not seem to be such a big deal. Maybe it’s because Iceland already has other, more Icelandic days that have a romantic tone to them, one for men and one for women. These would be:

Bóndadagur = Farmer’s/Master’s Day, which dates back to the 1600’s and is still celebrated to this day as a day when women treat their husbands and boyfriends to something extra nice. It’s usually on the first day of the month Þorri. There were also other traditions tied to this day, such as the master of the house going outside in the morning wearing nothing but a shirt, putting one leg in trousers but letting the other drag on the ground and so hopping around his house on one foot.

Konudagur = Woman’s Day, dates back to at least the 1800’s, likewise still celebrated every year. This was a day when it was the wife’s turn to be celebrated, and it takes place on the first Sunday of the month Góa. You can read about Þorri, Góa and the rest of the old Nordic calendar here.


On the Skógar-Þórsmörk trail by Richard P J Lambert at

Darling (when describing the darling to a third person)

Icelandic is a funny language in that there are words for the SO that would never be used at them, only when talking about them to someone else.

Eiginmaður/eiginkona = Husband/wife. Often shortened to maður and kona, and in these short forms even couples that are only dating may sometimes use them.

Kærasti, -nn = Darling, loved one, male form. Is usually translated simply as boyfriend.

Kærasta, -n = Darling, loved one, female form. Typically translated as girlfriend. Both of these words hint that you’re dating but not yet married, although overlap happens a lot and I’ve heard people use these words about their spouses as well on occasion. You would not use either of them to address your SO, that’d sound a bit like “oh lover of mine”.

Ástvinur = Lit. transl. “love friend”, means darling/beloved.


Geyser with lovers by Mei Burgin at

Darling, when addressing them

Sæti/sæta = Sweetie, cutie. First one’s for the men, the second one’s for the women.

Elskan, elskan mín, also ástin/ástin mín = My love, my darling. Mín-ending adds some weight to the word, but it can also be used to berate someone and can even sound patronizing. If someone addresses me as Hulda mín only the tone of the voice will tell whether or not I’m actually in deep trouble…

By the way, despite the feminine pronoun at the end these can be used for men too. The words elskan and ástin are feminine, which is why they get the feminine pronoun, but the usage is not only limited to women.

Krútt/krúttið mitt = Sweetie/cutie. A rare gender neutral endearment that’s perfectly fine to use for whoever.

Dúlla/dúllan mín = Sweetie as a possible non-romantic option, girls often refer to their friends like this. You can add some extra oomph to any of these by using “æ” in front of an endearment by the way, thus “Æ, dúllan mín!” (= Oh, sweetie!) Elsku is another option: “Elsku dúllan mín!” (= My dear sweetie!)


Just Married by Helgi Halldórsson at

All you need is love

Ást = love. However, I love you in Icelandic is Ég elska þig and here lies a danger: never use a noun as a verb, because if you try to say ég ást þig you’re actually saying “I (you) ate you”. It makes little sense but sounds a bit more cannibalistic than romantic. :D

Pykja vænt um = To love someone, although it can be used for non-romantic love as well. Important: þykja demands a þágufall in front and um wants a þolfall after it, therefore Mér þykir vænt um þig. (= I love you.)

Að unna = To love. Archaic, rarely in use nowadays. Can mean parental, spousal and romantic love (for Icelanders of old these were three different things).

Að elska = To love, tends to mean a very deep kind of love, either romantic or parental.


hulda078Hulda recommends

Naturally there needs to be some relevant music too, so here’s a few of my all-time favourite Icelandic love songs.

Þrek og tár, performed by Erla Þorsteinsdóttir and Haukur Morthens. Lyrics are included in the description field. (link)

Vísur Vatnsenda-Rósu, performed by Björk. Possibly the most famous love-poem of Iceland. (link)

Stóðum tvö í túni, a Medieval love poem that deserves two versions: here performed by Sverrir Guðjónsson and here by Ryan Koons – with a langspíl (= an Icelandic zither).

Þú ert minn súkkulaðiís, by Svanhildur Jakobsdóttir. You’re my chocolate ice cream! :D (link)

Allt fyrir ástina by none other than Páll Óskar himself. (link)