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How To Say No With Authority Posted by on May 31, 2017 in Icelandic grammar

As with any language, Icelandic has its fill of filler words. In English, for example, we have words like none, some, a few, each other, both, neither, and the list goes on. And we have creative ways – in my opinion – of saying no to each other. No, I think we all can agree, is essential. I’d like to be able to say no to chocolate mousse because, frankly, I hate it, or I’d like to express that I gave a lecture and nobody asked me any questions. These are crucial words, to say the least, and today I’d like to look at the usage in Icelandic in greater detail.

You’re probably already familiar with the terms enginn, ekki neinn, and ekki nokkur, but you might not be sure exactly when to use them. Sure, anyone can say, when asked what they did on the weekend, ekki neitt, but the nuance that this word conceals within itself can be difficult to see.

Ekki neinn and ekki nokkur both mean more or less ‘nothing at all’ or ‘no one at all’ depending on the context and how the verb is declined. These two phrases are generally used to imply that one is speaking of a group of two or more. Ekki nokkur is stronger than ekki neinn, though ekki neinn is the more commonly used of the two, and ‘neinn’ declines just like the word ‘einn,’ while ‘nokkur’ declines like a strong adjective.

Neither ekki neinn nor ekki nokkur are generally the subject of the sentence. One might say “Enginn segir mér neitt” –  nobody said anything to me, but one would not say “Ekki neinn segir mér neitt. It is both much cleaner and much more natural to say enginn, but it is nevertheless possible to say something like “Ég talaði ekki við neinn í húsinu,” – I didn’t speak to anyone in the house, which shifts the subject-object dynamic.

You can also shake things up with other negations – the possibilities are expansive. E.g., aldrei (never), varla (hardly), hvergi (nowhere/anywhere), hvorki…né (neither…nor) can be used in conjunction with neinn and nokkur to convey a similar idea in a multitude of contexts. But if you’re going to use those words, remember to lop off ‘ekki’ because that creates a contradiction.

 

Heyrir þú ekki neitt? |    Did you hear anything/nothing? [accu]

Hann les aldrei neinar bækur. |   He never reads any books. [accu]

Þeir sáu hvergi neina krakka. |   They didn’t see the kids anywhere. [accu]

Hann heyrir ekki nokkurt hljóð.|  He didn’t hear a sound. [accu]

Hún talar aldrei við nokkurn mann. |  She never talks to anyone/any person. [accu]

 

And remember to decline according to the case that the verb assigns. The above are all accusative by pure coincidence. If you don’t your mom or your dad, you might say ég sakna hvorki mömmu minnar né pabba míns (although my folks wouldn’t ever want to hear that phrase cross my lips, of course).

If somebody asks you heyrir þú nokkuð? or Ætlar þú að gera nokkuð meira í dag?, they´re generally expecting a negative answer. Nei, ég heyri ekkert (No, I heard nothing) or Jú, ég heyri eitthvert þrusk (On the contrary, I heard a rustling) are the appropriate answers here. Since the expectation is that you’ll answer in the negative, jú will always be used to contradict the question, as opposed to já. It’s jú’s lot in life to be contrary.  (Viltu ekki fara? Jú, ég vil fara.) Jú solves the “does that mean yes-yes or yes-no” problem (don’t you want to go? Yes. Yes-yes or yes-no? Yes-no, I think, I mean, maybe.)

One last point on this one: nokkuð and nokkurt, as well as eitthvað and eitthvert are used differently. In the above example, Hann heyrir ekki nokkurt hljóð, I choose to use nokkurt instead of nokkuð. Both are applicable to the neutral singlar plural, both nominative and accusative. Nokkuð is used as a stand-alone word (Hann heyrir ekki nokkuð), where as nokkurt is used before a noun. Always. [Eitthvað, which is not a negation, is used as a standalone word in the same way, and eitthvert, a form of einhver,  is always used next to a noun.  – but that’s another topic].

Finally, enginn simply means none or nobody. It’s usage is straightforward: Enginn af strákunum er farinn, við hittum engan á leiðinni, ég vil gera ekkert. (Trans: None of the boys are coming; we met nobody on the way here; I want to do nothing – which is more like “I don’t want to do anything”, rather than willful declaration of apathy and resignation).

You can also say “none of the Xs” as enginn af + dative with def. article or as enginn  + genitive with article. Enginn af strákunum vs. enginn strákanna. As you please. MAKE SURE TO HAVE GENDER AGREEMENT HERE. So engin kvenanna and enginn mannanna, e.g.

And just for some additional practice listening and understanding, here’s an insider’s look at a book/poetry reading; who do you understand the best? What do you understand/what don’t you understand? In the poet’s house…

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About the Author:Meg

Hi, I'm Meg! I'm a former-New Yorker-now-Reykjavíkur. I'm here to help you learn Icelandic, the language that I love the most. Me? I'm a former Fulbright scholar, with an MFA from Columbia, and I've published many translations into English from Icelandic and German. I currently study Icelandic, and translate poetry by trade. (If you have questions or comments on my entries, you can write them to me in the comments in either English, German, or Icelandic.)


Comments:

  1. Þórir PP Hólmfríðarson:

    “If you don’t [miss] your mom or your dad, you might say ég sakna hvorki mamma minna né pabba minna”
    I think you missed (hah!) a word there. Added it in [brackets].
    Also, “mamma minna” should be “mömmu minnar”, and “pabba minna” should be “pabba míns”. Unless you meant them both to be in the plural. Which you might have, I don’t know, you could very well be meaning to say “I don’t miss my moms or dads”. But you said “your mom or your dad” so I kinda expected it to be in
    the singular.

    I find the Icelandic word ‘neinn’ to be kind of an interesting word, as it technically means ‘no one / none’. It is basically a negative ‘einn’, like a ‘nei-einn’. I can kinda compare it to ‘kein’ in German actually, as ‘kein’ conjugates just like ‘ein’ (one), but is a negative version of the word.
    In German though, ‘kein’ is widely used as a negative indefinite article (e.g. instead of ‘not a man’, you just say ‘kein Mann’), as the German indefinite article is basically the exact same word as the German ‘one’. But Icelandic doesn’t have an indefinite article, so ‘neinn’ survived in other use: the “ekki neinn”.
    This is really interesting, because this makes ‘ekki neinn’ be the only example of a grammatically correct double negative in Icelandic (like the grammatically correct double negatives in Spanish), i.e. a double negative which is used as a single negative without being considered grammatically wrong. Although ‘neinn’ was originally used by itself to mean ‘no one / none’, it began to be used with ‘ekki’ as a sort of emphasis on the negative. This became then the norm, and now ‘neinn’ is always used with ‘ekki’ as a double negative.
    But the really interesting part about this is that ‘neinn’ is NEVER found in modern Icelandic without a negative, so technically you could say it is a word that has just changed its meaning from ‘none’ to ‘one/something’, making it actually be a proper normal singular negative.

    But anyways, (and sorry for the rambling XP), great post. Really well explained for those unfamiliar with the Icelandic negatives. Looking forward for the next thing you will post.

    Have a nice day, og njóttu sumarsins =D.

    • Meg:

      @Þórir PP Hólmfríðarson Ah! As I was typing this, I was thinking of another plural for whatever reason, and ended up with two moms and two dads, instead of one. Thanks for catching that one – and thank you for your compliments!

      German is a good gateway to Icelandic – or it has been for me so far – and I love to see the connections you’re making between grammars. And I enjoyed your rambling very much.

      -M

  2. Helen:

    Thank you for this. I shall make notes as I wasn’t too clear about these points
    “Jú” is equivalent to “Si” in French. It is handy to have this clear response in answer to a negative statement.
    I appreciate the link to some poetry reading too. I’m not quite there yet, but the poetry is easier to follow being read quite slowly and with emphasis. I did catch a few things and will continue to work on it. Gangi þér vel!

    • Meg:

      @Helen That’s terrific to hear! I’ll keep posting listening exercises of all levels, so look out for a slightly simpler one next time. In that recording, I find the first two readers easy to understand, and the last one more difficult – it takes time :).

  3. Morgan:

    Also note the “He/She” error: Hún talar aldrei við nokkurn mann. | He never talks to anyone/any person. [accu]

    I can’t comment on anything else because I am in the early stages of mastering my declensions (hestur/inn, hest/inn, hesti/num…) and this post kind of made my head swim. 🙂

    En nú ég ætla að skoða meira sem þú ert búin að skrifa! (See, I’m trying.)


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