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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…