The Passive Voice: As Straightforward As It Seems? Posted by Meg on Jul 18, 2017 in Icelandic grammar
That’s a resounding nei, but you can get used to it. You can’t be passive if you want to learn to use the passive voice (þolmynd) in Icelandic. From the beginning of my education in English grammar, my teachers taught me to avoid the passive voice at all costs. In university lectures, the passive was reserved for the sciences – it’s proper place, couched in the unbiased voice of microbiology, pharmacology. (Though everyone knows that not using the passive in English is like fitting a square peg into a round hole). But in Icelandic…
It’s come in handy quite a lot, and it’s used very frequently. For reference, the Icelandic term for passive form of the verb is þolmynd and the Icelandic term for active (voice) is germynd.
In case you don’t know, or aren’t sure, the passive voice is used when the subject of the sentence either isn’t known or isn’t important – or at the very least, isn’t emphasized. In its stead, the recipient of the action becomes the emphasized component (look at how packed full of passive those sentences are!). In English, you’d say, e.g., “the car was bought” (bíllinn var keyptur) as opposed to “I bought the car” (Ég keypti bílinn).
So the car is the important part – maybe it was a Mustang! Or the speaker is the car salesman – and the buyer is of little or no consequence in the specific context.
Stríðið var unnið. vs. Við unnum stríðið.
The war was won. vs. We won the war.
So how do we properly form the passive?
Well. There are a few components to pay attention to.
- The recipient of the action. You’ll notice that, above, when we switched from ég keypti bílinn to bíllinn var keyptur, two things happened.
- The case of bíll shifted to the nominative when the bíll took the first position in the sentence. In þolmynd, the object becomes the subject. It’s then in nominative case and comes first in the sentence/clause.
- The verb “to be” (vera) comes next in the sentence, after the subject.
- The verb transformed into an adjectival form, which you can see in the –ur ending. This is called lýsingarháttur þátiðar (past participle).
IF THERE IS NOT EVIDENT SUBJECT, use það + the neuter adjective ending. (e.g., það var hjólað í bæinn X hjólaði í bæinn. –It was ridden in the town vs. X biked in the town). Það is sort of the default subject with passive when you just don’t know.
I’m going to give a few more examples, and then I’d like to continue this explanation in my next entry – if only because it gets quite sticky and I’d rather take baby steps (side note: I’m going to be writing this blog more frequently henceforth. I’ve been traveling this month). There are additional nuances: e.g., the subject of the passive phrase is not always in nominative. It is sometimes in the dative case. And when the past participle of the verb is employed in this very specific instance– i.e., it becomes a sort of adjective – it has two potential forms (and one “mixed” form for special verbs). A commenter suggested that I specify that by “forms,” I mean the adjectival form will be either “strong/weak,” depending on the type of verb, or a “mixed” version that takes the appearance of both. It is also possible to use an –st verb to express the passive.
So let’s do a couple of practices. I’ll list the questions, and in the dropdown below, I’ll give the solutions.
Here are the phrases. Transform them into the passive voice! Remember to go to bin.arnastofnun.is if you aren´t sure what form to use, or how the verb conjugates. (check the “leita að beygingarmynd” box).
- X reif blöðin. (að rífa)
- X hjólaði í bæinn. (að hjóla)
- X eldaði matinn á gaseldavél. (að elda)
- X svaf út um helgina. (að sofa út)
- X valdi þig í stjórn. (að velja)
–Blöðin voru rifin
–Það var hjólað í bæinn.
–Maturinn var eldaður á gaseldavél.
–Það var sofið út um helgina.
–Þú varst valin(n) í stjórn.
Question for you: is there anything you’d like to read more about? I’d like to plan future entries around my readers. 🙂
And, just in case you didn’t know, you can watch the Icelandic miniseries Hraunið (The Lava Field) on Netflix in the U.S.!
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