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I was recently reviewing some old class materials, and realized that I needed a refresher course in the proper use of articles. And what better way to learn than by teaching others? So today let’s look at definite and indefinite articles.
A few notes before we begin: a definite noun designates a specified entity. In Icelandic, it often refers (a) to either someone or something that has been mentioned previously, (b) is in the speaker’s line of sight, or (c) is common knowledge.
Einu sinni voru karl og kona að ganga. Karlinn var …
Once upon a time, a man and woman were walking. The man was…
Hann fór til Frakklands í janúar. Á leiðinni ….
He went to France in January. Along the way…
Hver á hundinn?
Who owns the dog?
Sólin kemur upp í austri og í vestri sest hún niður
The sun comes up in the east and sets in the west.
Karlkyn Kvenkyn Hvorugkyn
As you can see, a noun is definite if it has an article. In Icelandic, the article appears as the suffixes -(i)nn for masculine nouns, -(i)n for feminine nouns, and -(i)ð for neuter nouns and their declensions in the four cases. All of these three articles in all of their declensions mean, simply, ‘the’. Note that Icelandic does not have a separate indefinite article, whereas English uses the article ‘a(n)’.
Note: there are some slight spelling deviations from these nouns for ‘irregular’ nouns (e.g., feminine -ing nouns: skilning –> skilninguna –> skilningunni –> skilningunnar)
If you were to use a demonstrative pronoun (i.e., sá, þessi), you would not affix an article to the end of the word.
kona = þessi kona
Unlike in English, nouns in Icelandic generally stand in front of their corresponding possessive pronouns and contain a suffixed definite pronoun. Nouns are either indefinite or definite (with or without an article).
There are some exceptions to this rule, however:
Þetta er bókin mín
This is my book.
Þetta er penninn minn.
This is my pen.
Sometimes possessive pronouns can stand in front of the noun for the sake of emphasis or contrast. In this case, the noun is indefinite and therefore does not take an article. This construct is much more common in spoken language.
Þetta er mín bók (en ekki þín)
This is my book (not yours)
Hann tók sínar bækur heim (en ekki hennar)
He took his (own) books home (not hers)
Þetta eru okkar bækur (en ekki ykkar)
These are our books (not yours)
Don’t be confused if you come across a noun for a concrete object without a definite object even though it’s accompanied by a possessive pronoun. Indefinite nouns before personal pronouns are characteristic of a formal style almost entirely exclusive to writing.
Bækur hans hafa verið þýddar Bækurnar hans hafa verið þýddar
His books have been translated
Í grein sinni talar Eiríkur um… Í greininni sinni talar Eiríkur um..
In his article, Eiríkur talks about…
Bróðir minn er eldri en ég
My brother is older than me.
Eiginkona hans er íslensk
His wife is Icelandic.
Vinur okkar er frá Frakklandi
Our friend is from France.
Unnusti hennar er ungur og efnilegur maður (formlegt)
Her fiancé is a young and promising man (formal)
The words maður (husband), kona (wife), barn (child), kærasti (boyfriend) og kærasta (girlfriend) are generally definite before a possessive pronoun:
Maðurinn minn eldar alltaf matinn
My husband always cooks dinner.
Börnin mín eru í skólanum
My children are at school.
Kærastinn hennar er íslenskur.
Her boyfriend is Icelandic.
Líf hans var erfitt
His life was difficult
Skoðun hennar er sú að …
Her opinion is that…
Nafn mitt er Jón
My name is Jón
Samband þeirra er innilegt
Their relationship is intimate
Hugmyndir hennar eru athyglisverðar
Her ideas are interesting
Different wording is used to convey the same ideas in less formal style. It’s not enough to simply add an article to the noun. For example:
Hann átti erfitt
He has had a difficult life (lit. He has had (it) difficult)
Hún heldur að …
He thinks/believes that…
Ég heiti Jón
My name is Jón (lit. I am called Jón)
Hún er með athyglisverðar hugmyndir
He has interesting ideas.
Note that when talking about words for body parts or something that’s located on the body, you use a definite noun, without the possessive pronoun.
Mér er illt í bakinu
My back hurts/I have a backache (lit. I hurt in the back)
Honum er illt í höfðinu
His head hurts/He has a headache (lit. He hurts in the head)
Sometimes a prepositional phrase follows the noun. This fulfills the same function as a possessive pronoun:
Hún reyndi að snerta tærnar (á sér)
She tried to touch her toes. (lit. She tried to touch the toes on herself)
Hárið á þér er alltaf vel klippt
Your hair is always well-groomed. (lit. The hair on you is always well-groomed.)
In Icelandic, there´s a concept called eignarfallseinkunn, for which I do not know the English translation. It´s an indefinite noun (no article) followed by a definite noun (with article) in the genitive case, and it forms a possessive.
The general rule is that the possession is indefinite but the owner is definite:
Þetta er bíll mannsins sem býr í næsta húsi
This is (the) car of the man who lives nextdoor.
Kunnátta nemendanna kom kennaranum á óvart
(The) skill of the students/the students’ skill surprised the teacher.
Innihald sögunnar er frekar einfalt.
(The) contents of the story/the story’s contents are quite simple.
Rödd samviskunnar segir okkur að hætta núna.
(The) voice of conscience tells us to stop now.
Proper nouns (Jón, Ísland …) are definite by nature, and so they never take an article:
Þetta er bíll Jóns
This is (the) car of Jón/Jón’s car
Náttúra Íslands dregur að marga ferðamenn
(The) nature of Iceland/Iceland’s nature attracts many tourists.
Bækur Arnalds eru mjög vinsælar á Íslandi
Arnaldur’s books/(the) books of Arnaldur are very popular in Iceland.
If a possessive pronoun comes before the proper noun, then the possession is definite. This construction is only possible when everyone in the conversation knows the person in question (the owner), and is used exclusively in informal spoken registers and never in writing or formal situations.
Þetta er bíllinn hans Jóns
This is Jón’s car
Þetta er taskan hennar Ingu
This is Inga’s bag.