The algebraic grammar of Icelandic

"Your purpose is to learn to speak German, not to learn to look it up in a book." Foreign Service Institute, German: Basic Course

When I started putting together a self-study program to learn Icelandic, I was aware of the absurdity of designing a curriculum for a topic I knew nothing about. I was perfectly aware. I achieved a mystical union with the Absolute Nothingness that was my knowledge of Icelandic, and the Divine Foolishness of believing I knew how best to learn what I didn't yet know.

But what I did know was what had worked when I was studying other languages, and when Icelandic started unloading its own frosty obstacles in my path, I had an idea of how to clamber over them.

A particularly nasty quirk of Icelandic is what an acquaintance called its "algebraic" grammar. For example, Icelandic adjectives have three genders, male, female, and neuter, each of which can appear in any of four cases. Don't worry, for the moment, about what "case" means; merely observe that three times four is twelve. And like nouns, adjectives, can be singular or plural – that's twenty-four combinations to say at the right times and those times only.

Look at this table and despair.

Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nom. glaður glöð glatt
Acc. glaðan glaða glatt
Dat. glöðum glaðri glöðu
Gen. glaðs glaðrar glaðs
Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nom. glaðir glaðar glöð
Acc. glaða glaðar glöð
Dat. glöðum glöðum glöðum
Gen. glaðra glaðra glaðra

And that's just the strong declension - every adjective also has a weak declension (though, I admit, whoever came up with that one just phoned it in.) That makes a total of 48 possibilities for every adjective1.

The problem isn't learning the rules for the adjectives; it's obvious even to a casual observer that some of those forms repeat. The problem is that you need to come up with the right form just as fast as you come up with the right word - and recognize those forms when other people are speaking.

You know how I said not to worry what "case" means? Well, you can start worrying about it now: "case" is a way of indicating a noun's relationship to the rest of the sentence. In English, when we say "the dog ate the book", we know who did the eating and who got et based on the order of the words. In Icelandic, you can shuffle the nouns around - "bókina borðaði hundurinn", "hundurinn borðaði bókina" - without changing the meaning. If you're talking about a particularly voracious book, and a particularly unfortunate dog, you need different endings: "bókin borðaði hundinn", "hundinn borðaði bókin".

(Hey, did you notice that the English sentence had five words - "the book ate the dog" - and the Icelandic only had three? That's because in Icelandic, "the" is an ending, not a separate word - and it has different forms based on gender, case, and number. It doesn't replace the noun endings, either, so you still have to add them. Enjoy!)

This is a terrible state of affairs, one which I will rectify immediately when I rule the world, and the Icelandic textbook I was using was no help at all: it just blatted out some huge tables of endings and called it a day. No amount of staring at those tables was going to teach me to speak Icelandic correctly.

But …

But lots of languages modify words based on combinations of case, number and gender: languages like Latin and Russian, for example, neither of which are particularly closely related to Icelandic.

And the way to learn them is as simple as it is painful: practice. Practice coming up with the right form without stopping and thinking.

You may have taken a foreign language class where your teacher said a sentence - "I swim every Saturday" - and then went down the row, giving each student a phrase like "hike" or in the morning" and having them use that phrase in a new, complete sentence: "I hike every Saturday", "I hike in the morning". If the student got it wrong, the teacher said the the correct sentence and had the student repeat it back.

These drills are an amazingly effective way of turning rules that you know intellectually into automatic habits. You can get some foreign language courses that include drills, like the Pimsleur and Foreign Service Institute courses. Neither of them have an Icelandic program, though.

So I made my own drills. I keep mentioning the Anki flashcard program that I like so much. I used Anki to make separate decks of flashcards for verbs, nouns, and adjectives – any word where one root can take multiple surface forms.

Each root form got an Anki "note" that included all its inflected forms. (I found a wonderful Icelandic website that gives all the forms for every noun, adjective, and verb, so I didn't have to worry about getting an irregular form wrong.) Here's part of the note for "land", which means "country".

More than one card can be based on a single note. I created Anki card templates for each of the cases, both singular and plural, with and without the "the" suffix. Anki obediently created flashcards for all the different forms, and every time I set up a new note for a new noun, it'll automatically create all the new cards I need.

When I practice every day, I see something like this:

After I've said aloud what I think the right form is, I check the "other side" of the card, which gives the correct answer:

After you've checked your answer, you click the button for how hard it was to come up with it. Cards that were easy come back less often; cards that were hard come back more often.

And it works! I don't have to sit and puzzle over words, breaking them down into roots and endings, and I don't have to painstakingly construct complicated forms in my head. I can read new material and still recognize words even when they have various suffixes, and easily come up with the right answers when I do sample exercises from books.

It's some work to set up the flashcards - but you get a lot of use out of them, and they're far more effective than methods with less recognition. If you're having trouble with "algebraic grammar" in any language, I recommend this approach.

1. I wonder if that's where someone got the idea that Icelandic has forty-five ways to say "green"? (back to article)

Written on February 3, 2016