The Syntax of Icelandic

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Icelandic is a syntactically interesting language, with aspects of its word order, clause structure, agreement patterns and case system arousing much theoretical interest and debate in recent years. This is an informative and accessible guide to the structure of Icelandic, focusing in particular on those characteristics that have contributed greatly to syntactic research. Each chapter is divided into two main sections - providing both a descriptive overview and a discussion of the theoretical and comparative issues invoived - and a wide range of topics are covered, including case, agreement, grammatical relations, thematic roles, word order, clause structure, fronting, extraposition, complements, adjuncts, pronouns and inflection. Also explored in detail are the similarities and differences between Icelandic and other related languages. Presupposing only a basic knowledge of syntax and complete with an extensive bibliography, this comprehensive survey will be an important tool for all those working on the structure of Scandinavian and Germanic languages.

About the Author:
Hoskuldur Thrainsson is Professor in the Department of Icelandic, University of Iceland

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521591904
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 11/5/2007
  • Series: Cambridge Syntax Guides Series
  • Pages: 576
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Höskuldur Thráinsson is Professor in the Department of Icelandic, University of Iceland.

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The Syntax of Icelandic

Cambridge University Press
9780521591904 - The Syntax of Icelandic - by Höskuldur Thráinsson

1   Introduction

1.0   Icelandic and its closest relatives

Icelandic is a North Germanic language currently (2007) spoken by some 300,000 people. It is thus most closely related to the other Nordic languages, that is, Faroese, Norwegian, Danish and Swedish (see, e.g., Haugen 1976, 1982; Braunmüller 1991; Höskuldur Thráinsson 1994a; Vikør 1995; Torp 1998). It is often maintained that it has changed less than the other Germanic languages, presumably largely due to its geographical isolation. From roughly 1870 to 1915 some 20,000 Icelanders emigrated to North America, and Icelandic was spoken by these emigrants for some decades, for example, in Manitoba, Alberta, British Columbia and North Dakota. There are still some relics of this Western Icelandic in North America, although it is about to disappear (see, e.g., Haraldur Bessason 1967, 1971; Clausing 1986; Birna Arnbjörnsdóttir 1990, 1997).

Modern Icelandic is closer to Faroese than to the other Nordic languages, both morphologically and syntactically. Hence there are numerous references to Faroese in this book, especially in the comparative sections at the end of each chapter. In addition, these sections contain comparative material from the other Nordic languages, although it is more anecdotal.

1.1   Nominal inflection and agreement

Some knowledge of Icelandic morphology is necessary for anyone who wants to understand the morphosyntax of the language. In the following overview the main emphasis is on those aspects of inflectional morphology that figure in various case and agreement phenomena. For further details the reader is referred to Stefán Einarsson 1945 and Höskuldur Thráinsson 1994a.1

1.1.1   Nouns and adjectives

Icelandic has a three-valued gender system, m(asculine), f(eminine) and n(euter). The grammatical gender of nouns is only indirectly related to the sex of their referents, as in German, for instance. Thus while most words referring for instance to female humans are feminine, it is also possible to find masculine and neuter words referring to females. Besides, words referring to things and concepts can be masculine, feminine or neuter:


  1. strákur (m.) ‘boy’, stóll (m.) ‘chair’, svanni (m.) ‘woman (poetic)’
  2. stelpa (f.) ‘girl’, mynd (f.) ‘picture’, hetja (f.) ‘hero’
  3. barn (n.) ‘child’, borð (n.) ‘table’, fljóð (n.) ‘woman (poetic)’, skáld (n.) ‘poet’

Nominal categories, such as nouns, adjectives, articles, pronouns, have four cases, N(ominative), A(ccusative), D(ative) and G(enitive) and two numbers, sg. (singular) and pl. (plural). The inflectional paradigms of the nouns vary, depending on the gender and inflectional class of the noun (see, e.g., Höskuldur Thráinsson 1994a:153). Adjectives modifying nouns agree with them in gender, case and number. This holds both for attributive and predicative adjectives:


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1.1.2   Articles and definiteness

Icelandic has no indefinite article and the definite article is normally suffixed to nouns but has its own inflection (gender, number, case). This is illustrated in (1.3):

(1.3)   Inflection of the suffixed definite article:

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In addition, there is a lexical (or free-standing) form of the article. It can only be used if the noun is modified by an adjective, and it is commonly said to be characteristic of formal or written Icelandic. As we shall see below, this is not entirely accurate since the two forms of the article are not completely equivalent from a semantic point of view. Adjectives modifying definite nouns normally have the ‘weak’ (or definite) form, regardless of the position of the article (i.e., whether it is free or suffixed) (st. = strong; w. = weak):


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The free-standing article and the suffixed article are in complementary distribution, that is, there is normally no ‘double definiteness’ in Icelandic of the type found, for example, in Faroese, Norwegian and Swedish (see, e.g., Höskuldur Thráinsson et al. 2004, section 5.2.1 passim):2


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There is an exception to the rule that weak adjectives modify definite nouns. Consider the following near-minimal pair:


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In (1.6a) we have a strong (or indefinite) form of the adjective blár ‘blue’ and the sentence means roughly ‘I looked up into the sky, which happened to be blue’ (non-restrictive). Sentence (1.6b), on the other hand, can be paraphrased roughly as ‘I looked at the blue car (and not, say, the red one)’, that is, the weak (or definite) adjective gives a restrictive reading when modifying a noun with the suffixed article. When no such restriction is appropriate, the weak form sounds semantically odd, since it implies an inappropriate restriction ($ is used here and elsewhere to indicate semantic (or pragmatic) anomaly):


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The weak form of the adjective would imply that the person had more than one nose.

Interestingly, this semantic generalization does not hold for weak adjectives following the free-standing article. Thus hinn blái bíll ‘the blue car’ (which sounds very formal or even poetic) does not have a restrictive reading of the kind blái bíllinn does. The distribution of the articles will be discussed in more detail in the section on noun phrases in chapter 3. But it should be noted here that the free-standing article is sometimes required and the suffixed one excluded when a non-restrictive reading of a definite noun phrase is needed (see also Halldór Ármann Sigurðsson 2006b):


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Hence it is clearly a simplification to say that the difference between the free-standing article and the suffixed one is mainly one of formal vs. informal language.

1.1.3   Pronouns

Most pronouns in Icelandic inflect for case, number and gender. The inflection is sometimes quite irregular and suppletive, as is common in Germanic. The (simplex non-possessive) reflexive pronoun sig is different from other pronouns in that it does not inflect in gender nor in number and has no nominative form (A sig, D sér, G sín). The reflexive pronoun can only have 3rd person antecedents, that is, there is no special reflexive form for 1st and 2nd person in Icelandic (nor in any of the other Scandinavian languages).There is also a complex reflexive pronoun in Icelandic, sjálfan sig ‘self refl.’ The first part of it inflects for gender and number and agrees with the antecedent, and both parts inflect for case, which is assigned by the relevant case assigner (e.g. a transitive verb or a preposition):


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There are no relative pronouns in Icelandic, only relative particles (or complementizers). The most common relative complementizer is sem ‘that, which’, but er ‘that, which’ is also used in written or formal Icelandic:


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The relative complementizer sem in Icelandic behaves very similarly to the English relative that. Thus it cannot follow a preposition (*Konan við sem ég talaði … *The woman to that I spoke …), it cannot occur in possessive phrases (*Maðurinn sem kona hringdi … *The man that wife called … (intended sense: whose wife…)), and so on. But it differs from its English counterpart in that it can introduce non-restrictive as well as restrictive relative clauses. Thus the following sentence is in principle ambiguous (in spoken Icelandic there would normally be an intonational difference, sometimes also indicated by commas around the non-restrictive relative in written Icelandic):


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‘Icelanders that eat a lot of fish become old in general.’

‘Icelanders, who eat a lot of fish, become old in general.’

1.1.4   Unstressed pronouns and cliticized forms

Unstressed 3rd person pronouns in Icelandic typically have somewhat reduced forms and it is useful to be familiar with these:


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This reduction of unstressed pronouns is normally not shown in the orthography and it will only be indicated in this book when there is special reason to do so. The unstressed pronominal forms do not function as clitics of the type familiar from the Romance languages, for instance. Thus there is no difference in the position of pronominal objects and full NP objects in sentences like the ones in (1.13):


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There are constructions, however, where (unstressed) pronominal objects do not have the same ‘distribution’ as full NP objects:


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The variant where the object precedes the negation is normally referred to as Object Shift, and facts of this sort are commonly described by saying that it is obligatory to ‘shift’ (unstressed) pronouns across the negation and sentence adverbs with similar distribution. This phenomenon will be discussed in some detail below.

A more clitic-like element is the unstressed form of the 2nd person pronoun which is normally attached to the imperative and to the finite verb in (other) verb-subject contexts, for example direct questions. Observe the following:


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The imperative itself is the bare stem of the verb. In formal speech the 2nd person pronoun þú ‘you’ can follow it, but it does not have to. The bare imperative without an accompanying pronominal form is found in very formal or even biblical and poetic language: Gjör rétt, þol ei órétt, lit. ‘Do right, tolerate not injustice’, Kom, vornótt, og syng … lit. ‘Come, spring night, and sing …’. It is also found in various relatively fixed expressions: Kom inn! ‘Come in!’, Gef mér! ‘Give me (some)!’ The imperative with the non-reduced form is similarly restricted in the modern language: Far þú og gjör slíkt hið sama ‘Go and do likewise.’ In the common form of the imperative the 2nd person pronoun attaches to the verbal stem in a reduced form, as shown in (1.15c) (the -ðu, -du, -tu – for a discussion of the morphophonemics of the Icelandic imperative forms, see, e.g., Orešnik 1972, 1980).3 Similarly, the informal direct question forms would be ferðu, finnurðu and lestu as shown in (1.15d), meaning ‘do you go?’, ‘do you find?’ and ‘do you read?’, respectively (subject-verb inversion is not restricted to auxiliaries in Icelandic and there is no do-support).4

Finally, it should be mentioned here that the -st-ending of the so-called ‘middle verbs’ (or ‘-st-verbs’) in Icelandic is generally considered to derive historically from the reflexive pronoun sig (Old Norse sik, see especially Kjartan G. Ottósson 1992). This is illustrated in a simplified form in (1.16):


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Thus Old Icelandic had both the reflexive construction Þeir klæddu sik ‘They dressed’ (lit. ‘They dressed themselves’) and the middle form (with a reflexive reading) Þeir klæddusk ‘They dressed’, where the connection between the reflexive pronoun sik and the middle marker -sk may have been fairly transparent. Modern Icelandic has the middle (or -st-) form Þeir klæddust ‘They dressed’ and also a roughly synonymous reflexive construction Þeir klæddu sig ‘They dressed.’ But the semantic differences between many -st-forms in the modern language and the corresponding reflexive constructions, and sometimes also a complete lack of non-st-verbal forms corresponding to some -st-verbs, make it difficult to argue for a synchronic derivation of the -st-forms from an underlying reflexive construction or some such in many instances (see, e.g., Anderson 1990; for a more derivational approach, see Kissock 1995). We will return to the middle verbs in chapter 4.

1.2   Verbal morphology, agreement and auxiliary constructions

1.2.1   Person and number

Finite verbs in Icelandic agree with (nominative) subjects in person and number. The morphological markers for person and number appear to be fused, however (just like the markers for case and number in the nominal inflection), or at least very difficult to separate. This can be seen from the examples in (1.17) (see also Höskuldur Thráinsson 1994a:159 – for arguments that person and number are distinct syntactic categories in Icelandic nevertheless, see, e.g., Halldór Ármann Sigurðsson 2000, 2001):


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The verb horfa is an example of a weak (or regular) verb and bíta is a strong (or irregular) verb.

1.2.2   Tense and mood

Icelandic only has two morphologically distinct tenses: the unmarked present (or non-past) tense and the past tense. Weak verbs form past tense with a dental suffix, as is typical for Germanic languages (-ð-, -d- or -t-, depending on the final sound of the stem), whereas strong verbs show various (systematic but unpredictable) vowel changes (the so-called ablaut patterns). The rich agreement morphology illustrated above is one of the main differences between Icelandic and the other Scandinavian languages and it is of some interest to note that it is found both in the indicative mood and the subjunctive mood, since it has sometimes been maintained that subjunctive forms are non-finite or ‘non-tensed’ in Icelandic:5


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1.2.3   Non-finite verb forms

The non-finite verb forms are traditionally considered the infinitive and the two participles, the present participle and the past participle. The infinitive typically ends in -a in Icelandic, as can be seen if it is compared to the imperative:


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The so-called present participle is formed by adding -(a)ndi to the stem of the verb: sofandi ‘sleeping’, gangandi ‘walking’. It does not inflect at all in Modern Icelandic. The past participle usually ends in -ur or -inn and it inflects in gender, number and case as illustrated here with partial paradigms:


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The past participle is used in the passive, for instance, where it agrees with a (nominative) subject: Hundurinn var bitinn ‘The dog(Nsg.m.) was bitten(Nsg.m.)’, Bækurnar voru lesnar ‘The books(Npl.f.) were read(Npl.f.)’. The accusative form can then occur in the so-called accusative-with-infinitive construction, for instance: Ég tel bókina hafa verið lesna ‘I believe the book(Asg.f.) to have been read (Asg.f.).’ The perfect auxiliary hafa ‘have’ selects a non-inflecting form of the main verb, and this form is identical to the N/Asg.n. form of the participle: Hundurinn hefur bitið manninn ‘The dog has bitten the man.’ Because this form is non-inflecting, it is sometimes referred to as the supine form of the verb, but it is always identical to the form of the participle which is found in the passive when the participle agrees with a Nsg.n. subject (for a discussion of syntactic differences between inflected participles and supine forms, see, e.g., Halldór Ármann Sigurðsson 1989:322ff.):


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While all types of main verbs in Icelandic can take hafa ‘have’ as the perfective auxiliary, inflected participial forms of certain intransitive verbs of motion can be used with the verb vera ‘be’ in a resultative sense: Hann hefur farið ‘He has gone(Nsg.n. – or supine)’ vs. Hann er farinn ‘He is gone(Nsg.m.).’ Auxiliary constructions are discussed in more detail in the next section (for a discussion of resultatives see Whelpton 2006).

1.2.4   Auxiliary constructions

The so-called auxiliary verbs in Icelandic do not form a separate inflectional class. Thus the verbs that are most frequently listed as auxiliaries in Icelandic grammar books (hafa ‘have’, vera ‘be’, munu ‘will’) show rich agreement morphology like other verbs and also inflect for tense. Furthermore, these verbs do not have special ‘privileges of occurrence’ like auxiliaries in some other languages (cf. English, for instance, where it is basically auxiliary verbs only that undergo subject-verb inversion), except that the modal munu can never be preceded by another auxiliary. (The same holds for the modal skulu ‘shall’.) Because of this, auxiliary verbs in Icelandic can only be defined as ‘the class of verbs that are used systematically to express grammatical categories’, such as the passive, perfect, progressive and various modal constructions (e.g. with munu ‘will’).

The passive in Icelandic is formed by the auxiliaries vera ‘be’ and verða ‘become’ plus the past participle of the main verb, as already mentioned. The passive auxiliary normally agrees with a nominative subject in person and number and the participle agrees with a nominative subject in number and gender (and even case, as illustrated above – for further discussion, see chapter 3). The agent of a passive construction can be expressed in a prepositional phrase with the preposition af ‘by’ + D, but it is normally left unexpressed:


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The -st-forms (or middle forms) of many verbs in Icelandic can have a passive-like meaning:

© Cambridge University Press

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Table of Contents

Preface and acknowledgements     ix
Introduction     1
Icelandic and its closest relatives     1
Nominal inflection and agreement     1
Verbal morphology, agreement and auxiliary constructions     8
Word order and clause structure     17
A descriptive overview     17
The basic clause structure assumed     17
The default order of constituents and some variations     21
Alternative subject positions     26
Positions of finite and non-finite verbs     27
Alternative object positions     31
Positions of adverbs     37
Some theoretical and comparative issues     40
The nature of V2     40
Subject positions and functional categories     45
Verbal morphology and embedded word order     58
Object positions, functional categories and properties of objects     64
Adverbs and syntactic structure     79
Order of elements within the phrase     88
A descriptive overview     88
Order within the (extended) noun phrase     88
Order within the (extended) verb phrase     96
Some theoretical and comparative issues     100
Noun Phrase architectureand the order of constituents     100
Verb Phrase architecture and the order of constituents     127
Case, agreement, grammatical relations and thematic roles     146
A descriptive overview     146
Some structural properties of subjects and objects     146
Case marking of subjects, objects and indirect objects     156
Some theoretical and comparative issues     181
Structural and lexical case     181
Morphological case and abstract case     192
Case, semantic association and thematic roles     198
Some changes-and comparison with the other Scandinavian languages     222
Relationship between case and agreement     232
Some comparative notes     242
Passives, middles and unaccusatives     249
A descriptive overview     249
Introduction     249
Regular passivization and thematic roles     250
Passivization of 'impersonal' verbs     257
Prepositional passive, impersonal passive and the expletive passive     262
The New Passive/New Impersonal     273
'Middle verbs' and the passive     283
Unaccusatives     293
Some theoretical and comparative issues     301
Faroese middles, passives and case (non-)preservation     301
Passives and middles in Mainland Scandinavian     306
Impersonal passives in Scandinavian     307
Different types of expletive constructions     309
A descriptive overview     309
Introduction     309
Types of expletive constructions in Icelandic     309
The positions available to the overt expletive in Icelandic     312
The positions available to the associate of the expletive in Icelandic     313
The positional requirements of different associates     317
More on real and apparent exceptions to the Indefiteness Requirement     324
Some theoretical and comparative issues     327
Structural position and role of expletive elements     327
Expletive constructions in the other Scandinavian languages     333
The 'associate positions' revisited     337
The differences - and what can be said about them     339
Fronting, focusing, extraposition and NP-shift     341
A descriptive overview     341
Fronting of non-subjects     341
Topicalization and Wh-movement across clause boundaries     349
Stylistic Fronting and the overt expletive     352
Stylistic Fronting and Topicalization     355
Left Dislocation and Contrastive Dislocation     357
Clefts and relatives     359
Extrapositions and rightward movement     361
Some theoretical and comparative issues     368
Stylistic Fronting vs. Topicalization     368
Stylistic Fronting, expletives and subject gaps     375
Some comparative evidence     376
Possible landing sites and some theoretical proposals     385
Syntactic positions, movements, gaps and information structure     390
Finite and non-finite complements and adjuncts     394
A descriptive overview of finite subordinate clauses     394
Complements vs. adjuncts     394
Tense and mood in complement clauses     395
Distribution of a[eth]-clauses and hv-clauses     402
Tense and mood in adjunct clauses     404
Relative clauses and hv-clauses     406
Complementizer deletion     409
A descriptive overview of infinitive constructions     410
Introduction     410
Independent infinitives     416
Complements of control verbs, including prepositional verbs     418
Complements of modal verbs     421
Complements of aspectual verbs      428
On the distribution of a[eth]-infinitives     430
Accusative with infinitive     436
Nominative with infinitive and raising to subject position     440
Some theoretical and comparative issues     443
Complementizer deletion     443
Extra complementizer elements     448
Some structural properties of control complements     450
AcI, Object Shift, NcI and raising     452
Modal constructions     458
Pronouns, reflexives and empty categories     461
A descriptive overview     461
Basic distribution of reflexive and non-reflexive pronouns in Icelandic     461
Cross-clausal anaphoric dependencies     465
Reflexives inside infinitival complements     473
Empty pronominal elements     475
Some theoretical and comparative issues     483
The standard Binding Theory     483
Pronouns and reflexives in the Scandinavian languages     484
Is Icelandic a pro-drop language?     501
References     505
Index of subjects     530
Index of languages and dialects     555
Index of names     560
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