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Gender

All Icelandic nouns fall into one of three genders🇮🇸 kyn:

Masculine
kk.
karlkyn
Feminine
kvk.
kvenkyn
Neuter
hk.
hvorugkyn

Each gender can be divided into two classes:

  • 💪 Strong – End in a consonant or accented vowel in their dictionary form: hestur, s, brú, land
  • 🥀 Weak – End in the vowel -a or -i in their dictionary form: penni, kaka, hjarta

There are exceptions to this rule!

Masculine

Strong

Strong masculine nouns show the greatest variety in endings.

tip

The symbol Ø is used to indicate no ending (also known as zero ending).

-ur
hestur, gestur, dalur, staður, maður, Dagur
-ir
læknir, vísir, Reynir
-ll/nn
bíll, gaffall, spegill, Egill, steinn, sveinn, Kolbeinn
lax, foss, fugl, hamar, traktor, bambus

Weak

-i
penni, lampi, krakki, Benni
-a
herra, ráðherra

Feminine

Strong

Question

What do the words in the first row have in common, apart from the lack of ending?

rós, mjólk, gjöf, önd, mús, búð, Guðrún, ló, tá, brú
-ing
æfing, spurning, drottning
-un
verslun, menntun, ætlun

As you may have noticed, the words in the first row of the table all have accented vowels (one of á, ó, ú or ö). Most of these words also end in consonants, but they may end in the accented vowel.

The vast majority of nouns with this sound structure are feminine, although there are notable exceptions.

Golden rule

All nouns with more than one syllable that end in -ing or -un are feminine.

Nouns that end in -ing or -un are very often derived from verbs:

  • -ing nouns come most of the time from group 2 or 3 weak verbs:
    e.g. æfaæfing, spyrjaspurning (with vowel change)
  • -un nouns come most of the time from group 1 verbs:
    e.g. verslaverslun, ætlaætlun

Weak

-a
kaka, tala, kona, Anna

99.9%* of nouns that end in -a are feminine.

*Not an actual statistic 😇

Neuter

Strong

Question

Except the last two, what do the words in the first row have in common, apart from the lack of ending?

land, skip, box, fjall, lauf, blað, hús, rúm
-V́/æ
hné, tré, fé, bakarí, fyllerí, kakó, bú, mý, fræ, hræ
-i
belti, veski, tæki, merki, enni

If we ignore the last two words in the first row, we see that all the rest have unaccented vowels. This is an easy way to distinguish strong feminine nouns from strong neuter nouns.

But remember before about those pesky exceptions? Here we’ve got two, hús and rúm, that do have an accented vowel despite being neuter. And they’re not the only ones unfortunately. In this case, we just have to learn them as exceptions 🤯

In the second row, we have nouns that end in an accented vowel or æ. Words that end in an accented vowel can sometimes be feminine, but only if that vowel is á, í or ú (and there aren’t that many at all that end in í).

If a noun ends in é or ý, then it’s definitely neuter. The only exception to this are women’s names that end in ý, such as Dagný.

Finally, there are neuter nouns that end in -i. You’re probably thinking, why are they here? Aren’t nouns that end in -i supposed to be weak? Well, not if they’re neuter. The reason for this is that the ending behaves differently when declined. How do you know if a noun ending in -i is neuter or masculine?

  • If it refers to a person, it’s probably masculine, e.g. kennari, krakki.

Apart from this, there aren’t really any other rules to help you out.

Weak

-a
auga, eyra, hjarta, lunga, bjúga, pasta

There aren’t many weak neuter nouns in Icelandic. Most of them refer to body parts, and others are loans from Greek. See a comprehensive list of weak neuter nouns.

Some tricky endings

-i

As we saw above, nouns that end in -i are often masculine or neuter.

There’s also a fairly sizeable group of feminine nouns that end in -i, for example heiði “moorland, mountain pass“ and gersemi “treasure”. Many of them refer to abstract concepts, such as athygli “attention”, bjartsýni “optimismi”, heimspeki “philosophy” and skynsemi “common sense”.

-ni

Most nouns that end in -ni are feminine. These too often refer to abstract concepts, for example beiðni “request”, eigingirni “selfishness”, framleiðni “productivity”, gagnrýni “criticism” and samkeppni “competition”.

There are a handful that are actually neuter, including kolvetni “carbohydrate”, skyggni “visibility” and vetni “hydrogen”.

-fræði

The word fræði can either be feminine singular or neuter plural. It’s used to form the name of many sciences and academic disciplines.

When found in a compound word, it’s almost always feminine, for example líffræði “biology”, málfræði “grammar” and stærðfræði “maths”. As a standalone noun, it’s neuter plural, as in norræn fræði “Nordic studies”.

Stem-based -ur

Sometimes, -ur is not quite what it seems. 🧐 Most of the time, it’s a ending that’s characteristic of strong masculine nouns, as in hestur and vinur. But other times, -ur is actually not an ending at all: in fact it’s part of the stem. This means that when the noun is declined for number or case, the -ur is not removed.

Confusingly, nouns with stem -ur can be masculine, feminine or neuter. Here are some of the most common ones you should know about:

MasculineFeminineNeuter
aldur
árangur
bakstur
blástur
faraldur
farangur
gróður
hlátur
leiðangur
mokstur
plástur
sigur
sykur
brúður
fjöður
lifur
æður
eitur
fóður
fóstur
gljúfur
hatur
hulstur
hreiður
klúður
leður
letur
mynstur
myrkur
púður
setur
silfur
slangur
slátur
slúður
timbur
veður
öskur

Most nouns with stem -ur are in fact neuter.

Tip

A lot of words with stem -ur have a relative in English that ends in -er, for example in the masculine hlátur “laughter”, plástur “plaster”; in the feminine fjöður “feather”, lifur “liver”; and in the neuter fóður “fodder”, fóstur “foster”, leður “leather”, letur “letter”, púður “powder”, silfur “silver”, slátur “slaughter”, timbur “timber”, veður “weather”.