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Introduction to syntax

In the most basic of terms, the syntax of Icelandic boils down to word order🇮🇸 orðaröð. Like many other languages, Icelandic has a default word order of subject–verb–object or SVO. Let’s take a couple of simple sentences to see this in action:

Hundurinn borðar pitsuna.
Ég tala þýsku og spænsku.

  • Subject
  • Verb
  • Object

We need to be careful about how we define a “word” when talking about syntax. As you can see in the second example above, the object “þýsku og spænsku” is made up of more than one word. We therefore normally refer to elements of the sentence as phrases🇮🇸 liður rather than “words”.

Icelandic has several different kinds of phrases, each corresponding to a different word class:

Each of these phrases has a head🇮🇸 höfuð, which can be thought of as the main word in the phrase. Together, phrases are combined to form a sentence🇮🇸 setning.

Sentence structure

At its simplest, an Icelandic sentence can consist of a single verb phrase:


That said, this isn’t the most common type of sentence. Most sentences contain at least a subject🇮🇸 frumlag and a verb🇮🇸 sögn, and often an object🇮🇸 andlag. As we learnt above, the basic word order is subject–verb–object (SVO).

🪄 Icelandic has a magical gift though, in the form of its case system. The core function of cases is to mark the relationship between the verb, its subject and its object or objects. What this means is that Icelandic syntax is very flexible compared to, for example, English. If we take our examples from above, we can easily rearrange the order of the subject and object without losing any meaning:

Pitsuna borðar hundurinn.
Þýsku og spænsku tala ég.

  • Subject
  • Verb
  • Object

Think about how the meaning of these sentences would change if you followed this word order in English.

Now admittedly, this is not the most natural way of saying these sentences in Icelandic, and that’s because our default word order is SVO, rather than OVS. What we’ve done here is emphasise the objects of the verbs by moving them to the start of the sentence. This is known as stylistic fronting🇮🇸 stílfærsla and is frequently used in formal writing.

What hasn’t moved here though is the verb, which brings us neatly onto our first core rule of Icelandic syntax.

The verb is king

Because an Icelandic sentence can consist of a single verb phrase on its own, we can really say that 👑 the verb is king. Think of the verb as the sun at the centre of the solar system that everything else orbits around.

Golden rule

In Icelandic, the verb phrase is always in second position in the sentence. This is known as the V2 rule.

For a detailed explanation of this, see V2 rule.


In this section, we’ll look each type of phrase in turn. Remember, the 👤 head of the phrase is the “main word” within it. A phrase can be as simple as a head and nothing else.

There are two more concepts we should get to grips with when analysing phrases: complements🇮🇸 fylliliður and determiners🇮🇸 ákvæðisorð.

Complements give us ➕ more information about something (in other words, they complement the information we already have):

Maður í hvitum jakka.
Hún er að tala um þig.
Ég gaf þér peningana.

Determiners ↘️ narrow down what we’re talking about to something specific. They are often adjectives or demonstrative pronouns:

Átt þú þennan frakka?
Við keyptum rauða bolla.

Both complements and determiners are often optional: the sentence will normally still be grammatical without them. However, most sentences contain both complements and determiners in some form.

Verb phrases

The head of a verb phrase🇮🇸 sagnliður (VP) is, unsurprisingly, a verb (talar, hleypur):

Lóa syngur.

Along with the head, a verb phrase can contain a complement that is either an object, in the form of a noun phrase (NP):

Við bökum  brauð og kökur.Ég keypti glænýja tölvu.

or a prepositional phrase (PP):

Konan leitar eftir aðstöð.

Some verbs can take, or even require, an object. These are known as transitive verbs🇮🇸 áhrifssögn. Verbs that don’t require an object are known as intransitive verbs🇮🇸 áhrifslaus sögn.

Noun phrases

The head of a noun phrase🇮🇸 nafnliður (NP) is either a noun (hestur, bíll, María) or a personal pronoun (hann, þau):

Mamma er að prjóna.Bílstjórinn keyrir rútuna.Við getum ekki breytt því.

Noun phrases can include determiners, such as adjectives or demonstrative pronouns, in an adjective phrase (AP):

Gamla húsið hefur verið rifið.Þessi kjóll er afskaplega dýr.Taskan hennar er undir borðinu.

Noun phrases can also include complements after the noun. The complement could be a noun phrase in the genitive, a prepositional phrase (PP), or even a whole sentence (S) introduced by sem:

Hundur Vigdísar geltir endalaust.Þjónninn með hvíta bindið hljóp út.Konan sem þú talaðir við í gær er mætt.

Adjective phrases

The head of an adjective phrase🇮🇸 lýsingarorðsliður is an adjective (fallegur, glöð, spennandi) or demonstrative pronoun (þessi, ).

Adverb phrases

The head of an adverb phrase🇮🇸 atviksliður phrase an adverb (vel, ekki, oft).

Prepositional phrases

The head of a prepositional phrase🇮🇸 forsetningarliður phrase a preposition (á, í, fyrir, vegna).