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Middle voice

The middle voice (also called the mediopassive) is a special form of the verb in Icelandic, easily identified by its -st ending, that has several purposes:

  • 🔄 to indicate reciprocity (an action performed by people to each other),
  • ↩️ to indicate reflexivity (and action performed by someone/something on itself),
  • 😴 to indicate passive meaning.

The middle voice can also change the meaning of a verb completely. Other verbs exist only in the middle voice.

Usage

Reciprocity

This usage of the middle voice is restricted to specific verbs (see a list here). Think of it as a shorthand way of saying “each other”:

Eigum við að hittast á morgun?
Sjáumst eftir helgi!
Þið megið ekki heilsast með handabandi!
Sigrún og Jón kysstust í sófanum.
Börnin og foreldrarnir haldast í hendur á leið í skólann.

Because the meaning of -st here is essentially “each other”, the subject has to be plural (in meaning, not necessarily grammatically):

Þau hafa ekki talast við lengi.
Fólkið hittist úti á götunum.

Reflexivity

This usage of the middle voice is also restricted to specific verbs (see a list here). It’s an easy way to say that someone or something performs an action on itself:

Hann datt fram yfir sig og meiddist.
Skólabörnin setjast á bekkinn.
Ásdís klæðist rauðum kjól.

Passive

This usage of the middle voice is fairly productive, that is to say you can add -st onto lots of different verbs to create a passive-like meaning, instead of using a passive construction with vera + past participle:

Mikil ærsl heyrast í garðinum.
Nýja bókin seldist ekki vel.
Það sést ekki neitt í myrkrinu.
Ég fæddist árið 1990.

This usage of the middle voice is limited to verbs where the agent (doer of the action) can easily be left out if not known or relevant. This means that unlike with the passive voice, the preposition af cannot be used to indicate who the agent is.

If the meaning of the verb requires there to be an agent (for example kaupa – someone has to be the buyer), then the passive voice must be used instead:

🚫 Húsið keyptist í fyrra.
Húsið var keypt í fyrra.

Sometimes there is a difference in nuance between the middle voice and passive voice:

Vínflaskan kláraðist á hálftíma.
Vínfláskan var kláruð á hálftíma.

In the first example, there is no clear agent – maybe no one drank the wine and it just finished itself? The second sentence begs the question, Well who exactly drank all the wine? 🍷

Other verbs can only be made passive through use of the middle voice and can’t be used with the vera + past participle construction:

Vettlingarnir mínir týndust en fundust strax aftur.

Changed meaning

Some Icelandic verbs get a different meaning when used in the middle voice. Sometimes the meaning seems to be somewhat related to the standard meaning, but other times it is quite far removed:

Active voiceMiddle voice
gerato dogerastto happen
sýnato showsýnastto seem
takato taketakastto succeed

See the full list here.

Middle voice only

Some Icelandic verbs exist only in the middle voice. These are often derived from nouns:

ferð “journey”ferðastto travel
tölva “computer”tölvastto waste time on the computer
vesen “hassle”vesenastto mess about with, tackle, negotiate

This pattern of creating middle voice verbs form nouns is particularly productive, with spontaneous formations like facebookast “to hang out on Facebook” and snappast “to Snapchat” used in informal spoken language.

Middle voice verbs can also be formed from adjectives, with the meaning “to get/become [adjective]”:

brjálaður “infuriated”brjálastto become infuriated
eldri “older”eldastto get older, age
grennri “slimmer”grennastto get slimmer
nálægur “near”nálgastto get near, approach
veikur “ill”veikjastto get ill
villtur “lost”villastto get lost

Formation

The middle voice ending, -st, is easy to apply to any verb and is the same in all persons, numbers, moods and tenses. There is one rule about how to apply the ending:

  • Remove the final consonant part of the ending from the relevant form (present/past, singular/plural, etc.), unless the ending is -um, and add -st.

For example:

Presentég breyti
þú breytir

við breytum
ég breytist
þú breytist

við breytumst
Pastég breytti
þú breyttir

við breyttum
ég breyttist
þú breyttist

við breyttumst
Past participlebreyttbreyst

Weak verb

að heilsastPersonIndicativeSubjunctive
PresentPastPresentPast
Singular1stégheilsastheilsaðistheilsistheilsaðist
2ndþúheilsastheilsaðistheilsistheilsaðist
3rdhann
hún
hán
það
heilsastheilsaðistheilsistheilsaðist
Plural1stviðheilsumstheilsuðumstheilsumstheilsuðumst
2ndþiðheilsistheilsuðustheilsistheilsuðust
3rdþeir
þær
þau
heilsastheilsuðustheilsistheilsuðust

Strong verb

að fástPersonIndicativeSubjunctive
PresentPastPresentPast
Singular1stégstfékkstfáistfengist
2ndþústfékkstfáistfengist
3rdhann
hún
hán
það
stfékkstfáistfengist
Plural1stviðstfengumstfáumstfengjumst
2ndþiðfáistfengustfáistfengjust
3rdþeir
þær
þau
stfengustfáistfengjust