In Icelandic, verbs take on a different form when they express something that is hypothetical or uncertain. The form is known as the subjunctive (“viðtengingarháttur”). It appears in the following scenarios:
- When expressing something hypothetical (“If I were president...”)
- When being extra polite (“Could you bring me some coffee?”)
- When expressing your wishes (“I would like to become an actor”)
- In certain types of sentences that are joined to a main sentence (“My mom says that I am a good cook”)
The last one is the most common situation where you will encounter the subjunctive. When the subjunctive appears due to being in a secondary sentence it does not have to indicate that something is a hypothetical situation (in the sentence “My mom says that I am a good cook” there is no doubt that she did indeed say that), the only reason it appears is due to grammatical rules.
|Regular verb form||Hypothetical verb form||Why does the verb form change?|
|Ég er duglegur, ég get lært íslensku.||Ef ég væri duglegur þá gæti ég lært íslensku.||Hypothetical|
|Það er gaman. Þið komið með.||Það væri gaman ef þið kæmuð með.||Hypothetical|
|Get ég fengið hamborgara?||Gæti ég fengið hamborgara?||Politeness|
|Hann er rithöfundur.||Ég held að hann sé rithöfundur.||Secondary sentence (connected with að)|
|Ég er sætur.||Mamma segir að ég sé sætur.||Secondary sentence (connected with að)|
|Ég get komið til Íslands.||Ég vona að ég geti komið til Íslands||Secondary sentence (connected with að)|
|Ég kem.||Viltu að ég komi?||Secondary sentence (connected with að)|
|Þú ert með hita.||Amma spyr hvort þú sért með hita.||Secondary sentence|
When to study this form
Viðtengingarháttur is a fairly advanced topic usually introduced around level B1. Learners often just use the regular verb form instead or try to avoid sentences where viðtengingarháttur is necessary, but since it is so common it is necessary to be aware of it. Although you will be understood if you don’t use viðtengingarháttur, it sounds incorrect and amateurish to natives.
Words that cause the hypothetical form
The following words are the most common things that cause the hypothetical form:
- Ég held að ...
- Ég segi að ...
- Ég vil að ...
- ... nema ...
- ... svo að ...
- ... til þess að ...
- Þó að ...
- Þótt ...
All of the above are examples of main sentences being joined to another secondary sentence (in the case of “þótt” the main sentence comes after the secondary sentence).
Note that the hypothetical form does not appear if sentences are connected with the following words:
The subjunctive is used when you want to be extra polite. You have to use the past tense, just like in the English “Could I get some coffee?”:
- Gæti ég fengið kaffi?
- Værir þú til í að hætta þessu?
When learning the conjugation tables of the viðtengingarháttur, you add “I think that ...” and “I thought that ...” before the verb. This is how native speakers conjugate, because they have a feel for what should happen to a verb if it is preceded by “I think”. This will also train your feel for the language.
|ég held að ég sé||I think I am|
|ég held að þú sért||I think you are|
|ég held að hann sé||I think he is|
|ég held að við séum||I think we are|
|ég held að þið séuð||I think you guys are|
|ég held að þau séu||I think they are|
|ég hélt að ég væri||I thought I was|
|ég hélt að þú værir||I thought you were|
|ég hélt að hann væri||I thought he was|
|ég hélt að við værum||I thought we were|
|ég hélt að þið væruð||I thought you guys were|
|ég hélt að þau væru||I thought they were|
- The viðtengingarháttur is slowly disappearing – many younger speakers (born after 1995) have a much weaker sense of this verb mood and will for some types of sentences use the regular verb mood in cases where older speakers (born before 1985) would have used viðtengingarháttur. Young people still use it when describing hypothetical situations, but are less likely to use it in secondary sentences. For example, standard Icelandic is „Hann spurði mig hvað ég væri að læra“ but many people born after 1995 would say „Hann spurði mig hvað ég er að læra“.
Similarity to other languages
- The viðtengingarháttur is the same as the German Konjunktiv and is used almost the same.
- The viðtengingarháttur is similar to being a mix of the Spanish condicional and subjunctivo, but subjunctivo is not used in exactly the same situations.