Are there rules that say when words in Icelandic should be masculine, feminine and neuter? For a foreigner it is not enough to add an article.

Asked By

Chús M. Barja


In Icelandic, words almost always have a fixed gender, and it is seldom possible to deduce the gender from the stem. There are only a few examples of words that exist in more than one gender. It is however true of hveiti and jógúrt, which have both feminine and neuter forms, and regnskúr which can be either masculine or feminine.

The word kyn (gender) is a grammatical concept and there are no fixed rules that prescribe the gender of a word. There is however often a correlation between grammatical gender and real gender, a male creature being often masculine, e.g. maður, hestur, hrútur, grís, (man, horse, ram, pig) and a female creature often feminine, e.g. kona, hryssa, ær, gylta, (woman, mare, ewe, sow). Examples to the contrary are also extremely numerous, e.g. the word naut (bull) is neuter despite being a male animal, svanur (swan) refers to both male and female of the species, though the word is grammatically masculine, and the same applies to another name for a swan, álft, which applies both to the male and female swan although the word is grammatically feminine.

Nouns decline in various ways and the convention is to group them according to how they are declined. There are various ways to describe the declensions and the number of examples can vary. In his book Íslensk beygingarfræði (1983), Jón Friðjónsson gives e.g. 96 declension examples for nouns, divided into 15 declensions.

One can often determine the gender of a word from the way in which it is declined, but this is not always the case. One sometimes has to learn the gender of the word. Though it can sometimes be difficult to see the gender of a word when it stands on its own, one can use certain rules of thumb with many words to help the identification.

It is easiest to first divide the nouns into two categories: weak declensions and strong declensions. The strong nouns end with a consonant in the nominative and the weak nouns with a vowel hestur - penni Let us look first at the strong declensions for masculine nouns.

Words that end with -r, in the nominative singular are almost always masculine. There are few exceptions. Examples are brúður (bride) and æður (eider duck), which are feminine. Their declensions have to be learned specially.

There are other rules of thumb that can be used to determine gender and declension. We have seen that if a word ends in -r in nominative singular, then it is almost always masculine. We can also assume that the accusative has no case ending. Example: hestur - hest, vinur - vin, köttur - kött, mór - mó, læknir - lækni.

There are relatively few exceptions to this rule with the main ones being: If a word has -rin its stem, like the word akur then the nominative and accusative are the same, akur - akur and the r also appears in the dative and genitive (akri - akurs). Words for family relationships are also exceptions, such as bróðir - bróður andfaðir - föður, systir - systur, móðir - móður, dóttir - dóttur,. Their declensions have to be learned specially, in the singular and plural. Neuter words can also have -r as a stem ending such as hreiður, eitur, but they are rare and can be distinguished from words like akur by observing that their nominative and accusative plurals are the same, like eitt hreiður (one nest) - mörg hreiður (many nests).

If a noun ends in -i in the nominative and in -a in the other cases in the singular, then it is a weak masculine noun such askragi - kraga, sími - síma, penni - penna.

It can be said that -ar og -ir are by far the most common endings for masculine nouns. There is no reliable rule that prescribes which ending should be used, so they have to be memorised. The word hestur becomes hestar in the nominative plural, gestur becomes gestir. But if we know the nominative plural, then we can be sure of the accusative plural. If it ends in -ar then the accusative plural ends in -a while if it ends in -ir then the accusative plural ends in -i.

Rules of thumb also apply to feminine and neuter words. If, for example, a word has no case ending in nominative and accusative, both in singular and plural, then it is neuter and declines strong. e.g. land - land / lönd (many lands) torg - torg/ - torg (many squares).

On the other hand, nouns that have no case ending in nominative and accusative singular and that have case endings in nominative and accusative plural, are strong feminine nouns, e.g. skál -skál/skálar-skálar, borg - borg/borgir - borgir.

Nouns that end in -a in all singular cases, but in -u in all plural cases are weak neuter nouns, e.g. eyra/eyru, auga/augu, hjarta/hjörtu.

Nouns that end in -a in nominative singular but in -u in other cases in the singular are feminine, e.g. kápa - kápu, sápa - sápu, kirkja - kirkju, kona - konu.

Nouns that end in -i in all singular cases and that have a case ending in nominative and accusative plural, are feminine, e.g. lygi, keppni.

And a good rule of thumb for declining nouns is that almost all words have the same dative and genitive case endings, i.e. -um in the dative and -a in the genitive: hestum -hesta, gestum - gesta, læknum - lækna, pennum - penna, vinum - vina, bræðrum - bræðra, mæðrum - mæðra, börnum - barna, borgum - borga and so on. if the stem ends in a diphthong (á, ó) then the dative plural ending is -m, móm-móa, krám - kráa.

Though these rules do not cover all Icelandic words, they do cover most of the vocabulary and can help beginners, foreign and Icelandic alike, to gain command of Icelandic nouns.

Translated by Paul Richardson.

Further answers in English:

Um þessa spurningu


Published 5.3.2005


Answers in English


Guðrún Kvaran. „Are there rules that say when words in Icelandic should be masculine, feminine and neuter? For a foreigner it is not enough to add an article.“. The Icelandic Web of Science 5.3.2005. (Skoðað 26.5.2024).


Guðrún Kvaranprofessor


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