LINGUIST List 28.331

Tue Jan 17 2017

Review: Icelandic; History of Linguistics; Language Documentation; Phonology: Jónsson (2016)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 20-Sep-2016
From: Matteo Tarsi <>
Subject: Omrids af det islandske sprogs formlære i nutiden
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Book announced at

AUTHOR: Finnur Jónsson
TITLE: Omrids af det islandske sprogs formlære i nutiden
SERIES TITLE: LINCOM facsimile collection 47
YEAR: 2016

REVIEWER: Matteo Tarsi, University of Iceland

Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


“Omrids af det islandske sprogs formlære i nutiden”, by the well-known Nordic philologist Finnur Jónsson (1858-1934), is a concise, Danish-written overview of the Icelandic phonology and morphology at the beginning of the 20th century. Finnur Jónsson’s main aim, as stated in the preface, was that of providing the reader with a short, yet practical, manual, which contained the most useful information about modern Icelandic. The book’s audience was therefore at the time (1905) Danish beginners in the study of modern Icelandic. In the preface, Finnur Jónsson laments indeed the lack of short and user-friendly, not to mention cheap, manuals and dictionaries for modern Icelandic. He names however a couple, one for each typology, namely Bogi Th. Melsteð’s (1891) Sýnisbók and Geir T. Zoëga’s (1904) Íslenzk - ensk orðabók.

The book is organised as follows: § 1-12 overview the Icelandic phonological system. No sharp distinction is made between the graphemic level and the phonological, as in fact the pronunciation is explained by means of distribution of the single letters (e.g. the pronunciation of <g> is explained in function of its position in the word). As stated in the preface, the author stresses on the then current, or most widespread, pronunciation.

§ 13-20 are dedicated to nominal morphology. The section is divided into A (§ 14-16, strong declension) and B (§ 17-20, weak declension). As the book is aimed at non-specialists, the declensions are not organised according to different themes, but are arranged according to word gender (masculine, neuter, feminine).

§ 21-25 are dedicated to the adjectives. The order followed here is the same as in the noun section. The different grades are dealt with in § 24-25.

§ 26-31 deal with pronouns (personal, possessive, demonstrative, relative, interrogative, indefinite). Worthy of notice is the fact that the author presents the 1st and 2nd personal pronouns as having three numbers: singular, plural, and dual. He says then that the dual forms (i.e. við, þið) are used for the plural whereas the morphologically plural forms (vér, þér) are used in solemn situations, and/or as courtesy pronouns, in the 2nd person, or pluralis maiestatis in the 1st person (on the development of the pronominal dual in Icelandic and its relationship with the plural see Helgi Guðmundsson 1972).

§ 32-34 deal with numerals and related adverbial expressions.

§ 35-52 deal with verbal morphology. The section is subdivided into A (strong declension), and B (weak declension). A is subsequently subdivided into paragraphs. Here, the author groups the strong verbs into six classes instead of seven, whose “classical” order is also somewhat altered (e.g. the “classical” 1st class is here the 4th, the “classical” 2nd class is here the 5th etc.). B is also organised according to inflection patterns, which are here four. In the remaining paragraphs of the section dedicated to verbal morphology, the author gives an overview of preterite-present verbs, medio-passive and passive diathesis.

The very last paragraphs (§ 53-57) are dedicated to adverbs, conjunctions and prepositions.


When LINCOM published this facsimile edition of Finnur Jónsson’s “Omrids”, the book was precisely 110 years old. Instead of evaluating the text as such, for it is nowadays hardly useful for practical purposes, one may ask for whom such a facsimile edition is useful in the 21st century, and therefore why publishing such an out-of-date pocket grammar, when it is largely accessible on the net (on, see Finnur Jónsson 1905 in the References).

The audience which this book aims at now is, I think, that of specialists, viz. linguists. Now, two typologies of linguist come to my mind: 1) historical linguists, and 2) language historians. It is perhaps to the latter that Finnur Jónsson’s book might be of interest, e.g. in doing research on the grammatical norm in early-twentieth-century Icelandic, or in the history of Icelandic morphology. Finnur Jónsson’s book in fact also bears witness to early-twentieth-century spoken Icelandic, both for what concerns phonology (e.g. the author (p. 6) states that <f> is pronounced like <b>, viz. [b̥], if it occurs in front of <ð, l, n>, viz. [ð, l, n]. This pronunciation is nowadays almost completely extinct), and morphology (e.g. the author (p. 14) reports that the genitive of faðir ‘father’ is föður, but also föðurs, the latter being most probably used in the spoken language. Icel. föðurs is nowadays not considered grammatical).

The main shortcoming of LINCOM’s facsimile edition is the total lack of an editor’s introduction, one which would present the book to its audience, and also outline the main features of it in the frame of Icelandic linguistics. This is a major issue which I hope LINCOM will address in its facsimile series, as the academic value of this reprint is, to my eyes, now very low, because of the lack of an introductory academic discussion to the edition.


Bogi Th. Melsteð. 1891. Sýnisbók íslenzkra bókmennta á 19. öld. Copenhagen: Gyldendal.

Finnur Jónsson. 1905. Omrids af det islandske sprogs formlære i nutiden. (20 September, 2016)

Geir T. Zoëga. 1904. Íslenzk-ensk orðabók. Reykjavík: Sigurður Kristjánsson.

Helgi Guðmundsson. 1972. The pronominal dual in Icelandic (University of Iceland publications in linguistics 2). Reykjavík: Institute of Nordic Linguistics.


I am a Ph.D-­student in Icelandic Linguistics at the University of Iceland, Reykjavík. My research focuses on how loanwords and native words were used in Old and Middle Icelandic. Among my other research interests are: history of linguistics (especially in the 18th century, etymology, loanword studies and language planning and policy studies).

Page Updated: 17-Jan-2017