Icelandic: Word order in numeral phrases

dommibor91

New Member
french France
Hello,
I have totally lost my way in the maze of word order in the nominal phrase when the suffixed definite article is used. I apologize in advance for my weird english, as well as for the length of this post, which undoubtedly reflects my confusion.

Rule : A numeral must precede a non-definite noun (and any modifying strong adjectives) and must follow a noun bearing the suffixed article (and most often the modifying weak adjective). Hence:

a - Tveir gáfaðir menn
b - Gáfuðu mennirnir tveir

Until there, all goes relatively well. However, a different order has been suggested (and contested) with a partitive reading:

c - Tveir (gáfuðu) mennirnir (two of the (clever) men)

I am aware that Google is not the ideal tool for syntactic research, but the engine fetched a huge number of sentences where a (cardinal) numeral precedes a definite noun. Some of these follow to illustrate their diversity:

d - Hinir tveir mennirnir sem fá slíka bónusa eru ...
e - Allir fjórir þjálfararnir sneru sér við í sætunum þegar...
f- Þetta ár, allir tveir mánuðirnir sem eru (nánast) liðnir af því,...

I noticed in these cases the almost systematic presence of the demonstrative hinn or the universal quantifier allir. In addition, I found numerous sentences with a superlative degree present, either before or after the numeral:

g - Fyrstu tveir kaflarnir renna undarlega mikið saman í hálfgerðri lognmollu, ...
h - Tveir fyrstu kaflarnir fjalla um hugtakið lærdómssamfélag ...
i - ... en talið er að síðustu tveir geirfuglarnir á jörðu hafi verið drepnir í Eldey undan ...
j - Þá hafa yngstu tveir hóparnir lokið keppni á Klúbbamótinu okkar.
k - Tveir yngstu mennirnir byggðu jörðina samtímis ...

Note also:

l - Síðarnefndu tveir flokkarnir fengu áttatíu og sjö ...
m - Tveir síðarnefndu staðirnir eru mest notaðir til gönguferða á Esjuna.

My question is therefore double and I would greatly appreciate having the opinions of native Icelandic speakers :

1) what is the degree of acceptance of a numeral in front of a name bearing the suffixed article, and is it conditioned to the use of a demonstrative like hinn, a quantifier like allir or a superlative like fystur or síðastur (and much others)?
2) is there a fixed position for a superlative relative to a cardinal number? I noticed for example that fyrstur comes always before and bestur always behind, whereas others (ex. yngstur, elstur, efstur ...) are fluctuating.

Many thanks in advance, and renewed apologies for the length of the message.
DB
 
  • dommibor91

    New Member
    french France
    There must be something really offending in my question but, honestly, I cannot figure out what it is.
    Too bad ....
     

    klandri

    Member
    Icelandic
    Nothing offending but the question is pretty technical and this is something native speakers don't really consciously know the rules for.

    But for a go at it

    1) You seem to understand this decently. "Tveir gáfuðu mennirnir" is generally not idiomatic unless you're specifying those two men from a group of smart men. In that case you'd use the genitive ("Tveir [nom.] gáfuðu [gen.] mannanna [gen.] (gerðu þetta eða hitt)").

    2) I'm not perfectly sure how to best answer this, since again this is not something native speakers consciously memorize rules for, but Allir and Hinir must always come first. I think it's because they're pronouns. Yngstur, elstur, o.s.frv. are superlative adjectives and I don't think the order of them vs the number ever matters.
     

    dommibor91

    New Member
    french France
    Nothing offending but the question is pretty technical and this is something native speakers don't really consciously know the rules for.
    Thank you for your answer, which sets my mind at rest on this point. I am probably too much influenced by works from linguits, where every word has to find the right place in the right form.


    1) You seem to understand this decently. "Tveir gáfuðu mennirnir" is generally not idiomatic unless you're specifying those two men from a group of smart men. In that case you'd use the genitive ("Tveir [nom.] gáfuðu [gen.] mannanna [gen.] (gerðu þetta eða hitt)").
    OK. It makes sense to use a partitive construction where a partitive reading is expected. The most interesting point here (for my purpose) is to know that it is possible to have a definite noun (with the suffixed article) behind (i.e. to the right of) a numeral. This is important from a theorical point of view, since most authors say that adding the suffixed article forces the noun (and most often an accompanying weak adjective) to be fronted to a "determiner" position (sorry for the technicity..) before the numeral position.

    2) I'm not perfectly sure how to best answer this, since again this is not something native speakers consciously memorize rules for, but Allir and Hinir must always come first. I think it's because they're pronouns.

    Yes, allir is an indefinite pronoun and hinir a demonstrative and both must be initial, but once again the question was of the order <<numeral-definite noun>> in their context. I have just read a short paper by Vangsnes giving the following constructions:

    a. allir (?frægu) málvísindamennirnir fjórir
    b. allir fjórir ?(frægu) málvísindamennirnir
    c. *fjórir frægu málvísindamennirnir

    where the quotation mark is here to signify that the adjective is not especially wellcome and the star points to non-grammaticality. It looks like having the pronoun allir makes the subsequent order <<numeral-definite noun>> correct, but removing allir makes that order incorrect. Is that a good interpretation?

    Yngstur, elstur, o.s.frv.
    are superlative adjectives and I don't think the order of them vs the number ever matters.
    This sounds really strange to my french ears. I am not sure if in english "the two best friends" and "the best two friends" are interchangeable, but in french their equivalents are certainly not!

    I am also interested in the placement of ordinal numerals relative to cardinal ones, so may be you could tell me which of the following is better (if any) in Icelandic ? :

    (without the definite article)
    Fyrstu tveir dagar voru svolítið erfiðir
    Tveir fyrstu dagar voru svolítið erfiðir
    (with the definite article)
    Fyrstu tveir dagarnir voru svolítið erfiðir
    Tveir fyrstu dagarnir voru svolítið erfiðir
    Fyrstu dagarnir tveir voru svolítið erfiðir

    Thank you very much for your help. Those are important grammar points not even touched in handbooks, not speaking of french handbooks on Icelandic grammar, which simply do not exist.
     
    (without the definite article)
    Fyrstu tveir dagar voru svolítið erfiðir
    Tveir fyrstu dagar voru svolítið erfiðir
    (with the definite article)
    Fyrstu tveir dagarnir voru svolítið erfiðir
    Tveir fyrstu dagarnir voru svolítið erfiðir
    Fyrstu dagarnir tveir voru svolítið erfiðir
    I cannot really speak about any of the other grammar stuff, but as an Icelander I am going to comment on what I find to sound correct/natural to me in these examples. This is all just feeling though, so keep that in mind.

    First of all, I can tell you without any doubt that ALL of your example sentences without the definite article sound very unnatural and wrong. This means that I cannot really help you with it word order wise, as the basic sentence is flawed.
    Basically, you could maybe say "fyrstur dagur" (a first day) in some contexts (don't have any examples in mind though, so I am not sure), but in the sentence "the first two days were a bit hard", you just cannot say "a first two days were a bit hard" any more in Icelandic than you can in English. It just sounds super unnatural, weird and wrong.
    P.S. Also notice that the Icelandic word for 'first' has a strong declension (unlike the other ordinal numeral adjectives) that would be used with an non-definite noun ("fyrst/ur", not "fyrsti/fyrsta")

    Moving on to the sentences with the definite article, I would say that all of them are correct (i.e. don't sound totally unnatural no matter the context) but they do give a bit of a different feeling on what part you are putting stress on.
    The first two are the most natural, and are so similar in how natural they feel that I had to speak them out loud to myself for quite some time to get a feeling which would be more natural to be said in a neutral situation (without a specific stress on any part of the noun phrase). In the end I found that "fyrstu tveir dagarnir" would be more neutral, while "tveir fyrstu dagarnir" would indicate a bit more stress on the "tveir" part (making it more like "the two first days"). This is however minimal so I would say you could use one or the other without too much fuss.
    The third example however does change the stress quite a bit, giving a lot of extra emphasise on the "fyrstu" part (making it more like "the first two days"). This is bit like treating the "fyrstu" as a separate add-on to the phrase "dagarnir tveir", making it feel stronger than when it is "fyrstu tveir" added to "dagarnir".

    Also, I don't actually know the rules but I feel like the reason the number jumps ahead of the noun when it has an ordinal numeral (or pronoun, or adjective in some cases) attached to it is because they are usually in the front of the noun even when it has the definite article (unlike the cardinal numerals), and when you have more than one word attached to a noun it is possible that it they are attached to each other rather than attached separately to the noun. That is to say, you are not describing e.g. "day" as "(the) first" and "two", but rather as "(the) first two", i.e. "fyrstu tveir" + "dagurinn". As such the cardinal numeral isn't really directly attached to the noun but rather attached to the word that is attached to the noun ("allir", "fyrstu", "síðustu" etc.), and the order of it and the word it's attached to is quite flexible (hence "fyrstu tveir" AND "tveir fyrstu").
    This is just a guess from my native feeling to what is correct and incorrect, but it does make sense as you can say things like "fyrstu tveir" and "síðustu fimm" without any noun (e.g. "þau síðustu þrjú sem unnu" or "ég gaf alla fimm mat). Still just guesswork, so take it with a grain of salt.


    Hope this helps in anyway. Not really super good at describing things, and I don't really know this all for a fact to begin with.

    Wish you a nice day. =D
     

    dommibor91

    New Member
    french France
    First of all, I can tell you without any doubt that ALL of your example sentences without the definite article sound very unnatural and wrong. Basically, you could maybe say "fyrstur dagur" (a first day) in some contexts (don't have any examples in mind though, so I am not sure), but in the sentence "the first two days were a bit hard", you just cannot say "a first two days were a bit hard" any more in Icelandic than you can in English. It just sounds super unnatural, weird and wrong.
    OK. This is what I suspected, but I put them here for the sake of comparison.

    Moving on to the sentences with the definite article, I would say that all of them are correct (i.e. don't sound totally unnatural no matter the context) but they do give a bit of a different feeling on what part you are putting stress on. The first two are the most natural, and are so similar in how natural they feel that I had to speak them out loud to myself for quite some time to get a feeling which would be more natural to be said in a neutral situation (without a specific stress on any part of the noun phrase). In the end I found that "fyrstu tveir dagarnir" would be more neutral, while "tveir fyrstu dagarnir" would indicate a bit more stress on the "tveir" part (making it more like "the two first days"). This is however minimal so I would say you could use one or the other without too much fuss. The third example however does change the stress quite a bit, giving a lot of extra emphasis on the "fyrstu" part (making it more like "the first two days"). This is bit like treating the "fyrstu" as a separate add-on to the phrase "dagarnir tveir", making it feel stronger than when it is "fyrstu tveir" added to "dagarnir".
    This is perfectly clear and helps me a lot. As I wrote previously, such word order change (for reasons of emphasis) is totally unnatural in French, which explains my confusion.

    Also, I don't actually know the rules but I feel like the reason the number jumps ahead of the noun when it has an ordinal numeral (or pronoun, or adjective in some cases) attached to it is because they are usually in the front of the noun even when it has the definite article (unlike the cardinal numerals), and when you have more than one word attached to a noun it is possible that it they are attached to each other rather than attached separately to the noun. That is to say, you are not describing e.g. "day" as "(the) first" and "two", but rather as "(the) first two", i.e. "fyrstu tveir" + "dagurinn". As such the cardinal numeral isn't really directly attached to the noun but rather attached to the word that is attached to the noun ("allir", "fyrstu", "síðustu" etc.), and the order of it and the word it's attached to is quite flexible (hence "fyrstu tveir" AND "tveir fyrstu").
    So, maybe we could say that numerals (i.e. ordinal + cardinal forms) constitute a kind of syntactic unit that precedes the definite noun when both forms are present. Only when the cardinal is used alone does it jump behind the definite noun (or the definite noun jumps in front of it ;-). In this case the ordinal could be regarded as a "modifier" of the cardinal number, in the same way adverbs modify adjectives....

    Hope this helps in anyway. Not really super good at describing things, and I don't really know this all for a fact to begin with.
    Wish you a nice day. =D
    Thank you very much for you help. This helps me a lot and your appreciation, as a native icelandic speaker, is precious.
     
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