Basics of Cases
Icelandic cases are one of the big hurdles Icelandic learners face. Nouns, adjectives and pronouns can seem to randomly change at arbitrary times with no rhyme or reason, particularly to a speaker who comes from a language with as little inflection as English. However, the Icelandic case system is largely systematic and absolutely learnable.
In this article, we’ll first take a look at what cases even are, then explore the different sentence elements or roles associated with each case.
What Even Are Cases?
Case is a way of showing a word’s role in a sentence, for instance separating a subject from an object (read on if you don’t know what those are). Words decline in different cases, which is just fancy grammar jargon for “they change”. English has cases, too, just like Icelandic (so we don’t get to complain about Icelandic being hard).
No really, English does have cases. In the following examples, the pronouns hún (she), hana (her), and hennar (hers) all refer to the same person (let’s say it’s Dame Judi Dench, because she’s a treasure), but the different cases, which are bolded, show her different roles in each sentence.
- Hún talar mjög fallega > She talks very beautifully.
- Mike Tyson myndi vinna hana í slag > Mike Tyson would beat her in a fight.
- Þetta eru ekki þín BAFTA Fellowship verðlaun, heldur hennar > This isn’t your BAFTA Fellowship award, but hers.
The only difference between the two languages, case-wise, is that where English sips the proverbial potion, declining only pronouns in three cases, Icelandic fell into the pot as a child, declining pronouns, nouns, and adjectives in four cases. Just be happy you’re not learning Finnish (15 cases), Hungarian (18 cases) or Tsez (64 cases). If Icelandic fell into the pot, Tsez mainlines the potion for breakfast every day. This analogy is getting very strained, though, so let’s move on.
There are four common sentence elements which generally get assigned specific cases:
- the subject is generally in the nominative,
- the direct object is generally in the accusative,
- the indirect object is generally in the dative, and
- a possessor is in the genitive.
A subject generally has the role of agent (AKA doer, AKA actor): the one doing whatever is happening in the sentence. This is not a perfect definition, but it is a very good starting point. In the sentence “Iron Man gave Captain America Thor’s hammer”, Iron Man is the subject: the one who is doing the giving.
The subject is the answer to the question “who?”, for example, “Who gave Captain America Thor’s hammer?” The answer is Iron Man, so Iron Man is the subject (agent).
In Icelandic, the subject (or the agent) is in the nominative case (nom). In the following examples the subject is bolded.
- Gígja(nom) sofnaði > Gígja fell asleep.
- Ég(nom) sendi honum bréfið > I sent him the letter.
- Hann(nom) sendi mér bréfið > He sent me the letter.
With some verbs, called impersonal verbs, the subject does not have the role of agent and is not in the nominative, but the dative or accusative. This is the awesomely-named quirky subject, which you can read about here.
A direct object usually has the role of patient: something that is being acted upon, but not taking action. In the sentence “Iron Man gave Captain America Thor’s hammer”, Thor’s hammer is the direct object: it is not doing the giving, it is being given. Iron Man is the subject (agent), and Thor’s hammer is the direct object (patient).
The direct object is the answer to the question “what?”, for example, “What did Iron Man give Captain America?” The answer is Thor’s hammer, so Thor’s hammer is the direct object.
In Icelandic, the direct object (or the patient) is generally in the accusative case (acc). In the following examples the direct object is bolded.
- Anna(nom) er að borða köku(acc) > Anna is eating a cake.
- Ég(nom) senti honum bréfið(acc) > I sent him the letter.
- Bóndinn(nom) skaut hundinn(acc) því hann var með hundaæði > The farmer shot the dog because it was rabid.
Language wouldn’t be language if it didn’t have exceptions. A direct object is generally in the accusative, so that’s your best bet. Many verbs take the dative case, though, and a rare few take the genitive or even the nominative, apparently just to mess with you. Yeah, you specifically.
There are some general tendencies which will make them easier to learn, thankfully. Writing about those is on my list!
The indirect object has the role of recipient; someone who receives something, usually the direct object. In the sentence “Iron Man gave Captain America Thor’s hammer”, Captain America is the indirect object: he is receiving Thor’s hammer. Iron Man is the subject (agent), Thor’s hammer is the direct object (patient), and Captain America is the indirect object (recipient).
The indirect object is the answer to the question “to who?” (or “to whom” if you’ve got a stick up your ass about grammar), for example, “Who did Iron Man give Thor’s hammer to?” The answer is Captain America, so Captain America is the indirect object (recipient).
In Icelandic, the indirect object (or the recipient) is generally in the dative case (dat). In the following examples the indirect object is bolded.
- Ýmir(nom) gaf Aroni(dat) grjót(acc) í afmælisgjöf > Ýmir gave Aron a rock for his birthday.
- Anna(nom) sendi vini(dat) mínum(dat) Óla(dat) bréf(acc) > Anna sent my friend Óli a letter.
A possessor is someone who possesses something (not everything about grammar needs to be complicated). In the sentence “Iron Man gave Captain America Thor’s hammer”, Thor is the possessor: he owns the hammer. Iron Man is the subject (agent), Thor’s hammer is the direct object (patient), Captain America is the indirect object (recipient), and Thor is the possessor.
In Icelandic, a possessor is generally indicated with the genitive case. This is equivalent to the English apostrophe + s (like Frankenstein’s monster) or the preposition of (like the Sword of Destiny). In the following examples the possessor is bolded.
- Bókin hennar(gen) Jónínu(gen) er góð > Jónína’s book is good.
- Hugrekki boxarans(gen) var til fyrirmyndar > The boxer’s bravery was exemplary.
- Bróðir Friðriks(gen) lítur út alveg eins og hann. Heitir hann Georg? > Fred’s brother looks just like him. Is he called George?
There is more to say about possession, but as far as it relates to cases, this is pretty much it. You can read more about Possession here, and possession here.
The subject (the doer) takes the nominative. The direct object (the patient, the thing that is being acted on) takes the accusative. The indirect object (the recipient) takes the dative. Some verbs take an unexpected case. Possessors take the genitive case.
Following is a table summarising everything discussed in this article. It also incorporates prepositions as case assigners as discussed in Cases and Prepositions. Note that this table is not exhaustive, only a reference with some of the most common prepositions and the basics of cases
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