Cases and Motion

Case is one of the big hurdles facing Icelandic learners. 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 is largely systematic and absolutely learnable. In this article we will take a look at case as it relates to motion and non-motion.

In Cases and Prepositions we learned about prepositions as case assigners, and what case each preposition takes. We also learned that some prepositions can assign either the accusative or the dative case, and change their meaning depending on which they assign. One of those differences in case marking is to indicate motion and non-motion. Cases are not the only way to do this, as locative adverbs (adverbs indicating location) and certain question words also change depending on whether they indicate motion or non-motion.

In this article we’ll start by exploring prepositions which take different cases depending on whether they indicate motion or non-motion. Then we’ll look at locative adverbs which change with motion, and finally question words.  

If you want to look up the declensions (case changes) for any of the words discussed in this article, has comprehensive inflections for every word in the language.

Í, Á, Yfir, Undir

The prepositions í, á, yfir and undir take the accusative case when they indicate motion towards a location, and the dative when they indicate non-motion at the location. In more complicated cases, the difference in meaning can become more nuanced, though the core meaning always remains the same.

To or At Locations

Whereas most prepositions always take the same case no matter what, í, á, yfir and undir (in, on, over, and under) can variably take either the accusative case or the dative, depending on whether they indicate motion towards a location, or non-motion at the location.

  • Jón hjólaði í skólann(acc) > Jón rode his bike to school.
  • Jón hjólaði í skólanum(dat) > Jón rode his bike in school.

In the first example, Jón uses an environmentally-friendly mode of transportation to get to school. In the second example, Jón will get into trouble with the teachers.

Note that non-motion does not equal complete stillness: movement within a location still counts as non-motion. Jón is, of course, moving when he rides his bike around the hallways of his school, but since there is no motion towards the school, the dative case is used.

  • Guðrún hljóp í vinnuna(acc) > Guðrún ran to work.
  • Guðrún hljóp í vinnunni(dat) > Guðrún ran around at work.
  • Anna fór á kaffihúsið(acc) > Anna went to the café.
  • Hún borðaði köku á kaffihúsinu(dat) > She ate cake at the café.
  • Settu dúk yfir borðið(acc) > Put a tablecloth over the table.
  • Myndin er yfir rúminu(dat) > The picture is over the bed.
  • Kötturinn skreið undir rúmið(acc) > The cat crawled under the bed.
  • Kötturinn skreið undir rúminu(acc) > The cat crawled around under the bed.
Nuance of Meaning

As the examples above show, the choice of case can be the sole difference between going to a location and doing something at the location. This is the most base distinction of meaning between motion and non-motion, but the accusative-dative distinction allows for nuance of meaning that doesn’t translate simply. The examples below would require rephrasing the sentence as a whole.

  • Guðmundur ældi á borðið(acc) >Guðmundur puked on the table (Guðmundur was standing and the puke ended up on the table).
  • Guðmundur ældi á borðinu(dat) > Guðmundur puked on the table (Guðmundur was lying on the table when he puked. We don’t know where the puke ended up).
  • Sigurður gekk yfir hæðina(acc) > Sigurður walked over the hill (from one side of the hill to the other).
  • Sigurður gekk yfir hæðinni(dat) > Sigurður walked over the hill (he walked in the air above the hill, free from the constraints of gravity).
Locative Adverbs

A locative adverb, or an adverb of location, is exactly what it says on the tin: an adverb that refers to a location. In English, those would be words such as here, there, home, etc. In Icelandic, locative adverbs change depending on whether they indicate no motion (being at the location), motion toward the location, or motion from the location.

Table of Icelandic Locative Adverbs

Note that, in the strictest grammatical sense, the “no motion”, “motion towards” and “motion from” forms are considered three different words, not three forms of the same word. This is necessary to know to look words up in dictionaries: each form will have its own entry and definition.

  • Sigga er hérna núna > Sigga is here now.
  • Hún kom hingað í gær > She came here yesterday.
  • Jón fór upp, hann kemur niður á eftir > John went upstairs, he‘ll come down later.
  • Batinn verður að koma að innan > The healing has to come from the inside.
  • Ertu ættaður héðan? > Is your family from around here?

English used to do this as well with words such as where, whence (from where) and whither (to where), and here, hither (to here), hence (from here). Of course, these words sound very archaic in modern language, but they still appear in popular media from time to time, such as in Elrond‘s speech in Lord of the Rings: The fellowship of the Ring: „[The ring] must be […] cast back into the fiery chasm from whence it came.” If Elrond's Icelandic had been more on-point, he would have known you don't need to say from when directionality is already indicated with whence.

Alternate Use

It is important to note that for að innan, að utan, að ofan and að neðan there is another meaning possible: on the inside / outside / top / bottom. In the cases of að innan and að utan this „alternate“ meaning is more common than the directional one.

  • Kassinn er gulur að innan > the box is yellow on the inside.
  • Kassinn er rauður að utan > the box is red on the outside.
  • Kassinn er grænn að ofan > the box is green on top.
  • Kassinn er blár að neðan > the box is blue on the bottom.
Question Words

Similarly to the locative adverbs, question words for locations depend on motion. Those are hvar (where), hvert (to where) and hvaðan (from where).

Icelandic Question Words of Motion
  • Hvar er Gísli? > Where is Gísli?
  • Hvert fór Gísli? > Where did Gísli go?
  • Hvaðan er Gísli? > Where is Gísli from?

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