Cases and Possession

The genitive case may seem like the least used of the four cases. No sentence element corresponds to it and only a very few verbs, impersonal verbs and prepositions assign it. But the genitive case is essential in indicating possession

Possession in Icelandic is largely similar to English, using pronouns (like my book, her chair etc.) and the genitive case, which is equivalent to the English “apostrophe s” (John’s chair, the man’s book) or x of y (the sword of destiny, etc.). Unlike English, Icelandic brings the definite article into the mix. Although the in English is a separate word, in Icelandic it is part of the declension of the word. Bók is a book, while bókin is the book, for example.

Possession in Icelandic depends both on the possessor (the person or thing that owns something) and the possessed (the person or thing that is owned, not possessed like in The Exorcist).

The possessor can be either a

  • pronoun (which we’ll refer to as a pronoun possessor) or a
  • noun in the genitive case (which we’ll refer to as a genitive possessor).

The possessed can be a(n)

  • concrete noun (something you can literally touch or feel, like a boy, the wind etc.)
  • abstract noun (something you cannot touch or feel, like an idea, an opinion, etc.)
  • relation (words like mom, co-worker, friend, etc.), or a
  • body part (heart, back, leg, etc.).

Possession of body parts works considerably differently from the other types, so they have their own article, Possession and Body Parts.

First, we will look at genitive possessors and how possession works in general. Then we will turn to pronoun possessors, including inflection. Finally, we’ll discover some intricacies of relations and abstract nouns.

Genitive Possessors

The word order of possession is different from English: Icelandic puts the thing that you own first, followed by the owner (chair the man’s, essentially).

Genitive possessors work almost exactly like possession in English. They take the genitive case (which is the equivalent to the English “apostrophe s”). With genitive possessors, the possessed does not take the definite article.

  • Þetta er bók mannsins(gen) > This is the man’s book.
  • Þetta eru fótspor barns(gen) > These are a child’s footsteps.
  • Hugmyndir yfirmannsins(gen) valda ömurlegu andrúmslofti > The boss’s ideas cause a terrible atmosphere.
  • Er þetta vinur konunnar(gen)? > Is this the woman’s friend?

Pronoun Possessors

The primary difference between genitive possessors and pronoun possessors is that concrete nouns (things you can touch, but not relations like dad, classmate, cousin etc.) take the definite article with pronoun possessors.

  • Þetta er bókin mín > This is my book.
  • Er sjónvarp hennar í lagi? > Is her TV all right?

The pronoun possessors are minn (my), þinn (your), sinn (his own / her own), hans (his), hennar (her), þess (its), okkar (our), ykkar (plural your: y’all’s, if you will) and þeirra (their).

Translations with multiple possessors often sound stilted or forced in English because of the way possession works in English. These phrases are perfectly natural in Icelandic, though.

  • Þetta er einhyrningurinn minn > This is my unicorn (lit. this is unicorn-the my).
  • “Einhyrningurinn” þinn er hestur með pappamassa á enninu > Your “unicorn” is a horse with papier-mâché on its forehead.
  • Hún talaði við pabba sinn > She talked to her (own) dad.
  • Þetta er bókin hennar > This is her book.
  • Ég skoðaði myndir af börnunum hans > I looked at pictures of his children.
  • Þetta er húsið okkar > This is our house.
  • Ég braut dótið ykkar > I broke you (guys’) stuff.
  • Börnin þeirra eru orðin tíu ára > Their kids have turned ten years old.

To clarify the name of the possessor, it is simply added after the pronoun in the genitive case. With concrete nouns, the name does not replace the pronoun like in English. Basically, book-the his John’s, child-the her Anna’s. With abstract nouns you would drop the pronoun, just like in English. When the name is included, the pronoun is never stressed in spoken language, that is, it can’t be emphasised.

  • Þetta er bókin hennar(gen) Guðrúnar(gen) > This is Guðrún’s book.
  • Ég skoðaði myndir af börnunum hans(gen) Jóns(gen) > I looked at pictures of Jón’s children.
  • Þetta er húsið okkar(gen) Gísla(gen) > This is my and Gísli’s house (lit. our Gísli’s).
  • Ég braut dótið ykkar(gen) Klöru(gen) > I broke you and Klara’s stuff (lit. you plural Klara’s).
  • Börnin þeirra(gen) Erlu(gen) og Ástu(gen) eru orðin tíu ára > Erla and Ásta’s kids have turned ten years old (lit. their Erla’s and Ásta’s).
  • Líf Jónínu(gen) er erfitt > Jónína’s life is hard.

Inflection

Good news: hans, hennar, þess, okkar, ykkar, and þeirra don’t inflect. Jei! Better news: minn, þinn and sinn inflect exactly the same aside from that first letter (m, þ, and s). Double jei!

We kind of tricked you there. The reason hans, hennar etc. “don’t inflect” is that they are already inflected. They’re the genitive form of personal pronouns. Hans comes from hann, hennar from hún, etc. Minn and þinn are possessive pronouns, and sinn is a reflexive pronoun. These inflect. For the purposes of possession, the difference between personal, possessive and reflexive pronouns is not relevant. We just had to get that off our conscience.

The tables below are from bin.arnastofnun.is. Eintala is singular and fleirtala plural. Karlkyn is masculine, kvenkyn feminine, and hvorugkyn is neuter. Nf. Stands for nefnifall (nominative), þf. for þolfall (accusative), þgf. for þágufall (dative) and ef. for eignarfall (genitive).

  • Þetta er bókin mín(sg.fem.nom) > This is my book.
  • Þetta er osturinn minn(sg.masc.nom) > This is my cheese.
  • Ég borðaði súpuna þína(sg.fem.acc), fyrirgefðu > I ate your soup, sorry.
  • Misstirðu börnin þín(pl.neu.acc) á hausinn? > Did you drop your children on the head?
  • Hann svaraði barninu sínu(sg.neu.dat) > He answered his (own) child.
  • Ég trúi ekki að hún geti breytt hjartslættinum sínum(sg.masc.dat) > I can’t believe she can change her (own) heartbeat.

Inversion for Emphasis

The sentence structure for pronoun possessors can be changed to be like in English, with the pronoun before the noun and without the article (my book, your chair) but this changes the meaning somewhat. This construction is used for emphasis or contrast, and in spoken language the pronoun is emphasised.

  • ÞINN bíll lyktar ekki illa > YOUR car doesn’t smell (but somebody else’s car does).
  • HANS einhyrningur er ekta > (your unicorn may be fake, but) HIS unicorn is real.
  • Þetta er ekki MITT dóp > These aren’t MY drugs (but someone else’s).

Relations

Recall that relations are words like mom, son, daughter, friend, coworker, classmate, boss, etc. Basically the people in your life who have “titles”. They are distinct from the concrete nouns in that they do not take the definite article with a pronoun possessor.

A few words are frequently mistaken for relations: barn (child), maður (man) and kona (woman). These all have generic meanings, unlike the true relations words. Dad, sister, and friend by definition only exist in relation to someone else. Woman, man, and child need to have their relationship to someone specified.

Maður (man) and kona (woman) take on a new meaning when “owned”: maðurinn minn and konan mín means my husband and my wife, not simply my man and my woman. They (as well as barn) take the definite article with a pronoun possessor.

  • Barn mitt er sætasta barn í heimi > My child is the cutest child in the world.
  • Maðurinn hans Gísla er fjallmyndarlegur > Gísli’s husband is extremely handsome (lit. mountain-handsome).
  • Konan hennar Sigríðar er enn myndarlegri > Sigríður’s wife is even more handsome.

Abstract Nouns

Abstract nouns (things you cannot physically touch or feel) are somewhat different between informal, spoken language and written, formal language. In the latter, the sentences below would be fine.

  • Líf Jónínu var erfitt > Jónína’s life was hard.
  • Nafn mitt er Inigo Montoya > My name is Inigo Montoya.
  • Hugmyndir Guðmunds Franklíns eru…athyglisverðar > Guðmundur Franklín’s ideas are…interesting.

In spoken or informal language, the sentences above would be preposterously formal. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all way to use abstract nouns in informal, spoken language. Each sentence needs to be specially rephrased. Að eiga, vera með or hafa are often a good way to rephrase possession with abstract nouns.

  • Jónína átti erfitt líf > Jónina had a hard life.
  • Ég heiti Inigo Montoya > My name is Inigo Montoya.
  • Guðmundur Franklín er með…athyglisverðar hugmyndir > Guðmundur Franklín has…interesting ideas.

Summary 

This table summarises the possession of concrete nouns, abstract nouns, and relations.


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