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
The possessed can be a(n)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
This table summarises the possession of concrete nouns, abstract nouns, and relations.