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 prepositions.
A preposition expresses a relation in time or space. They are, like verbs, case assigners in Icelandic. That is, the case of a noun depends on the preposition preceding it. This does mean that it is necessary (at least eventually) to memorise which case every single preposition assigns, but this is a lot more doable than it may seem at first glance. No preposition ever assigns the nominative, and only a very few assign the genitive, so in the vast majority of cases the options are only two: accusative or dative.
We will go through the cases, one by one, and list the most common prepositions which assign each case. This is not an exhaustive list, but it will cover the vast majority of prepositions a speaker is likely to need in daily life.
Translations given in parentheses will not be exact for every circumstance, but meaning will be quite consistent. When it comes to prepositions the exact translation is rarely important for understanding; context is everything. Just remember that a preposition expresses a relation in time or space and context will do the heavy lifting.
There are a select few prepositions which may take either accusative or dative and change the meaning of the sentence depending on which it is. We we will save these for last.
No preposition assigns the nominative case.
Um (about), við (by), and kringum (around) always take the accusative case. In addition, prepositional phrases which indicate relative position and start with fyrir take the accusative: fyrir sunnan (south of), fyrir norðan (north of), fyrir austan (east of), fyrir vestan (west of), fyrir ofan (above), fyrir neðan (underneath), fyrir innan (inside of), fyrir utan (outside of), fyrir framan (in front of) and fyrir aftan (behind).
Frá (from), hjá (by, with), af (off), að (up to), handa (for), móti (opposite), and úr (out of) always take the dative case.
Til (to), milli (between), and án (without) always take the genitive case.
Some prepositions can take either the accusative or dative cases, and change the meaning of the phrase depending on which they take. These are í, á, yfir, undir; and fyrir, eftir, með.
Í á, yfir, undir
As we explore in depth in í, á, yfir, undir, these four prepositions take the accusative when they indicate motion towards a location, and the dative when they don't indicate motion toward a location.
In addition, when referring to time, í indicates duration of an event or state, and takes the accusative. Á indicates the time taken to complete an action, and takes the dative. These prepositions are explored in depth in our article on Duration.
Fyrir with the accusative case is equivalent to for while fyrir with the dative case can mean either to in the sense of opinion (what does this mean to you?), or being in somebody’s way.
Eftir with the accusative is used to mean by (an author) or after (a cause), and with the dative to mean after (in space).
Fyrir and Eftir as Timing Expressions
Fyrir and eftir are prolific prepositions as timing expressions. We explore them in-depth in our article on Point-Relative Timing, but here is a very short recap. With time, fyrir translates as ago and takes the dative; eftir translates as in and takes the accusative. With events, fyrir translates as before and eftir as after; they both take the accusative in this use.
It is often said that með is used for things in the accusative and people in the dative. This is a fine simplification. To add nuance, the dative is used for accompaniment between equals, whether human or not, while the accusative indicates possession of something or someone. If the idea of possession of people feels counter-intuitive, consider most activities done with children where they do not materially contribute.
One other meaning of með with the dative is to indicate something used as a tool.
What case each preposition takes needs to be memorised. No prepositions take the nominative and only a very few take the genitive. Some prepositions change their meaning depending on what case they take. Among them are í and á which can indicate motion or non-motion with the accusative and the dative, respectively. Með indicates possession with the accusative and accompaniment with the dative.
Unfortunately, the matter of case assignment is too big a topic to cover in its entirety in this article. In addition to prepositions, verbs are prolific case assigners. This phenomenon is detailed in other articles.
Following is a table summarising everything discussed in this article. It also incorporates verbs as case assigners as discussed in Cases and Verbs.