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 verbs.
Verbs (and prepositions) are case assigners in Icelandic. That is, the case of a noun depends on the verb or preposition preceding it. This does not mean it is necessary to memorise which case every single verb assigns, as the different elements of a sentence - the subject, direct object, indirect object and subject complement - usually get assigned specific cases.
The subject is often defined as the doer or agent of the sentence: the one doing whatever is happening in the sentence. This is not a perfect definition, but a very good starting point. In the sentence “Jill sent John a card,” Jill is the subject: the one who is doing the giving. The subject is the answer to the question “who - or what – did this?”
In Icelandic, the subject is assigned the nominative case (nom). In the following examples the subject is bolded.
The direct object is the thing that is being acted upon. In the sentence, “Jill sent John a card,” the card is the direct object: it is not doing the giving, it is being given. Jill is the subject, and the card is the direct object. The direct object is the answer to the question “who or what did you ___”, where the blank can be any verb: what did you buy, who did you kiss, what did you pawn.
In Icelandic, the direct object is assigned the accusative case (acc). In the following examples the direct object is bolded.
An exception to the rule that the direct object takes the accusative – if a systematic variation can be called an exception – are verbs which imply rapid acceleration or distribution of the object. Those verbs assign the dative case (dat) to their direct object.
The indirect object is the recipient of something, usually receiving the direct object. In the sentence “Jill sent John a card,” John is the indirect object: he is receiving the card. Jill is the subject, the card is the direct object, and John is the indirect object.
In Icelandic, the indirect object is in the dative case (dat). In the following examples the indirect object is bolded.
A subject complement is. Is what? The sentence feels incomplete without whatever comes after that is: that’s the subject complement. It’s the necessary-for-the-sentence part that describes or renames the subject. “John is strong”, “they call me mister Pig”, etc.
In Icelandic the subject complement is always in the nominative. In the following examples the subject complement is bolded.
Language wouldn’t be language if it didn’t have exceptions. Below are 20 of the most common verbs which don't take the accusative case for their direct objects.
Standard dictionary notation is employed in this list to indicate case. The Icelandic word eitthvað is equivalent to the English something and it is abbreviated e-ð in the accusative case, e-u in the dative case (einhverju) and e-s in the genitive (einhvers). Einhver is equivalent to the English somebody: its accusative case, einhvern, is abbreviated as e-n, the dative einhverjum is e-m and the genitive einhvers is e-s.
These are 18 of the most common verbs which take the dative case instead of the accusative for their direct objects (and do not imply sudden acceleration or distribution).
Að leggja e-u > To park sth
Að ná e-u > To catch sth
Að nenna e-u > To feel like, to be in the mood for, to be arsed to do sth. There is no perfect English equivalent.
Að loka e-u > To close sth
Að svara einhverjum e-u > To answer somebody something. Strangely, the person being answered, the question being answered, and the answer all take the dative.
Að hætta e-u > To stop doing sth
Að gleyma e-u > To forget sth
Að breyta e-u > To change sth
Að hrósa einhverjum > To compliment somebody
Að týna e-u > To lose sth
Að ríða e-u / e-m > To ride (as a horse), to fuck sb
Að lýsa e-u > To describe sth
Að safna e-u > To collect sth
Að stela e-u > To steal sth
Að eyða e-u > To spend (money), to delete sth
Að ræna may take either the accusative or the dative. With the accusative it means to rob, while with the dative it means to kidnap.
Verbs which take the genitive case (gen) are rare. These are 2 of the most common verbs which take the genitive case instead of the accusative for their direct objects.
Að sakna e-s > To miss sb
Að gæta e-s > To guard, care for, protect sb
The subject (the doer) takes the nominative. Subject complements (which describe or rename the subject), take the nominative as well. The direct object (the thing that is being acted on) takes the accusative, unless it is being rapidly accelerated or distributed, in which case it takes the dative. The indirect object (the recipient) takes the dative. A few verbs take an unexpected case.
Unfortunately, the matter of case assignment is too big a topic to cover in its entirety in this article. In addition to verbs, prepositions are prolific case assigners and deserve special attention. Also, some couple dozen impersonal verbs exist, which assign a case other than the nominative to their subject. These phenomena are detailed in other articles.
Following is a table summarising everything discussed in this article. It also incorporates prepositions as case assigners as discussed in Cases and Prepositions.