Cases and Verbs

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.

Sentence Elements

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.

Subject

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.

  • Gígja(nom) sofnaði > Gígja fell asleep.
  • Í fyrradag sendi vinkona(nom) mín(nom) Anna(nom) Óla bréf > The day before yesterday my friend Anna sent Óli a letter.

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.

  • Anna er að lesa bók(acc) > Anna is reading a book.
  • Anna sendi Óla bréfið(acc) sem hún skrifaði > Anna sent Óli the letter she wrote.
  • Bóndinn skaut hest(acc) > The farmer shot a horse (the horse is the target).

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.

  • Sirkusstjórinn skaut hesti(dat) > The circus director shot a horse (the horse is rapidly accelerated ammunition, perhaps stuffed into a giant cannon and shot across the circus tent).
  • Anna henti leiðinlegu(dat) bókinni(dat) í ruslið > Anna threw the boring book in the trash.
  • Þeir dreifðu bæklingum(dat) í miðbænum > They distributed pamphlets downtown.
Indirect 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.

  • Ýmir gaf Aroni(dat) tölvu > Ýmir gave Aron a computer.
  • Anna sendi vini(dat) mínum(dat) Óla(dat) bréf > Anna sent my friend Óli a letter.
Subject Complements

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.

  • Hún er góður(nom) forritari(nom) > She’s a good programmer.
  • Hann lúkkar ekki sterkur(nom) > He doesn’t look strong.
  • Hljómsveitin heitir Electric Light Orchestra(nom), en er alltaf kölluð ELO(nom) > The band’s name is Electric Light Orchestra but it’s always called ELO.
Exceptions

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.

Dative Case

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

  • Emilía lagði bílnum(dat) á planinu > Emilía parked the car on the lot.

Að ná e-u > To catch sth

  • Guðrún náði kettinum(dat) eftir mikinn eltingarleik > Guðrún caught the cat after an extensive chase.

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.

  • Anna nennir ekki þessum(dat) eilífu(dat) fundum(dat) > Anna does not want to go to these eternal meetings.

Að loka e-u > To close sth

  • Viltu loka hurðinni(dat)? > Could you close the door? 

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.

  • Ég svaraði Jóni(dat) > I answered John.
  • Ég svaraði spurningunni(dat) > I answered the question.
  • Og hverju svaraðirðu(dat)? > And what did you answer?

Að hætta e-u > To stop doing sth

  • Ertu að krota í bókina mína? Hættu því(dat)! > Are you drawing in my book? Stop it!

Að gleyma e-u > To forget sth

  • Ég gleymdi veskinu(dat) heima > I forgot my wallet at home.

Að breyta e-u > To change sth

  • Guðmundur breytti skipulaginu(dat) í bókahillunni > Guðmundur changed the organisation of the book shelf.

Að hrósa einhverjum > To compliment somebody

  • Sigríður hrósaði mér(dat) fyrir vinnuna mína > Sigríður complimented me on my work.

Að týna e-u > To lose sth

  • Kristín týndi pennanum(dat) sínum(dat) > Kristín lost her pen.

Að ríða e-u / e-m > To ride (as a horse), to fuck sb

  • Hann kom ríðandi hesti(dat) >  He came riding a horse.
  • Ég reið barþjóninum(dat) frá í gær > I fucked the bartender from yesterday.

Að lýsa e-u > To describe sth

  • Geturðu lýst manninum(dat) sem þú sást? > Can you describe the man you saw?

Að safna e-u > To collect sth

  • Gunnar safnar frímerkjum(dat) > Gunnar collects stamps.

Að stela e-u > To steal sth

  • Margrét stal bókinni(dat) minni(dat) > Margrét stole my book.

Að eyða e-u > To spend (money), to delete sth

  • Helga eyddi tuttugu þúsund kalli(dat) á djamminu > Helga spent twenty thousand crowns (krónur) partying downtown.
  • Ekki eyða myndunum(dat) mínum(dat) > Don’t delete my photos.

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.

  • Þær rændu ríkasta(acc) mann(acc) landsins > They robbed the richest man in the country.
  • Þær rændu ríkasta(dat) manni(dat) landsins > They kidnapped the richest man in the country.
Genitive Case

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

  • Ég sakna Hildar(gen) > I miss Hildur.

Að gæta e-s > To guard, care for, protect sb

  • Á ég að gæta bróður(gen) míns(gen)? > Am I my brother’s keeper?

Summary

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.

Cases and Prepositions

Cases are hard. We make them easier with this instalment in our series on Cases

Cases and Impersonal Verbs

Verbs that don't change, dative sickness, and the language police: Impersonal verbs are an interesting topic.

Comparisons

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Learn about Icelandic comparisons!