Personal Pronouns and Possession
Icelandic frequently uses personal pronouns in the genitive case (sometimes called the possessive case) to indicate possession. You can think of the genitive case as the possessive form of these pronouns. Check out Basics of Cases if you need a refresher on the cases.
Once a pronoun is in the genitive (possessive), you don’t need to inflect it further. It’s as inflected as it’ll ever be. Yay, simple! Simple is good.
What can be a little tricky is that the thing that’s possessed can sometimes have the definite article (the word the in English) and sometimes not, depending on a number of factors. Let’s make this a little easier.
As a side-note: there are other ways to indicate possession in Icelandic, notably with:
- the possessive pronouns minn and þinn,
- the reflexive possessive pronoun sinn; and with
- any noun in the genitive case.
So They Really Don’t Change at All?
Nope! None of these words ever change, since they’re already inflected to be in the genitive case. Here are some examples with a masculine word in the singular and plural, a feminine word, and then a neuter word.
- Hundurinn hans lyktar eins og blaut tuska > His dog smells like a wet rag.
- Hundarnir hans lykta eins og blaut tuska > His dogs smell like a wet rag.
- Vinkona hans lyktar eins og blaut tuska > His (female) friend smells like a wet rag.
- Húsið hans lyktar eins og blaut tuska > His house smells like a wet rag.
Notice the word order: it’s not his dog, it’s the dog his. The pronoun comes after. I’ll go into why it’s the dog below.
Naming the Possessor
Instead of replacing the pronoun with a name, like you would do in English (his dog, John’s dog), you simply add the name after the pronoun.
- Hundurinn hans Jóns lyktar eins og L’Oréal model > Jón’s dog smells like a L’Oréal model.
- Hefurðu séð lampann hennar Alexöndru? Hann glóir í myrkri! > Have you seen Alexandra’s lamp? It glows in the dark!
- Ferillinn háns Öldu Villiljóss er mjög áhugaverður > Alda Villiljós’ career is very interesting.
A common challenge for English speakers is that this works well for the plural, which in English can often sound stilted or weird.
- Þú braust borðið okkar Klöru! > You broke my and Claire’s table! (Claire and I’s table? Me and Claire’s table? Claire and my table? Seriously, English, get your shit together)
- Get ég fengið lánaðan bílinn ykkar Kalla? > Can I borrow your and Kalli’s car?
- Íbúðin þeirra Sverris og Halldóru er risastór > Sverrir and Halldóra’s apartment is enormous.
The Definite Article
You often (but not always) use the definite article (the word the in English) with the thing you possess, and it depends on what type of possession you’re talking about. There are four types of possession.
- Concrete nouns (something physical: a boy, the wind, a hovercraft)
- Abstract nouns (something non-physical: an idea, an opinion, shame)
- Relations (words like mom, co-worker, friend)
- Body parts (heart, back, leg)
- Bækurnar hennar eru stórlega ofmetnar > Her books are vastly overrated.
- Hæfileikar háns eru tilkomumiklir > Their talents are impressive.
- Ég spjallaði við bróður þeirra Egils og Freys. Hann er indæll > I chatted with Egill’s and Freyr’s brother. He’s nice.
Possession of body parts is a bit different; ordinarily, you wouldn’t use a pronoun in the genitive with those. You can check out Possession and Body Parts for an in-depth dive into that.
The Colloquial Style Is Simpler
Man, four different types of words being treated differently sounds really complicated. You can make it simpler by just mastering the colloquial style. That’s what you would use in regular day-to-day talk with friends and family. I wouldn’t use it if you’re writing an academic paper or something fancy like that, though.
Notice that the colloquial style basically treats everything like a concrete noun (except relations. They still do their own thing).
- Stóllinn þeirra er rosalega þægilegur > Their chair is very comfortable. (concrete noun + article = standard)
- Ég dáist að hugrekkinu háns > I admire their courage. (abstract noun + article = colloquial)
- Ég öfunda hana svo af hárinu hennar > I’m so jealous of her hair. (body part + article = colloquial)
- Hefurðu hitt félaga hans Karls? > Have you met Karl’s buddy? (relation without article = standard)
Conversely, if you want to be extra formal, you can treat ALL words like abstract nouns and skip the definite article. Don’t do this in casual conversation, though, or you’ll sound stuffy.
- Bók hennar um geimverur vakti mikla athygli > Her book about aliens aroused much attention. (concrete noun without article = formal)
- Hamingja háns þegar hán gifti sig hrærði mig > Their happiness when they got married touched me. (abstract noun without article = standard)
- Frændi okkar er kallaður langlappi > Our cousin is called long-legs. (relation without article = standard)
- Hjarta hans er stórt, þó hann sé grófur á yfirborðinu > His heart is big, though he is rough on the surface. (body part without article = formal)
If you’re looking to go into academia in Icelandic or something similar, it’s important to master the different levels of formality.
The personal pronouns in the genitive case are:
The definite article plays a role in possession. If you’re a beginner, or if you’re just aiming for spoken fluency, master the colloquial style.
If you have high ambitions, such as for academia or politics, I salute you! Get good at everything.
Consider buying me a cup of coffee =)