Possession of body parts in Icelandic is considerably different from possession of generic nouns and relations (which you can read about in our article Cases and Possession). The primary difference is that the genitive case and possessive pronouns aren’t used at all. The definite article is still important: this is the word the in English, but is added to the noun in Icelandic: stelpa is a girl, but stelpan is the girl, for example.
In this article we’ll briefly review possession of generic nouns and relations and compare that to possession of body parts; then we’ll go over how possession of body parts works. This will include the possessive construction used, how it changes if the possessor is already mentioned, and finally what happens if we accidentally treat body parts like generic nouns.
This is an extremely information-dense, oversimplified summary of the Cases and Possession article. Knowing how to use possession of generic nouns and relations is not strictly necessary in order to understand possession of body parts, as the two structures are so different, but it is a useful refresher to be able to contrast the different structures.
The possessed takes the definite article if it is a generic noun and the possessor is indicated by a pronoun (bókin mín, bókin hans). The name of the possessor can be added at the end: it does not replace the pronoun (bókin hans Jóns). However, the word order can be flipped and the definite article removed, resembling English, for contrast or emphasis (“þetta er MÍN bók!”). The possessed does not take the definite article if it indicates relations (pabbi minn), or if the possessor is a genitive noun (bók mannsins). The genitive noun possessor takes the definite article.
Possession of body parts works considerably differently, as we must take a unique approach. We use a possessive construction: the body part with the definite article + í or á + the possessor in the dative case. Basically the hair on me, the heart in me. The choice between the prepositions í and á depends on whether the body part is internal, like teeth or organs, or external, like hair and limbs.
Unlike generic possession, there is no difference between pronoun possessors and genitive possessors. This is perhaps unsurprising, as the genitive case isn’t used with body parts. Manninum is in the dative, just like mér and honum Trölla. Similarly to generic possession, the name of the possessor is tacked on after a pronoun if we want to clarify the name of the possessor (honum Trölla).
If the possessor of the body part is indicated earlier in the sentence, it isn’t necessary to indicate them again: it’s obvious whose body part it is. That is, the á mér, í honum part is not used. All that is needed is the body part with the definite article: the back, the leg. In the following examples, the possessor of the body part is bolded. Note that the í / á does not come from the possessive construction. In the first example it comes from the impersonal phrasal verb að verkja í e-h, and in examples 2 and 3 the í and á are simply prepositions indicating location.
If we were to treat body parts like we do generic nouns (with the definite article + a pronoun, for example), the meaning would be significantly different from what we intend. In these examples the verbs are phrasal verbs: að bursta í sér e-h and að þvo sér um e-h. This is the source of the prepositions í and um.
This table summarises the possession of body parts.
A possessive construction is used: the body part with the definite article + í or á + the possessor in the dative case. The choice between í and á depends on whether the body part is internal or external (the back on me, the heart in me). If the possessor is previously indicated, the í / á part is omitted: the body part with the definite article is all that remains.
This table summarises possession, including possession of generic nouns and relations, which is discussed in detail in Cases and Possession.
The article could have ended there. But it’s language. Of course you can break the rules! And you rebel you want to break them! But you should definitely know the rule you’re breaking, and more importantly, why. Here we’ll look at the rules you can break when indicating possession.
When the possessor is named, and the possessed is a generic noun or a relation, hans or hennar usually precedes the name. This can be dropped to increase the level of formality a little bit. If this is done, the article must be omitted as well. This is frequently employed in written language, but may also be heard in spoken language if the speaker is talking relatively slowly or carefully.
A student of Icelandic should be wary of playing with formality levels without very good reason until they have a good instinctual grasp of the language. It is good to recognise this kind of formality shift, but realise that using formal speech patterns in casual conversation is, unless very carefully employed, downright bizarre.
Imagine a 14-year-old asking their father for a ride to the mall to go clothes shopping.
Now imagine they didn’t mean to talk like that.
Children have a tendency to over-generalise the rules of their language, and possession is no exception. It‘s not unusual to hear children applying the rules for generic nouns to body parts. If you want to sound like a child, you can do so, too!
Avoiding child-speak can be a bigger challenge for second language speakers than maintaining neutral formality, as sentence-wide rephrasing may be necessary as opposed to just making sure to keep an article. A second-language-speaker is generally given plenty of leeway, though, so don’t be discouraged if you haven’t internalised the body part rules and apply the general rules! You’ll be perfectly understood either way.