The Names of the Cases

By
Siggi
June 24, 2024
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One reason the Icelandic cases can be so confusing is that the terminology is incredibly opaque. What the blazes does “dative” even mean? Does it have to do with the date? Is “genitive” the original word for gender politics? Who do you accuse with the accusative?

In English, the names of the cases feel so arcane because they're not even English - they're stolen wholesale from Latin. Icelandic has no such problem, thankfully, so it can be enlightening to learn the names of the cases in Icelandic - and WHY they have those names.

We're not going into depth here on how to use the cases or how they work: you want Basics of Cases for that.

Key Takeaways

The names of the cases in Icelandic are transparent, so if you understand their names, you can understand what they do. Fall means case - that's why all the cases are named something-fall.

Nefnifall, the Naming Case

Nefnifall is the Icelandic word for the nominative case. 

Nefni comes from the verb að nefna (to name, to give a name), like the noun nafn (name)

  • Að nefna = to name, to give sb a name
  • Nafn = a name

It is the naming case. That's because it's the case you would use if you're presenting somebody's name or just naming things without context:

  • Hæ, ég heiti Sigginom = Hi, my name is Siggi.
  • Ég er kallaður Herra Svínnom! = They call me Mister Pig!
  • Osturnom, brauðnom, tómatarnom…já, við eigum allt í kvöldmatinn! = Cheese, bread, tomatoes… yeah, we have everything for dinner!

Þolfall, the Suffering Case

Þolfall is the Icelandic word for the accusative.

Þol comes from the verb að þola, which is hard to translate but means basically to have something done to you

  • Að þola = to weather, to suffer, to endure, to stand something, to withstand, to bear, to put up with, to tolerate

That's why þolfall is the suffering case. It's not surprising, then, that we use it for the one that has something done to them - AKA the patient, AKA the direct object.

  • Óli borðaði hamborgarannacc = Óli ate the hamburger.
  • María eyddi fríinu sínu í að raka tréacc. Hún er klikk = María spent her vacation shaving trees. She's nuts.
  • Af hverju ertu að meiða migacc? = Why are you hurting me?

Þágufall, the Receiving Case

Þágufall is the Icelandic word for the dative.

Þágu comes from the verb að þiggja, which means to accept or to receive.

  • Að þiggja = to accept, to receive

 It is the receiving case. That's because it's the case you use for the recipient - AKA the indirect object.

  • Viltu gefa mérdat kaktusinn? = Can you give me the cactus?
  • Ég sendi hennidat bréf = I sent her a letter.
  • Réttu bróðurdat þínumdat saltið = Pass your brother the salt.

Eignarfall, the Possessive Case

Eignarfall is the Icelandic word for the genitive.

Eignar comes from eign (a possession), which comes from the verb að eiga, which means to own.

  • Eign = a possession
  • Að eiga = to own

 It is the possessive case. That's because you use it for the possessor - somebody who owns something.

  • Gítarinn hansgen Jónsagen er mjög dýr = Jónsi's guitar is very expensive.
  • Líf Rósugen var enginn dans á rósum = Rose's life was no dance on roses (an expression equivalent to a walk in the park).
  • Bróðir Haraldsgen er óþolandi = Harald's brother is insufferable.

Tying It All Together

Here are a couple of example sentences with all the different cases, so you can see how they interact.

  • Lokinom gaf Týdat hamarinnacc hansgen Þórsgen = Loki gave Týr Þór's hammer. 

Týr receives, so he's in þágufall - the receiving case. The hammer suffers being given, so it's in the þolfall - the suffering case. Þór owns the hammer, so he's in the eignarfall - the possessive case.

  • Ægirnom sendi Júlíudat pakkannacc hennargen = Ægir sent Júlía her package.

Júlía receives, so she's in þágufall - the receiving case. The package suffers being given, so it's in the þolfall - the suffering case. Hennar designates the owner of the package, so that's in the eignarfall - the possessive case.

  • Vilt þúnom rétta mérdat saltiðacc hansgen Geirsgen = Can you pass me Geir's salt?

Mér receives, so that's in þágufall - the receiving case. The salt suffers being given, so it's in the þolfall - the suffering case. Geir owns the salt, so that's in the eignarfall - the possessive case.

Summary

The names of the cases in Icelandic are transparent, so if you understand their names, you can understand what they do.