The Genitive Case

Contents:

1. What is a genitive?
2. How to use ásatrúar
3. How to make a patronymic/matronymic

1. What is a genitive?

One of the biggest problems for English-speakers who incorporate large amounts of Norse/Icelandic into their vocabulary is the case system. English doesn’t really have cases (or barely does, anyway) but it’s completely necessary for understanding Norse.

Declension for the word maðr ‘man, person’ in Old Icelandic:

 Singular  Plural
Nominative  maðr  menn
Accusative  mann  menn
Dative  manni  mǫnnum
Genitive  manns  manna

Usually when a Norse word gets adopted into English it’s taken in the nominative. This is the “dictionary form” of the word – the one you can look up. The “basic” form of the word, if it could be said that there is one. The accusative and dative cases don’t usually come into play when you’re speaking English. I have never heard someone speaking English, but inflect when their speech comes to an Icelandic word. However, the genitive case often comes up, and since English doesn’t have one, it causes a lot of confusion.

The genitive is often compared to the English possessive, when you add ⟨’s⟩ to the end of a word to show it possesses something. Although the genitive is often used to show possession, and in fact its name in Icelandic, eignarfall means “case of ownership,” it’s really a bit more complicated than ours.

A genitive is a noun which modifies another noun. That is, it’s used kind of like an adjective (although it does not decline any more than it already has to get to the genitive in the first place).

2. How to use ásatrúar

Let’s look at the word ásatrúar for example, which is the genitive of ásatrú ‘æsir-faith.’

To start with, I should point out that ásatrú is definitely a noun. Some people seem to think it’s an adjective. I see the translation “true to the æsir” posted all over the internet, but this is not exactly right. One funny thing about it though is that hypothetically a word ásatrúr, with that nominative -r ending, actually would mean ‘true to the æsir,’ and males who identify themselves with an adjective ásatrú may be properly expressing their religious views, but they are also calling themselves female (because dropping the -r indicates a feminine declension). I don’t think anyone uses ásatrúr.

Ásatrú is a feminine noun, and like many feminine nouns has a very simple declension (the plural is kind of hypothetical, you can’t really have more than one ásatrú):

 Singular  Plural
Nominative  ásatrú  ásatrúr
Accusative  ásatrú  ásatrúr
Dative  ásatrú  ásatrúm
Genitive  ásatrúar  ásatrúa

So the genitive acts like an adjective, but it does not decline any more than it already has. Whether you are a man or a woman you are equally ásatrúar. The -r at the end is not a masculine suffix, it’s just part of the ending that indicates that it’s a genitive. To say that it “acts like an adjective” might be a little confusing, so let’s just stick with “a noun that modifies another noun.”

I think a good translation for ásatrúar would be ‘of ásatrú.’ Like how Eiríksson means ‘son of Eiríkr.’ If you think of it that way I think it’s easy to keep track of how to use it.

So now the big question: does one say “I am ásatrúar” or “I am an ásatrúar?”

The answer is the first one. Remember, a genitive needs a noun to modify. You can say “I am Eiríkr’s” (that is ‘I belong to Eiríkr’) but you can’t say “I am an Eiríkr’s.” If you say “I am an ásatrúar” the sentence is incomplete – you’re an ásatrúarwhat?

So here are some ways to say you follow ásatrú that mix English and Norse and are grammatically correct:

  • I am ásatrúar ‘I am of the æsir-faith’
  • I am an ásatrúarmaðr (Ice. ásatrúarmaður) ‘I am a man/person of the æsir-faith’ (maðr is cognate to English ‘man’ and is grammatically masculine but does not necessarily indicate biological gender)
  • I am an ásatrúarkona ‘I am a woman of the æsir-faith’ (if you are female and want to be more specific about your gender)

In Denmark (maybe Norway and Sweden as well, I’m not sure) they use a word asetroende which means roughly ‘æsir-believing’ (in function like ‘æsir-believer’). Hypothetically in Norse or Icelandic this would be singular ásatrúandi and plural ásatrúendur. This is the present participle of a hypothetical verb ásatrúa which would mean “to believe in the æsir.” It’s very uncommon to see it used in Icelandic but it makes sense theoretically.

Note: If you like ásatrúandi but don’t like that it isn’t genuinely Icelandic… well, actually neither is ásatrúÁsatrú is a translation into Icelandic of the Danish word asetro, attested first in the 1800’s. The word ásatrú was never used in ancient or medieval times.

3. How to make a patronymic/matronymic

Sometimes heathens like to make new names for themselves, or sometimes kindreds give new names to people. When making a “son of ___” or “daughter of ____” type name, it’s very common for them to get the grammar wrong – sometimes this is because they genuinely don’t care whether a name is proper Norse or not, but certainly many are actual mistakes which would have been done correctly if solid information had been available to them.

Let’s say I was particularly devoted to Freyja, and wanted to dedicate myself to her with a new name meaning “son of Freyja.” If I said Freyjasson, my new name would translate roughly to ‘I don’t know Norse.’

The declension of Freyja is very simple:

Nominative  Freyja
Accusative  Freyju
Dative  Freyju
Genitive  Freyju

So the correct way to say “son of Freyja” would be Freyjuson.

Another tricky one is Týr. Týrsson isn’t necessarily incorrect but it’s only right in Faroese, wherein the god’s name is Týrur. In both Old Norse and Icelandic, the genitive of Týr is Týs, so a Týr-patronymic would be Týsson (if you’ve ever confused this, don’t feel bad… the Icelandic poet Hallgrímur Pétursson also got it wrong in Króka-Refs rímur, though it may have been on purpose in order to make the rhyme fit).

As you can see, the genitives ásatrúarFreyju, and Týs have different endings. An English-speaker won’t always be able to predict what the genitive of a word is, so it’s a good idea to know how to look it up.

A great tool for finding declensions of words is Beygingarlýsing íslensks nútímamáls (‘inflection description of modern Icelandic’), provided by the Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland. It’s in Icelandic but it’s very simply to use. You just type the word (in the nominative case) into the search, click Leita (‘search’), and it comes up with the full inflection.

Note: unfortunately the search does require that you use Icelandic characters. You can’t search Odinn, it has to be Óðinn.

search1

Comes up with:

search2

Ef. stands for eignarfall, the genitive case.

If you’re not sure what form of the word is the nominative, click the box marked Leita að beygingarmynd (‘look for all declensions’):

search3

Sometimes you will turn up multiple results:

search4

Týr is both the name of a specific god and a general term for a god. If you’re looking for names, you want something called karlmannsnafn (‘man’s name’) or kvenmannsnafn (‘woman’s name’). In this case you can also tell because Týr is capitalized (but that won’t always help, because the database also has place names, which are also always capitalized).

search5

If you’re totally lost on how to spell a name, you can use a ‘wildcard’ by typing an asterisk ⟨*⟩. Let’s say you don’t know whether the name is IðunIðunnaIðunnIðuna, etc. Just type what you do know, then use the asterisk to say “everything that matches what I’ve typed up to this point.”

search6

In this case it actually has the matronymics in the results, but since the first one is called kvenmannsnafn we know that one is the actual name Iðunn.

One thing that can make this difficult is that it’s only for modern Icelandic. Usually it won’t make much of a difference (in fact it even has an entry for Þórr, the older form of Þór), but you can’t look up Hǿnir for example, you have to look up Hænir instead. Usually this just means inserting a ⟨u⟩ before the -r ending in some words (Heimdallur instead of Heimdallr). You also have to use ⟨ö⟩ instead of ⟨ǫ⟩ or ⟨ø⟩.

If you don’t know that the modern form of Hǿnir is Hænir, you might try using the wildcard to search: H*nir, but that turns up so many results that it doesn’t even get around to showing you what you’re looking for. But since you know it’s only one letter giving you trouble, you can use an underscore instead to say “turn up any result matching these letters, and only one letter in this spot”:

search7

Some genitives of gods’ names for quick reference… and now you know how to use BÍN to make sure I didn’t screw up:

  • Baldr (Ice. Baldur): Baldrs (Ice. Baldurs)
  • Bragi: Braga
  • Freyja: Freyju
  • Freyr: Freys
  • Frigg: Friggjar
  • Gefjun: Gefjunar
  • Heimdallr (Ice. Heimdallur): Heimdallar or Heimdalls (the former seems to be older, cf. the poem Heimdallargaldr)
  • Hǿnir (Ice. Hænir): Hǿnis (Ice. Hænis)
  • Hel: Heljar
  • Iðunn: Iðunar
  • Loki: Loka
  • Nanna: Nǫnnu (Ice. Nönnu)
  • Njǫrðr (Ice. Njörður): Njarðar
  • Óðinn: Óðins
  • Sif: Sifjar
  • Sigyn: Sigynjar
  • Ullr (Ice. Ullur): Ullar or Ulls (the former is etymologically “correct”)
  • Þórr (Ice. Þór): Þórs

Note: the word for “son” in Norse is sonr when it’s part of a name it usually loses the -r. So you would say Týsson and not TýssonrDóttir (‘daughter’) acts like is expected (Týsdóttir is correct).

When you add son to a name that already ends in -s in the genitive, you keep both ⟨s⟩’s. So “son of Baldur” is Baldrsson/Baldursson.

Hope this is helpful, and comment with any questions you have.

6 thoughts on “The Genitive Case

  1. Hey, this is really helpful, thanks. I’m having a bit of a problem though. When saying something like “the dog’s water” you would say “vatn hundsins”, correct? What if I wanted to say “A dog’s water”. Would the definite article still be there? Or do you use the singular indefinite genitive? Because if you do, I need to find a better online translator…

    • Sorry for the long delay, I haven’t been paying much attention to this site lately (busy with other stuff). To the best of my knowledge your translator is correct. Sometimes the Icelandic definite article just doesn’t quite correspond to how we use “the” in English.

      • I would say “hundavatn” is the most ‘natural’ translation, though as always the context matters (a lot!). Online translators almost certainly will get this whole genitive ‘trickery’ we do in icelandic wrong. At least I have yet to find any that truly _knows_ the principles to pull it off correctly (the one I tried just now included).

  2. Hello,

    I have a bit of a nerdy technical question regarding Loki and the use of the patronymic/matronymic of his name for his children.
    You see, since he both fathered and bore children how would you distinguish it in their names?
    From your explanation, the correct patronymic for Hela, Fenrir, etc. would be Lokadottir and Lokason.
    But how about Sleipnir when you want to really indicate, stress, that in this case Loki is not the father but the mother of the child?
    Or isn’t it possible to make the distinction?
    Thus, would it still be Lokason or would it be Lokijarson or such? So, Sleipnir Lokason or Sleipnir Lokijarson?

    I know all about declinations from Latin and ancient Greek, so don’t mind getting grammatically technical in any explanation.
    I just don’t know any Old Norse or Icelandic, and the linguist in me is stuck on getting this correct.
    So I’d be very much obliged if you could provide me with a conclusive answer.

    Many thanks and kind regards,

    Hiromi

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