As in any other case-based language, the cases of Old Norse each serve a variety of functions. After taking notice of the fact that the most basic of these functions are identical to those of other Indo-European languages, it may be useful to familiarize yourself with some of the more language-specific uses. Ensure you are familiar with the concept of case before reading this page.
Like German and more or less like Old English, Old Norse has four cases: nominative, accusative, genitive, and dative. The dative case has taken over the functions of three further cases that existed in earlier Germanic, namely the instrumental, ablative, and locative; it is therefore the case with the largest number of uses. On the clausal level, the nominative, accusative, and dative each perform a single straightforward task, while the genitive similarly has a primary function on the phrasal level:
The nominative furthermore fulfils the role played by the vocative in other Indo-European languages, i.e. that of address: a king is addressed with “konungr”. The other three cases fulfil multiple additional functions on one or both of the clausal and phrasal levels. Of course, they also interact with prepositions in various ways, and prepositions are heavily used in Old Norse. Since a preposition always determines what case its object takes, such behaviour can largely be learned by memorizing the prepositions. The discussion below deals instead with cases used without prepositions, a situation that was on the decline in Old Norse but still far more common than in Modern English. This page constitutes a rushed first step towards a reorganization of the (arguably somewhat haphazard) material in Iversen to match traditional case-functional categories. I'll be happy to come to a more complete and independent overview if I ever have the time and leisure to develop a full method.
This is the basic function of the accusative, in which the thing to which the action is directly applied, i.e. “the thing being somethinged”, is governed by the accusative. There is a large variety of subtypes of this function, but they are all easy to recognize: Þeir hǫfðu drepit þá alla. They had killed them all. Eiríkr konungr gladdi hana. King Eiríkr comforted her. Síðan leiddi hann mik á tal. Then he led me into conversation. Ek sá gersimar þær, er Atli konungr sendi okkr. I saw the jewels which King Atli sent us. This function is also exploited by a range of impersonal verbs, including dreyma (“dream”), fýsa (“wish”), gruna (“suspect, seem”), hungra (“be hungry”), and þyrsta (“be thirsty”): Mik dreymdi um hana í nótt. I dreamed of her in the night. Mik grunar, at eigi sé svá sem mér er til kennt. I suspect that it is not as I have been told.
Used for both duration and time at which: Stóð þessi orrosta fjóra daga. This battle lasted four days. Þat var eina nótt, er konungr svaf á dreka sínum í lyptingu, at honum þótti sem dreki mikill flygi útan af hafinu. One night, when the king was sleeping on the raised deck of his dragon-prowed ship, it seemed to him as though a large dragon was flying landwards from the harbour. Ormarr reið dag ok nótt. Ormarr rode day and night. Blót-Sveinn var þrjá vetr konungr yfir Svíum. Blót-Sveinn was king over the Swedes for three years.
Answers questions like how large and how heavy: Hann gaf Birni gullhring þann, er stóð hálfa mǫrk. He gave Bjǫrn a gold ring that weighed half a mark.
Answers the question where (both in the static sense and in the senses whither and by what route): Ok nú segir Ívarr, at hann hafði sent landveg riddaralið. And now Ívarr says that he has sent a troop of knights by land. Fell annan veg fótahlutr, en annan hǫfuðit. The lower part of his body fell in one direction, and his head in another. Nú ferr hann heim um kveldit. Now he goes home in the evening.
Note that some verbs can govern two accusatives, both where the second element in the accusative is an object complement and where the second object is the internal object, already implicit in the verb, while the first object is the direct object: Þá hǫll kallaði hann himnaríki. He called the hall the kingdom of heaven. Stefnir hjó hann banahǫgg. Stefnir gave him his death-blow.
This is the primary use of the genitive, used with nominals on the phrasal level. It should be entirely transparent to English speakers, as it commonly had the same singular form still used today (-s). Note the difference between the subjective genitive (the coward's fear) and the objective genitive (fear of God): Þriði sonr Hrólfs hét Hǫrðr, faðir Kára, fǫður Hǫrða-Knúts. Hrólfr's third son was called Hǫrðr, father of Kári, who was the father of Hǫrða-Knútr. Eptir þetta sendir Eiríkr konungr menn á fund Hrólfs konungs. After that, King Eiríkr sends menn to meet King Hrólfr.
The partitive genitive governs a larger whole of which something is a part: one of many; two of us. It is not as frequent in Old Norse as it is in Old English. Henni varð þat fyrir, at hon bítr einn þeira til bana. She proceeded to bite one of them to death. Skaði var ríkr ok mikill fyrir sér, en þó var Sigi þeira enn ríkari ok ættstærri. Skaði was powerful and noble-minded, but Sigi was nevertheless the more powerful and noble-born of them.
This genitive expresses to what class of things a concept belongs. It is used with numbers to answer the question “so many of what?” It is also used very frequently in such phrases as “the most accomplished of men”, “the most beautiful of women”. The genitive of kind is very similar to the partitive genitive. Hann var fimmtán vetra gamall. He was fifteen years old. Hon var allra kvenna vænst. She was the most beautiful of all women. Álfr var manna gerviligastr. Álfr was the most accomplished of men [or people].
The genitive of description is still common in Modern English in phrases like “bottle of gin”, “maid of honour”. Although there are strong similarities to the genitive of kind, the genitive element in the genitive of description cannot be conceived of as a class of which the other nominal element is a member. The genitive of description also governs the duration of an event. Þeir víkingarnir hǫfðu fengit konungi tveggja daga frest at safna liði. The vikings had granted the king two days’ respite to assemble an army. Mun konungr þessi eigi svá mikils máttar, at hann sigri dýrit. This king will not be of such great strength that he can defeat the beast. Þá býð ek þér til leiks at þriggja nátta fresti. Then I invite you to a game in three nights' time.
This construction describes of what material an item consists: Hann var í rauðum skarlatskyrtli. He was dressed in a red cloak. Ef Án hefir undan komizk, þá legg ek þrjár merkr silfrs til hǫfuðs honum. If Án has escaped, then I put three silver marks on his head.
This construction specifies who or what the other element is, so that both nominal elements refer to the same concept: Magnús var til konungs tekinn yfir Noregs ríki. Magnús was made king over the Kingdom of Norway. Askr Yggdrasils drýgir erfiði meira en menn viti. The ash Yggdrasill suffers more hardships than people know.
This is the most basic function of the dative, occurring across the Indo-European languages (and no doubt the label has been used for other languages as well). It is so called because the nominal (noun, pronoun, or adjective) in question has some interest in the action. She, he, or it is the indirect object, at the receiving end of the action, not the direct object, and thus not the thing being somethinged. Sometimes this receiving end is literal: gifts are always given to people in the dative of interest. The connection can also be more abstract, however. The dative of interest appears with verbs expressing the following:
The dative of interest also occurs following adjectives expressing the following:
This is the locative use of the case, and it specifies where a thing is or where an action takes place, without the object or action leaving the location specified. Obsolete in prose except in the construction Hengu ormar ǫllum megin á honum. Serpents clung to him from all sides.
When a subject is compared to something else, whether using a positive or comparative adjective, that second concept appears in the dative. Angantýr var líkr feðr sínum at skaplyndi. Angantýr was like his father in character. Hann var hverjum manni hagari. He was more skilful than anyone. Hann var líkari jǫtnum en mǫnnum. He was more like giants than like men.
This is the instrumental function of the dative, expressing by means of which something is done. Hence it is used with verbs expressing activity: Vel kann hann sverði at beita ok spjóti at skjóta ok skapti at verpa ok skildi at halda, boga at spenna eða hesti at ríða. He is well able to handle the sword and throw the spear and cast the javelin and hold the shield, to span the bow and ride the horse. When used with verbs of affect (fagna (“rejoice”), kvíða (“feel apprehension for”), reidask (“become angry”)), it expresses cause: Kvíði eg eigi því ef eg lifi. I don't care if I live. Ingibjǫrg reiddisk þessu mjǫk. Ingibjǫrg became very angry at this. It is also found with adjectives: Hann var þá sárr mǫrgum sárum. He was wounded with many wounds by that time. It is used in comparisons to express by how much one thing exceeds the other: Þórir hét son Beinis ok var tveim vetrum ellri en Sigmundr. Beinir's son was called Þórir; he was two years older than Sigmundr. A very prominent use of the dative of means is found in the interrogative pronoun hvat and the neuter personal pronoun þat in the dative forms hví (“by what means; why”) and því (“by that means; therefore”): Hví býðr þú trǫlli þessu hér at vera? Why are you inviting this troll to be here? Nú má ek segja yðr, hví at ek em Norna-Gestr kallaðr. Now I can tell you why I am called Norna-Gestr. Hann hefir því óvirðuligar niðr komit. He has ended up the more dishonourable for it. Þat var mark í auga honum, at svá var sem ormr lægi um sjáldrit, ok því var hann kallaðr Sigurðr ormr í auga. This was the sign in his eye, that it was as though a serpent lay around the pupil, and for that reason he was called Sigurðr serpent-in-eye.
The dative of respect expresses that a certain adjective or statement applies with regard to the object in the dative, which is part of a larger whole: Hann var mikill vexti. He was tall [lit. great in terms of stature]. Hann var allra manna fríðastr sýnum. He was the most handsome of all men [or people]. Hon er vel viti borin. She was born with good sense [lit. well-born in terms of good sense].
This is the ablative use of the dative, occurring with verbs of distancing (firra (“distance, remove”)) and deprivation (nema (“deprive”), stela (“steal”), ræna (“rob”)): Illr fugl er þat, sem hér á bæli, því at hann venst á, dag eptir dag, at stela brott kjǫti mínu nýsoðnu. It is an evil bird that nests here, because it is accustomed day after day to steal my newly-boiled meat. Þat er líkara, at sá hafi fleira frá yðr stolit en þessu einu. It is more likely that he has stolen more from you than this alone. Hann spurði, hverir svá djarfir væri, at stela vildu hafri drottningarinnar. He asked who was so brave that he wanted to steal the queen's goat. “Ræntu mik þeim þá eigi,” sagði Egill. “Then don't rob me of them,” said Egill.
Applies to both duration and time at which: Ek hefi barizt hundrað sinnum, ok hefi ek haft stundum meira lið, en stundum minna. I have fought a hundred times, and I have sometimes had a greater army, sometimes a smaller one.