Sigríður Björnsdóttir

Case Assignment by Verbs in North American Icelandic

Within the generative framework, a distinction has been made between structural and lexical case. Structural case is the default case, which the verb assigns to its arguments. Lexical case can either be irregular (i.e. “quirky”) or semantically or thematically regular. In Icelandic, verbs with a nominative agent can assign either the accusative, dative or the genitive to object nouns. Accusative case has traditionally been assumed to be structural case for objects in Icelandic.

Nonetheless, a wide variety of verbs in Icelandic assign the dative case to their objects. In addition, a number of verbs in Icelandic can assign more than one case to their object nouns with no or only minor modification in meaning (Maling 2002). If all lexical cases were irregular (“quirky”), one would expect that only structural case should be productive when new verbs enter a language. This is, however, not borne out in Icelandic, where borrowed verbs can take either the accusative or the dative case (see for example Barðdal 2011). There is also evidence that assignment of dative case to object nouns in Icelandic denoting theme is becoming semantically regular in Icelandic (see Jóhanna Barðdal 2001, Jóhannes Gísli Jónsson 2005 and Joan Maling 2002). Faroese, on the other hand, has followed a different path, as most object nouns in Faroese denoting theme are assigned the default accusative case (Höskuldur Þráinsson o.fl. 2012).

This talk presents the results of a pilot study on the case assignment of nouns by borrowed verbs in North American Icelandic (NA Icelandic). Case assignment by verbs in NA Icelandic has not been thoroughly studied. Prior to this study, a study by Arnbjörnsdóttir (2006) presented examples of “confusion” in case assignment by verbs in NA Icelandic. This did not, though, seem regular or consistent upon preliminary analysis (Birna Arnbjörnsdóttir 2006:99).

A preliminary analysis of the case assignment of nouns by borrowed verbs in NA Icelandic indicates, that most borrowed verbs verbs assign the accusative case to their object noun. Most of the borrowed verbs are formed from the root of the original English verb and Icelandic infinitival ending –a and are conjugated according to the most common verb class exemplified by kalla-kallaði (Birna Arnibjörnsdóttir 2006:98). In addition, the majority of the borrowed verbs describe agricultural activities and take a nominative subject acting as an agent. Examples from the letters of Icelandic immigrants in the USA and Canada in the late 19th and 20th century are shown in (1).

(1)       a)         Hann rentaði landið það ár til nágranna

“He rented the land-ACC. to neighbours

b)         margt þurfti að gera, fensa landið

“Much had to be done, to fence the land-ACC.

c)         Nú er ég farinn að læra ýmislegt að gjöra, grobba skóg

“Now I’ve learned many things to do, grab wood-ACC.

d)        Hún er til að saga viðinn í stórnar og joppa hafrana í hrossin

“It-Fem. is for sawing the wood in the fireplaces and chop the oats–                     ACC. for the horses

e)         Þegar búið er að slá og sjokka hveitið, er stakkað

“Once the grass has been mowed and the wheat-ACC. shocked, the                      stacking takes place.”

f)         Eldri en fimmtug má ég ekki verða þegar ég fer að reisa bú

                        “I cannot be older than fifty before I start raising a farm-ACC.

The aim of this talk is to answer the following questions:

Is the case assignment of nouns by borrowed verbs in NA Icelandic conditioned by the semantic properties of the verb or is it a reflection of a simplification of the case system, with the object accusative case gradually taking over the dative?

  • Is NA Icelandic different from Icelandic in this respect, and, if so, what is the nature of the difference?


Birna Arnbjörnsdóttir. 2006. North American Icelandic. The Life of a Language.            University of Manitoba Press, Winnipeg.

Jóhanna Barðdal. 2001. Case in Icelandic. A Synchronic, Diachronic and             Comparative Approach. Doctoral Dissertation. University of Lund, Lund.

Jóhanna Barðdal. 2011. Lexical vs. Structural Case: A False Dichotomy. Morphology     21:619-654.

Jóhannes Gísli Jónsson. 2005. Merkingarhlutverk, rökliðir og fallmörkun. Höskuldur       Þráinsson (ritstj.): Setningar. Handbók um setningafræði, bls. 350-409. Íslensk    tunga III. Almenna bókafélagið, Reykjavík.

Höskuldur Þráinsson, Hjalmar P. Petersen, Jógvan í Lon Jacobsen  og Zakaris Svabo       Hansen. 2012. Faroese. An Overview and Reference Grammar (2. útg.).            Fróðskapur and The Institute of Linguistics of the University of Iceland, Torshavn and Reykjavik.

Maling, Joan. 2002. Það rignir í þágufalli á Íslandi. Verbs with Dative Objects in             Icelandic. Íslenskt mál 24:31-105.