I'm currently studying Icelandic. Right away at one of the first steps I found a bit of difficulty and I wonder if any of you might be able to help me as the question might be answered based on any highly inflected language. The doubt regards the use of pronouns:

Below you'll be able to see the Personal and Possessive pronouns that constitutes the Icelandic language, and with them I also put the noun cases that would be also part of the scheme: (For the sake of the example I'll only use first person singular pronouns)

Personal pronouns:

Case Pronoun

Nom ég

Acc mig

Dat mér

Gen mín

Possessive Pronouns:

Case Pronoun

Nom minn

Acc minn

Dat mínum

Gen míns

My question is: how can I differentiate the usage of the personal genitive pronoun with the possessive genitive pronoun? Does anybody knows of any example (In Latin or German, or even in English if you can figure a way out) or anywhere I could find an explanation?

  • 1
    Is your question specifically about Icelandic, or about any languages that have those two types of "pronoun"? (Scare quotes because really, "possessive pronouns" in Icelandic and IE generally are just adjectives like any others.) The usage will probably vary between different languages.
    – TKR
    Dec 22, 2013 at 22:33
  • Hi Otavio, Not specifically Icelandic, but with any highly inflected language that possesses the two types of pronoun; this might help me identify the different usages. Thank you for your time :) Dec 22, 2013 at 23:24
  • 3
    I don't know much Icelandic, but based on Greek & Latin: in some contexts, either can be used. But not all uses of the genitive have to do with possession; for example, there are prepositions that take the genitive, and in such cases only the personal pronoun can be used, not the possessive adjective. In other contexts, for example predication (This book is mine), you'll probably find the adjective rather than the personal pronoun, though this may vary from language to language. Btw what is to be compared is (a) pers. pron. genitive and (b) poss. adj. in its entirety, not just its genitive.
    – TKR
    Dec 23, 2013 at 1:36

6 Answers 6


In English the distinction is apparent in the competing forms my vs. of mine. The appearance of the preposition of of course marks what would appear as the genitive in many related languages, e.g.

 a. my book vs. that book of mine

The form my book is preferred if there is no reason for another determiner to appear. In that book of mine, the necessity for the demonstrative determiner to appear forces the appearance of the "genitive" form of mine, since English generally allows just a single determiner to introduce a noun phrase.

German has antiquated forms of the genitive pronoun (meiner 'of mine', deiner 'of yours', seiner 'of his', ihrer 'of hers', unsrer 'of ours', eurer 'of yours', Ihrer 'of yours'). These forms have basically died out of the modern language, but they can be found on occassion in older texts. When these pronouns appeared, they would usually follow the noun that they modify, e.g. das Buch meiner 'the book of mine'. There was thus a difference in word order that helped distinguish between the genitive pronoun meiner (of mine), which followed the noun, and the possessive determiner mein- (my), which precedes the noun.

I'm not sure I understand Manjusri's answer, but perhaps Icelandic is similar to German insofar as the genitive pronoun (not the possessive determiner!) appears rarely, and check to see if it follows its noun as opposed to preceding it.

  • In Icelandic, the possessive pronoun generally follows the noun it modifies and doesn't interfere with the determiner, so this test doesn't work.
    – user9315
    Mar 15, 2015 at 11:34

In English (and certainly in the Romance languages, and similar to what Tim Osborne mentions with older German), when you use the possessive adjective as a determiner, the noun is treated as definite:

  • My book EN
  • Mio libru AST
  • Mi libro ES

To force an indefinite interpretation, you can't just add in an indefinite article:

  • *A my book, *My a book EN
  • *Un mio libru, *Mio un libru AST
  • *Un mi libro, *Mi un libro ES

The only way in English is to switch to an alternate structure. Ditto in the Romance languages, which language depending have different ways of adjusting structure so that the possessive adjective (if it stays as an adjective) loses its determinative prowess.

  • A book of mine. EN
  • Un libru mio, un libro de mio AST
  • Un libro mío ES

I'd imagine that most languages with a definite/indefinite distinction have the possessive adjectives imply definiteness, with any other forms (via pronouns, etc) allowing for idefiniteness determiners.

  • In Icelandic, you can get an indefinite interpretation simply by leaving out the definite article when using the possessive pronoun. The difference between possessive pronoun and personal pronoun is not that between definiteness and indefiniteness but rather that one is used to denote possession and one generally isn't.
    – user9315
    Mar 15, 2015 at 11:36
  • @MaxP so in Icelandic (based on your answer below), afann sinn would be his own grandfather, but afa sinn would be one of his own grandfathers? Mar 15, 2015 at 23:37
  • I've always thought that, but a quick google shows I'm actually wrong. It seems to be closer to Italian, where you generally use the definite article with possessive pronouns but not with close family members. I'm not quite convinced that you have to use the definite article, I'll try to find out. However, if this turns out to be right, the indefinite construction still should be "einn af öfum mínum", which still uses the possessive pronoun. P.S. afa(-nn) is the accusative case, the nominative case is afi(-nn).
    – user9315
    Mar 16, 2015 at 10:11
  • According to Thráinsson, the possessive pronoun whithout the article is just very formal, but still definite. So I was wrong in assuming it had any effect on definiteness, but still this isn't the distinction between the personal pronoun genitive and the possessive pronoun. (Neither, for example, is it in German, which is a lot like Icelandic in these regards.)
    – user9315
    Mar 16, 2015 at 11:00
  • 1
    Not in Italian. In Italian, you simply put an article before "my book": "un mio libro" (IT) lit. "a my book"
    – user4747
    Apr 25, 2018 at 12:19

The difference should be defined by the usage of Nominative VS Accusative. For most Icelandic nouns, it should be obvious, e.g.:

armur (an arm): minn armur (Nom.) => minn arm (Gen.)`

afi (a grandfather): minn afi (Nom.) => minn afa (Gen.)

saga (a story): minn saga (Nom.) => minn sögu (Gen.)

I think the ambiguity you have mentioned exists only in phrases with definiteness marked by possessive pronouns plus nouns of certain declension types (one-syllable feminine words with final a consonant of both declensions and neutrum of both declension types), for my intuition is that in sg. definite form no possessive pronoun should be used.

There should also be some syntaxical tools to mark a subject VS a possessor (see e.g. an answer by user2619), or a commonsense logic to distinguish animate vs inanimate.

  • The phrases you use are unnatural and not normally used, you don't inflect the pronoun correctly, and the difference between possessive pronoun and personal pronoun really has nothing to do with case or number.
    – user9315
    Mar 15, 2015 at 11:33

Here is some data on the question from Latvian, which as it so happens makes this distinction. In Latvian, the first person possessive adjective is ‘mans/mana’ (masc/fem). It declines with the noun it modifies. The genitive case form of the first person pronoun is ‘manis’.

Uses of possessive adjective:

In noun phrases: mans draugs ‘my friend’

In predicate position: Tas divritenis ir mans. ‘That bicycle is mine.’

Uses of genitive pronoun:

In prepositional phrases: Pirms manis ir bijis tikai viens īpašnieks.
Before me, there has been only one owner.

In constructions requiring the genitive: Manis nav.
I don’t exist./I am not there. (negative construction)

Vai tev manis trūka? Did you miss me? (genitive complement of ‘trūkt’ to miss)

So this is pretty much in line with TKR’s expectations in his comment. Note that there is no distinction made between ‘my’ and ‘mine’. There’s an additional complication though: possessive adjective forms exist only for the first and second person singular. For the plurals and for third person, the genitive pronoun is used across the board, like this:

viņa drangs ‘his friend’

viņas draugs ‘her friend’

Viņa nav. ‘He’s not here.’

Viņas nav. ‘She’s not here.’

Tas divritenis ir jūsu. ‘That bicycle is yours (pl.).’

So as TKR pointed out, every language has its own idiosyncracies. This is certainly something to pay attention to when learning a language with a well-developed case system. Have fun with Icelandic!


I'm comparing Icelandic and German:

Pers. pronoun N G D A: eg min mer mig - ich mein mir mich

You can find such tables in German grammars, but the genitive is misleading.

Instead of the genitive of the pronoun you use the possessive forms, possessive + noun.

The use of the genitive of the pronoun is limited and very rare. In modern language it is not used at all. The only use was as a genitive object after a verb, and verbs with genitive object are rare.


The Genitive case of the personal pronoun in Icelandic is used when it's the object of a verb which takes an object in the Genitive case of following a preposition that requires the Genitive case:

  • Þú ættir að skammast þín. ("You ought to shame yourself" - You ought to be ashamed. - Genitive Object)
  • Ég kem til þín á morgun. (I'll come to you tomorrow - Prep. + Gen.)

The possessive pronoun, on the other hand, is used to denote possession:

  • Þetta er hesturinn þinn. ("This is the horse your" - This is your horse.)

Note that the 3rd person possessive pronoun, sinn, is only used to denote possession of the subject of the sentence, otherwise you use the genitive case of the personal pronoun:

  • Jón hittur afann sinn. ("Jón meets grandpa his" - Jón meets his own grandpa.)
  • Þetta er Jón. Í gær hitti ég afann hans. (This is Jón. "Yesterday met I granpa his" - Yesterday I met his grandpa.)

In the second example, the pronoun (hans) doesn't refer to the Subject (ég), so you can't use sinn and have to use hans. The use of the article that some answers seem to regard as crucial does not matter in Icelandic, you can use the possessive pronoun both with or without the article. The same goes for word order, the possessive usually comes after the noun, but if you put it before the word, you still use the possessive pronoun.

In Latin and German, the situation is much the same, you use the possessive pronoun for possession and the genitive of the personal pronoun for genitive objects or prepositions that take the genitive. However, Latin prepositions never take the genitive and German usually special constructions for prepositions, so the genitive of the personal pronoun is really only used for genitive objects, and both Latin (I think) and German have fewer verbs that take genitive objects than Icelandic, so the genitive pronoun is rare in both languages:


  • Das ist sein Haus. (This is his house - poss.pron.)
  • Wir gedenken seiner. (We commemorate him) (Genitive Object - pers.pron.)
  • Wir machen das seinetwegen (rather than wegen seiner). (Prep + Genitive)


  • Id est domus sua. (This is his house - poss.pron.)
  • Memini tui. (I remember you) (Genitiv Object - pers.pron.)

In Ancient Greek, on the other hand, the genitive of the personal pronoun can be freely used for possessions:

  • ὁ ἰχθὺς ἐμόσ ("ho ichthys emos" = the fish mine - poss.pron.)
  • ὁ ἰχθὺς μού ("ho ichthys mou" = the fish mine - pers.pron.)

So there doesn't seem any rule that works for all languages out there, the difference is probably just language specific.

  • "I remember him" = memini eius. (sui is reflexive).
    – fdb
    Mar 17, 2015 at 8:27
  • @fdb You are absolutely right, fixed it.
    – user9315
    Mar 17, 2015 at 23:37

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