The Dative Case
In all of the Germanic languages the dative case is an amalgam of
several older cases that have fallen together: dative, locative,
ablative, and instrumental. Old English retains traces of the
instrumental case, but for the most part that too has fallen together
with the dative.
In view of its diverse origins, it should be no surprise that the
dative case has a variety of functions. Of these, the
easiest for the speaker of Modern English to understand is that of
object of a preposition. The objects of certain prepositions
(æfter, æt, be, fram, mid, of, to) are usually or
always in the dative case. With other prepositions the case may be
either dative or accusative, depending on the writer's dialect or
the meaning of the preposition.
But the dative can be used without prepositions, and then the
modern reader must be aware of its possible meanings:
When translating the dative, it is often necessary to supply a preposition,
because in Modern English prepositions very commonly express what used
to be expressed by the dative alone.
- Interest. Here the dative signifies that one
is in some way interested in the outcome of an action. This category
includes what is now called the "indirect object," e.g. Gif
him his sweord, Give him his sword. But the dative of
interest also covers situations in which something has been taken away, e.g.
Se cyning him benam his land, The king took his land
away from him.
- Direct object. Some verbs have their direct objects in the
dative case. It is not always easy to tell the difference between a
direct and an indirect object: for example, should we translate him
hierde "obeyed him" or "was obedient to him"?
But in this matter it is sufficient for the student to be guided by
modern usage and leave the technical aspects to the linguists.
- Possession. The dative often indicates possession, e.g.
Him wæs geomor sefa, Their minds were sad.
Often the dative of possession may also be interpreted as a dative of
- Comparison. The dative may express likeness or equality,
e.g. and ge beoð þonne englum gelice, and you
will then be like the angels. The dative that expresses inequality
is rare enough that beginners probably should not worry about it.
- Instrument, means, manner. These senses of the dative overlap,
and so are grouped together here. In Modern English we generally express
these relations with prepositions like "with" and
"by," e.g. "Ecgferth struck the king with his sword";
"He was wounded by a spear"; "We sing the mass with joy."
In Old English, too, instrument, means and manner can be expressed
with prepositions, especially mid and fram. But they are
very commonly expressed by the dative alone, e.g. forþan ic hine
sweorde swebban nelle, therefore I will not kill him with a
sword; ðu scealt yfelum deaðe sweltan, you must
die an evil death. This usage is especially common in poetry. To express
the instrument, Old English may use the instrumental case (which exists
only in the masculine and neuter singular), but it may equally well use