Saturday, February 27, 2010

to be, to have, nouns and adjectives

In this post I will run though how to construct basic sentences in Estonian, showing you how to say 'I am x' and 'I have y'. You will also find what some basic forms of the Estonian pronouns are and how to ask 'yes/ no question'. So, without further a-do, let's start!


There are two nominative forms of the Estonian pronouns, the short forms and the long forms. The long forms are emphatic and are used when one wants to emphasise the pronoun. In English one stresses the pronoun, as in you in the following example: I play the guitar. What instrument do you play?

ma --- mina --- 'I'
sa --- sina --- 'you' (singular)
ta --- tema --- 'he / she'

me --- meie --- 'we'
te --- teie --- 'you' (plural)
nad --- nemad --- 'they'

You will notice that Estonian does not make a gender distinction in the third person singual pronoun - ta means both 'he' and 'she'.

Olema - The verb 'to be'

Here follows the present conjugation of olema. Notice the singular endings 'n' and 'd' and the plural endings 'me' and 'te'. These are important to learn by heart as they are used in the conjugation of all Estonian verbs in the present tense. All verbs that is except olema. The endings for the third person for all other verbs are 'b' and 'vad' but don't concern yourself with these now. Notice also that the third person form of olema is on regardless of number. The present tense of olema is formed by removing the infinitive ending -ma (giving you ole) and replacing it by the personal endings.

ma/ mina olen
sa/ sina oled
ta/ tema on

me/ meie oleme
te/ teie olete
nad/ nemad on

Note: In Estonian we sometimes do not even have to mention the pronoun as the ending on the verb tells us what person and number is being talked about. This is similar to in Spanish how soy means 'I am' so you don't even have to mention the pronoun yo 'I'.

I am can be translated into Estonian, depending on the context, by: ma olen, olen, and mina olen.

How to say 'I have...'

In Estonian, like in Finnish, Latvian and Irish, but unlike French, German and English, there is no verb to have. This is a common occurance cross-linguistically and many languages' verb to have dervives from verbs used to express grasping (as in Proto-Germanic), carrying and holding. In Estonian like in Finnish, Latvian and Irish one employs the verb to be plus a case ending or a preposition to indicate location. The subject of the sentence is the item that is possessed. The four examples all mean: I have a car.

Irish: Tá carr agam (Is car at-I).
Latvian: Man ir auto (I-to is car).

Finnish: Minulla on auto (I-at is car).
Estonian: Mul on auto (I-at is car).

But enough about other languages. Let's have a look at how to express this in Estonian for all the pronouns. The structure in Estonian is: pronoun-ADE on object where pronoun refers to the possesser, ADE is the case ending, on is the third person form of the verb olema 'to be' and object refers to the item that is possessed. Notice that the singular pronouns and the third person plural all have a longer (emphatic) form, while there is only one possible form for the first and second person plural pronouns.

mul on... --- sul on... --- tal on...
minul on... --- sinul on... ---- temal on...

meil on... --- teil on... --- neil on...

------------------------- nendel on...

This form uses the adessive case (shortened to ADE) and is one of the locative cases. Its name in Estonian is alalütlev kääne 'on-saying case'. Its basic meaning is translated as 'on' as in 'on the table', laual in Estonian (laud = table). Its characteristic ending is -l. Don't worry about this linguistic terminology. The most important thing is being able to use the structure.

Some Nouns

We already came across the noun auto which means 'car'. Here are some other nouns that are less internationally recognised. Note: all nouns listed are in the singular nominative case which is the base and 'dictonary' form of the noun. In this post we will not deal with plural nouns or nouns in cases other than the nominative.

õpetaja 'teacher'
õpilane 'school'
koer 'dog'
kass 'cat'
maja 'house'
raamat 'book'
pliiats 'pencil'
poiss 'boy'
tüdruk 'girl'
mees 'man', 'husband'
naine 'woman', 'wife'

Now we can start to form some simple sentences. The basic sentence structure is SUBject VERb OBJect (or in the case of I have... sentences, PROnoun-ADE on object. See the examples below:

Ta on õpetaja. 'S/he is a teacher.'
Ma olen õpilane ja mul on pliiats. 'I am a student and I have a pencil.'
Meil on auto ja teil on maja. 'We have a car and you (pl.) have a house.'
Ma olen naine. Sa oled mees. Ta on poiss ja ta on tüdruk. 'I am a woman. You are a man. He is a boy and she is a girl.'

You will notice that Estonian does not have a direct translation of a. Neither does it have a direct translation of the. (Estonian has other words that function similar to English a and the, but we'll leave those for a later lesson). The Estonian word for and is ja. (This is not to be confused with the word for yes which is jah or jaa).

Now try making your own basic sentences! Translate the following into Estonian (answers are at the end of the post):

1. I have a dog and you have a cat.
2. He is a teacher and he has a book and a pencil.
3. The student is a boy.
4. They have a house.

Some Adjectives

Here are some adjectives to help us make our sentences a little more interesting. Note: all adjectives listed are in the singular nominative case which is the base and 'dictonary' form of the adjective. In this post we will not deal with plural adjectives or adjectives in cases other than the nominative.

hea 'good'
halb 'bad'
rõõmus 'happy'
kurb 'sad'
huvitav 'interesting'
igav 'boring'
sinine 'blue'
must 'black', 'dirty'
valge 'white'
kollane 'yellow'
uus 'new'
ilus 'beautiful'
noor 'young'
vana 'old'
suur 'big'
väike 'little'

In terms of word order, adjectives in Estonian work as in English.

The man is sad. The sad man. The pencil is blue. A blue pencil.
Mees on kurb. Kurb mees. Pliiats on sinine. Sinine pliiats.

Some examples:

Meil on uus õpetaja. Ta on noor naine. Ta on ilus ja rõõmus.
We have a new teacher. She is a young woman. She is beautiful and happy.
Neil on vana ja must maja. 'They have an old and black/ dirty house'.
Ta on hea õpilane. 'S/he is a good student'.

See if you can translate the following sentences (again answers are below):

5. I have a black pencil. You have a yellow pencil. He has a blue pencil.
6. The book is interesting.
7. We have an old book. The book is boring.

Asking a 'yes/ no question'.

Asking a question that demand either a 'yes' or a 'no' in Estonian is very easy. You simply put the question word kas before the subject and you leave everything else the same. Example:

Kas sa oled õpilane? 'Are you a teacher?'
Kas ta on noor poiss? 'Is he a young boy?'
Kas neil on huvitav raamat? 'Do they have an interesting book?'

Negative of olema.

Of course, it's useless to be able to ask a question without being able to understand the answer, or understand a question without being able to answer.

Making a verb negative in Estonian is also easy. (And you thought this was a hard language?! ) You make the present tense form of the verb negative by adding ei 'no' before the verb and leaving the verb in its present stem devoid of personal endings. For example. In the sentences below we see an example of a question, a positive declaration and a negative declaration. We drop the -n ending from olen 'I am' so it becomes ole. Thus, (ma) olen becomes (ma) ei ole. This is the same for all persons and numbers, even the third person.

Kas ma olen noor? Jah, ma olen noor. Ei, ma ei ole noor.
Am I young? Yes, I am young. No, I am not young.

M(in)a ei ole õpilane. 'I am not a student'.
S(in)a ei ole õmus. 'You (sg.) are not happy'.
T(em)a ei ole hea õpetaja. 'S/he is not a good teacher'.
Me(ie) ei ole. 'We are not.'
Te(ie) ei ole. 'You (pl.) are not.'
N(em)ad ei ole. 'They are not.'

M(in)ul ei ole... 'I do not have...'
S(in)ul ei ole... 'You (sg.) do not have...'
T(em)al ei ole... 'S/h does not have...'
Meil ei ole... 'We do not have...'
Teil ei ole... 'You (pl.) do not have...'
Neil/ Nendel ei ole... 'They do not have...'

[As Tatsutahime points out, sentences in the form I do not have a... require the object not possessed to be in the partitive case. e.g. Mul on koer 'I have a dog', Mul ei ole koera 'I do not have a dog'. We will discuss this is a later post].

See if you can translate the following sentences:

8. I have a little beautiful cat. The cat is black and white.
9. Do you have a dog?
10. The man is not happy. He is sad.
11. The car is blue and new.
12. Is the blue car new? No, the blue car is old. The yellow car is new.
13. Is the book interesting? The book is not interesting. The book is boring.


1. Mul/Minul on koer ja sul/ sinul on kass.
2. Ta/ Tema on õpetaja ja tal/ temal on raamat ja pliiats.
3. Õpilane on poiss.
4. Neil/ Nendel on maja.
5. Mul/ Minul on must pliiats. Sul/ Sinul on kollane pliiats. Tal/ Temal on sinine pliiats.
6. Raamat on huvitav.
7. Meil on vana raamat. Raamat on igav.
8. Mul/ Minul on väike ja ilus kass. Kass on must ja valge.
9. Kas sul/ sinul on koer?
10. Mees ei ole rõõmus. Mees on kurb.
11. Auto on sinine ja uus.
12. Kas sinine auto on uus?  Ei, sinine auto on vana. Kollane auto on uus.
13. Kas raamat on huvitav? Raamat ei ole huvitav. Raamat on igav.

[Some of these sentences are a little stilted. This is because I tried to keep the lesson as short and as simple as possible. In later lessons I will discuss on the use of the possessive adjectives and how to say this and that, these and those].


  1. 9. should be "Ei, mul ei ole koera".

    In some cases you can use "see" to translate "the", see and too are sometimes described as quasi-articles. The girl I saw /.../ = See tüdruk, keda ma nägin /.../

  2. @ Myst: Thanks. It's corrected now.

    @ Tatsutahime. Thanks for that. It's quite hard to write a simple introduction to Estonian without falling into the trap of trying to cover too much of the case system.

    I've removed the example and added a note to explain this.

    On the issue of see, I thought I would keep this for another post. I've added a note above to this affect.

    Thanks for the input you two. It's appreciated!

  3. I think you might have missed them, Colm. The cat is still from Valga, on my screen. :P Even after refreshing the page. Should of course be "valge", in two places..

    I hope you find some non-native readers soon too! Otherwise you might be in line for just nitpicking in reward for your hard work. :)

  4. Talk about being ditsy on a Sunday moring. Instead of changing the one valga to valge I changed the one valge to valga. I should do a better job of proofreading my work before publishing. Thanks!

  5. Don't feel bad mate. It's a very long post, some mistakes are bound to occur, and we the nitpickers are happy to help with these. :) You're doing a great job and this blog will be awesome!

    PS. "Mul on koer 'I have a car." :)

  6. I'd like to know if and how do you create an adjective from a noun or verb (walk > walker)

    Thanks =)

  7. Hi Grub. Thanks for your comment and your interest in my blog. In response to your comment I have written the following post:


  8. hi! I am no native speaker for estonian...I dont speat at all I´m trying to learn and I found this post really helpful. (I am mexican btw...) I have lots of doubts for using pronouns... I get the ma sa ta me te nad idea but the others are confusing :S I have some doubts when using the word: it the same as keelt? like ---Ma räägin inglise keelt. or kelt? when do you use one or another? TY"

  9. Can you please post the usual rules for all the verbs conjugations?? there should be general rules, arent they?

  10. The personal pronouns are "ma, sa, ta, me, te, nad". What other pronouns do you mean? "Keel" is the nominative case. It is "keele" in genitive singular and "keelt" in partitive singular.

    Eesti keel on ilus keel - Estonian (language) is a beautiful language.
    Ma oskan eesti keelT - I am able to speak Estonian.
    Eesti keelE ajalugu - The history of the Estonian language.

    Ma räägin eesti keelES - I am speaking in Estonian. [doing it now]
    Ma räägin eesti keelEST - I am speaking about the Estonian language.
    Ma räägin eesti keelT - I speak Estonian. [able to speak]