Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Estonian impersonal


The Estonian impersonal (umbisikuline tegumood or impersonaal) is a valence-reducing construction with no overt subject and a distinct non-active verbal morphology. It is among the world's most common type of impersonal construction, a construction whose two central characteristics is that 1) it lacks an overt subject and 2) its implied impersonal agent displays a strong preferance for human agency.

The Estonian impersonal has a full conjugational paradigm with indicative, conditional and jussive forms, as well as inflecting for tense. An example using the verb rääkida 'talk' is given below:

Present Indicative: räägi-ta-kse 'one talks'
Past Indicative: räägi-t-i 'one talked'

Present Conditional: räägi-ta-ks 'one would talk'
Past Conditional: räägi-ta-nu-ks 'one would have talk'

Jussive: räägi-ta-gu 'let them talk'

Present Perfect: on räägi-tud 'people have talked'
Past Perfect: oli räägi-tud 'people had talked'


The present and past impersonals are formed by using the stem of the -tud participle and adding -takse and -dakse (present) and -ti and -di (past). If the verb's tud-partciple was of the form tud then the impersonal will take -takse or -ti and if the verb took the form dud then the impersonal will end in -dakse or -di. See some examples below:

luba/tud 'allowed'  ----  luba/takse (luba/ti)
keela/tud 'forbidden' ---- keela/takse (keela/ti)
kirjuta/tud 'written'---- kirjuta/takse (kirjuta/ti)
laul/dud 'sung' ---- laul/dakse (laul/di)
saa/dud 'received' ---- saa/dakse (saa/di)
mõel/dud 'thought' ---- mõel/dakse (mõel/di)

For some verbs the -d- in the -dakse suffix is replaced by a lenghtening of the l, n, or r consonant that precedes it (the exception is like the -da infinitive with a -kse- ending).

ol/dud 'been' ---- ol/lakse
tul/dud 'come' ---- tul/lakse
min/dud 'gone' ---- min/nakse
pan/dud 'put' ---- pan/nakse
sur/dud 'died' ---- sur/rakse

For some verbs with one syllable stems, the -d- in the -dakse disappears with no replacement. This is especially likely when there is a shift in vowel sound. Here again, the impersonal is in effect the -da infinituve with a -kse ending.

too/dud 'brought' ---- tuu/akse
loo/dud 'created' ---- luu/akse
joo/dud 'drunk' ---- juu/akse
söö/dud 'eaten' ---- süü/akse
löö/dud 'struck' ---- lüü/akse

Examples without vowel shifts:

käi/dud 'walked' ---- käi/akse
müü/dud 'sold' ---- müü/akse
vii/dud 'transported' ---- vii/akse

Two verbs drop the -t- of the -takse suffix.

teh/tud 'done' ---- teh/akse
näh/tud 'seen' ---- näh/akse


The impersonal construction can appear either with an object or without.

With an object:
Kassa avatakse kell 8. 'The cashier's window is opened at 8 [One opens...]'
Sind oodati. 'You were awaited [One waited for you.]'
Ojamaa saart kutsutakse Läänemere pärliks 'The Island of Gotland is called the peral of the Baltic.'
Meest mõõdetakse mõistusest 'A man is measured [judged] by his reason [intellect].'

Tullakse ja minnakse. 'People come and go [There is coming and going].'
Võidakse küsida, miks see nii on 'One can ask why it is so.'
Siin lauldakse ja seal tantsitakse. 'People sing here and dance there [There is singing here and dancing there].'

The object of an impersonal can be either 'total' or 'partial'. In non-impersonal declarative sentences, total objects normally take the genitive. However, in an impersonal that lacks an overt subject, the total object appears in the nominative as if it were the subject of the clause. Partial objects appear, per usual, in the partitive. Compare:

Siin ehitatakse uut maja. 'Here a new house in being built' [partial object due to its unfinished nature].
Uus maja ehitati kiiresti valmis. 'The new house was built (to completion) quickly' [total object as action is completed].

It is not only transitive and intransitive verbs that can be impersonalised but also modals (a) and unaccusatives (b)

(a) Õlletehas võidakse reostuse eest sulgeda. 'The brewery may be closed because of pollution.'
(b) Tihti pettutakse illusioonide ja tegelikkuse erinevuse tõttu. 'One is often disappointed because of the difference between illusions and reality'.

More on the Estonian impersonal and the difference between the impersonal and true passives in later posts.

Estonian Textbook by Juhan Tuldava, 1994.
Valency Reduction in Estonian, Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, by Virve-Anneli Vihman, 2004


  1. Hey! Some notes..

    -) "joo/dud 'drunk' ---- joo/akse"

    Should be "joodakse", I think. Slightly irregular? "Juuakse" is sometimes used as well, but I'm guessing EKI doesn't approve..

    -) Gotland is Ojamaa; "illusionnide"..

  2. Btw, would you prefer to receive such notes by e-mail in the future, leaving the comments section for more substantial questions?

  3. Sorry, that was a typo. The book and the Eesti keele süntesaator has juu/akse.

    That would be cool. No hassle though. I welcome comments in any form. Hopefully I will have less typos and mistakes in future posts :-)

  4. Ha! The book, the süntesaator and you must be right, because "juuakse" gets 33 000 Google hits, while "joodakse" gets 3 500. Vox populi, vox dei. :) Well, it makes sense to me too, now.

    E-mail it is, if necessary. ;)