Friday, April 23, 2010

Locative cases


Estonian nouns and adjectives decline for two numbers (singular, plural) and up to 14 cases (14 for nouns and 10 for adjectives).

These 14 cases can be broken down into two main types: Grammatical cases and Semantic cases.

There are three grammatical cases in Estonian: Nominative, Genitive and Partitive.

The Semantic cases are the 3 Inner Locative cases: Illative, Inessive, Elative; the 3 Outer Locative cases: Allative, Adessive, Ablative; and 5 others: Translative, Terminative, Essive, Abessive, and Cominative.

In today's post we are going to take a look at the 6 locative cases. For some reason, the mention of cases seems to freak out learners whose mother tongue lacks a large case system. However, it shouldn't. It could be said that Estonian really only has three true cases and four case forms: Nominative, Genitive and Partitive (both Singular and Plural). The other 11 cases in the singular are merely suffixes that attach to the genitive singular. These suffixes are perfectly regular as is their attaching to the genitive form. The system is largely agglutinating rather than fusional (in the case of Latin). In this way, you might go as far as saying that these 11 suffixs are rather like prepositions that are widespread in the Germanic and Romance languages. Personally, I find the Estonian system of suffixes rather than extensive use of prepositions in English to be far more transparent and easier to follow. (That is not to say that Estonian doesn't also have its own array of adpositions, but those will be the topic of another day).

Overview of Locative Cases

So, back to focusing on the locative cases.

Inner Locatives
Illative: sisseütlev 'into-saying' -sse ; answers questions: kuhu? 'whither?', kellesse? 'into whom?', millesse? 'into what'
Inessive: seesütlev 'in-saying' -s ; answers questions: kus? 'where?', kelles? 'in whom?', milles? 'in(side) what?'
Elative: seestütlev 'in-saying' -st ; answers questions: kust? 'whence?', kellest? '(out) of whom?', millest? '(out) of what?'

Outer Locatives
Allative: alaleütlev 'onto-saying' -le ; answers questions: kuhu? 'whither?', kellele? '(on)to whom?', millele? '(on)to what'
Adessive: alalütlev 'on-saying' -l ; answers questions: kus? 'where?', kellel? 'on (top of) whom?', millel? 'on (top of) what?'
Ablative: alaltütlev 'off-saying' -lt ; answers questions: kust? 'whence?', kellelt? 'off/ away from whom?', millelt? 'off/ away from what?'

I plan to give an overview of all the locative cases, case by case. In this post we will look at the illative and the other locative cases will follow in later posts.

Formation of the Illative

As mentioned above, the illative is the case that indicates the space, object or person to which a motion occurs. It can translated as 'to' or 'into'. The ending for the illative is -sse and this is, like all locative cases, attached to the genitive form of the noun or adjective in question.

Nominative:  -------- Genitive -------- Illative
maja 'house' -------- maja    -------- maja/sse
voodi 'bed'   -------- voodi   -------- voodi/sse
sadam 'harbour'   --- sadama-------- sadama/sse
süda 'heart'   ------- südame-------- südame/sse

Some words that end in -se in the genitive have a shortened illative where this -se syllable is dropped.

õpilane 'student' -------- õpila/se -------- õpila/se/sse or õpila/sse
lühikene 'short' -------- lühike/se -------- lühike/se/sse or lühike/sse
küsimus 'question' -------- küsimu/se -------- küsimu/se/sse or küsimu/sse
võitlus 'struggle' -------- võitlu/se -------- võitlu/se/sse or võitlu/sse


Most often translated by 'to' or 'into':

Me sõidame homme Tallinnasse 'We are going to Tallinn tomorrow'.
Ma lähen täna õhtul teatrisse 'I am going to the theatre this evening'.
Laps hüppas karbisse 'The child hopped into the box'

[aabram: ----- 'laps hüppas karbisse' is unnatural, while 'laps hüppas karpi' is normal.]

It can also serve other purposes as the examples below show:

Ta ei usu Jumalasse 'She doesn't believe in God'
Naine armus mehesse 'The woman fell in love with the man'
See ei puutu minusse 'It does not concern (involve) me'

'Short' Illative

As well as the usual illative forms shown above, nouns can also take a shorter illative form. These 'short' illative forms end in -de, -te, -he, -hu or simply a vowel.

Over the words shown above, two have short illative forms:

maja -------- majja
mina -------- musse

Here are some more words:

Nominative      ----------------- Illative
keel 'language' ----------------- keelesse / keelde
meel 'sense, mood, mind' ------ meelesse / meelde
suur 'big'           --------------- suuresse / suurde
uus 'new'            --------------- uuesse / uude
käsi 'hand'           --------------- käesse / kätte
vesi 'water'          --------------- veesse / vette
pea 'head'          --------------- peasse / pähe
suu 'water'          --------------- suusse / suhu

Often, but not always, the short illative form ends in the same vowel as that of the genitive:

Nominative      ----------------- Illative
linn 'town' ----------------- linnasse / `linna
kool 'school' ----------------- koolisse / `kooli
küla 'village'    --------------- külasse / `külla
maja 'house'    --------------- majasse / `majja
tuba 'room'      --------------- toasse / `tuppa
tuli 'fire, light'   --------------- tulesse / `tulle

Note that the preceding consonant or vowel is often lengthened to the third degree. `Linna is pronounced with an extra-long 'n' and `kooli is pronounced with an extra 'o'.

The Eesti keele süntesaator will give you all the forms of the declined noun that you request. Thus you'll be given both the normal and the the short illative. Entering in pood 'shop', jõgi 'river', you'll be returned with both poesse and poodijõesse and jõkke. Given the choice between the two forms (i.e. if the 'short' form exists), the short form will win out, so much that you'll even forget that there is a longer form. It also has an effect on what word will be used for a given entity. The two most common words for 'shop' are pood and kauplus. They both tend to be used as much as each other in the nominative but in the illative, the short illative form of pood (poodi) will win out over the long illative (poesse) and both forms of kauplus (kauplusse, kauplusesse).

[aabram: ------ Some short illatives are never used for 'into ...' and almost exclusively for 'concerns ...'. For example you never say 'ma läksin poesse', you say 'ma läksin poodi'. But you can say 'mis sellesse poesse puutub, siis...'. In the same vein 'laps hüppas karbisse' is unnatural, while 'laps hüppas karpi' is normal.]


  1. Some short illatives are never used for 'into ...' and almost exclusively for 'concerns ...'. For example you never say 'ma läksin poesse', you say 'ma läksin poodi'. But you can say 'mis sellesse poesse puutub, siis...'. In the same vein 'laps hüppas karbisse' is unnatural, while 'laps hüppas karpi' is normal.
    But perhaps you already knew that.

  2. Hi, I would really appreciate your opinion on . I wonder if my explanation of Estonian cases is understandable from a learner's point of view. I would also be most grateful for your advice on English mistakes I might have made.

  3. Will do when I get the chance.

  4. I noticed in a translation in an online Estonian-English dictionary that Will you marry me was translated into Kas sa abielluks minuga. I spoke Estonian at home and went to a Estonian School once a week on Saturday as I was growing up, so my Estonian grammer is weak. However, that doesn't sound right to me. I would translate the Estonian into "Would you marry me" which is a conditional question, so how would you translate WILL you marry me into Estonian.

  5. Hi, Peeter.

    Thanks for the comment.

    I’d translate it as:

    Kas sa tuled mulle naiseks/meheks?

    That is how I have always understood the question to be correctly phrased.


  6. Agreed! That at least asks for a yes or no answer.

  7. We have been debating the correct form for Good Morning. Both forms are used, hommikut or hommikust. Hommikust is the wrong case. A filoloog online, I forget his name said that Tere hommikust aega was originally said and over time the word "aega" was dropped, but he never answered our question? Would you shed some light on this issue? :-)

    1. Hi, Peeter. Sorry, I don't know about this one at all.