Thursday, June 3, 2010

to go

One thing that I have always found sticky about Estonian is how to translate to go. Estonian has two basic verbs to express the meaning behind the English verb go. These two verbs are minema and käima. These are the -ma forms, the -da forms being minna and käia. See this post and this post if you are unsure of this distinction. We will start with the verb minema.

Formation Present

The conjugated form of minema is tricky for the beginner of Estonian because the stem of the verb is lähe, and not *mine as would otherwise be expected. This can be explained by a study of language change in Estonian that need not concern us here. Thus, the present indicative of minema is:

Singular: ma lähen, sa lähed, ta läheb
Plural: me läheme, te lähete, nad lähevad

The verb minema necessitates that use of the illative case (an inner locative case, characterised by the ending -sse and denoting movement into; see this post) or the allative case (an outer locative case, characterised by the ending -le and denoting movement towards).


Ma lähen Tartust Tallinnasse. I am going from Tartu to Tallinn.

Very often however, Estonians prefer to use the short form of the illative.

Tüdruk läheb kooli. The girl is on her way to school.
Me läheme kinno. We are on our way to the cinema.

The verb minema can also be used in conjunction with another verb as in the example below. In this case the second verb takes the -ma infinitive.

Ma lähen jalutama. I'm off for a walk.

Formation Past

The simple past form of minema has a similar but different stem from the present. You would expect the past form to be ma lähe/si/n. However, the stem is instead läk which combines with the past infix -si- to become läksi-.

Singular: ma läksin, sa läksid, ta läks
Plural: me läksime, te läksite, nad läksid

Pere läks kolmapäeval Pärnusse. The family left for Pärnu on Wednesday.
Ema läks tööle. Mother went to work.
Lapsed läksid poodi. The children went to the shop.

Minema and Käima

Now, the thing to realise about minema is that is signifies movement toward/ into an object or a place without reference to the return journey. This leads to trouble for the learner when they wish to translate the process of habitual going or to say that they travelled somewhere and have since returned. Before we illustrate this distinction, let us first take a look at the conjugation of the verb käima. You will be happy to know that its formation is much more regular than that of minema.

Present (käi- = stem)
Singular: ma käin, sa käid, ta käib
Plural: me käime, te käite, nad käivad

Past (käi/si- = stem)
Singular: ma käisin, sa käisid, ta käis
Plural: me käisime, te käisite, nad käisid

Before we take about the distinction between the use of minema and käima it should be noted that whereas minema takes the illative (-sse) or allative case (-le), käima takes the inessive (-s) or adessive case (-l).


Ma lähen kooli. I am on my way to school.
Ma käin koolis. I go to school (regular occurrence) = I attend school.

Isa läks tööle. Father went to work.
Isa käis tööl. Father went to work and returned.

Pere läks Tartusse. The family left for Tartu.
Pere käis Tartus. The travelled to Tartu and came back again.

That is why it's okay to write someone a note on the fridge where you say ma läksin linna 'I left for town' but when you return and see that person again you must say ma käisin linnas 'I've been to town and back again'.

Hopefully that goes some small way to explaining how to to translate to go in Estonian. It takes a while to get into your head and even after a few years I still slip up now and then, so donät worry if you are having touble with it, especially when you mix in the case change as well. It'll all come with time, I hope!


Sorry that it has been so long since my last post. Hopefully there will only be a short gap between this and the next post.


  1. I've been learning Estonian for a couple of months now, just getting started with Naljaga Pooleks; and I must say that this is a great blog.

    Cheers for whomever else is learning Estonian.

  2. Colm, you're current template on your "normal" blog isn't allowing comments. When you click on the "post comments" button, it just takes you back to the part of the screen where you would be able to read the comments, if there were any.

  3. Hi Sharon! Thanks for your important observation. Fool me for not testing the comments feature when I installed the new template. Now it is fixed. Thanks again!

  4. Your blog is fantastic! Very clear, logical and correct. Btw, are you Irish? What's Irish for "Estonia", "Estonian (person)" and "Estonian (language"?

  5. Tere Jaaguar! Thanks for your comment. Yah, I am Irish. The words you are looking for are:

    Estonia = an Eastóin
    the Republic of Estonia = Poblacht na hEastóine
    an Estonian (person) = Eastónach
    the Estonian (person) = an tEastónach
    (the) Estonian (language) = Eastóinis

    I am from Estonia = Is as an Eastóin mé
    I speak Estonian = Tá Eastóinis agam
    I am Estonian = Is Eastónach mé

    The database is great for terminology by the way.

  6. It is also possible to say "lähen minema" - I go away. This is something I find impossible to explain even as a native speaker of Estonian :D
    BTW, your blog is amazing! And müts maha, how good your Estonian is!