Peeter
Peter did not understand
the mushroom
Sheep
sheep and of the sheep
CASES

Estonian is a language with many cases, employing 14 productive ones. By comparison: Russian has six, German four and English only two cases. The meaning conveyed by case endings in Estonian is expressed by prefixes in English and many other languages.

Estonian cases
Grammatical cases

1. Nominative
2. Genitive
3. Partitive

ilus tüdruk
ilusa tüdruku
ilusa-t tüdrukut

(a) beautiful girl
of a beautiful girl; a beautiful girl (as total object)
a beautiful girl (as a partial object)

Semantic cases

Interior local cases

4. Illative
5. Inessive
6. Elative

ilusa-sse majja
ilusa-s maja-s
ilusa-st majast

into a beautiful house
in a beautiful house
from a beautiful house

Interior local cases

7. Allative
8. Adessive
9. Ablative

ilusa-le majale
ilusa-l maja-l
ilusa-lt majalt

onto a beautiful house
on a beautiful house
from on a beautiful house

Other cases

10. Translative
11. Terminative
12. Essive
13. Abessive
14. Comitative

ilusa-ks tüdruku-ks
ilusa tüdruku-ni
ilusa tüdrukuna
ilusa tüdrukuta
ilusa tüdrukuga

[to turn] (in)to a beautiful girl
up to a beautiful girl
as a beautiful girl
without a beautiful girl
with beautiful girl

Despite the large number of cases, the Estonian language lacks the ordinary object case, the accusative, which is common among the Indo-European languages. The direct object in Estonian is expressed by the nominative, genitive or partitive, in the singular, and by only the nominative or the partitive in the plural. Using the genitive object in the singular and the nominative object in the plural, marks the totality and finiteness of the action directed at that object. The usage of the partitive case expresses the partiality or unfinished nature of the action.

Thus the sentence:

Peeter

kirjutas

luuletust (partitive and partial object)

Peter

wrote

(a) poem

means that Peeter was writing a poem, but it is not known whether he finished it.

Whereas:

Peeter

kirjutas

luuletuse (genitive and total object)

Peter

wrote [i.e. completed writing]

(a) poem

denotes a finished action, with the poem ending up completed.

In a negative sentence, however, the Estonian language allows only the partitive (partial object):

Peeter

ei mõistnud

seent (partial object)

Peter

did not understand

a mushroom

The nominative object in Estonian is used for example in imperative mood:

Peeter

ehita

laev (total object)!

Peter

build

(a) ship! cf.

Peeter

ehita

laeva (partial object)!

Peter

build

(a) ship! [i.e. Peter, get on with (the) ship-building!]

Whereas in semantic cases, each case is marked by a certain ending, it is quite usual in grammatical cases that the nominative and genitive case, sometimes also the partitive case, has no case ending. On occasions, all three cases are the same in the singular, and can be distinguished only in the plural.

Singular

Plural

Nominative
Genitive
Partitive

maja ['house']
maja
maja

maja-d
maja-de
maja-sid

The case endings are the same in singular and plural, the plural is distinguished by suffixes:

Allative Singular

ilusa-le tüdrukule ('to a beautiful girl')

Allative plural

ilusa-te-le tüdruku-te-le

Declension does not depend on word class - nouns and adjectives are declined in the same way. At the same time, the adjective always agrees with the primary word in number. It agrees with the primary word in ten productive cases out of 14.

Due to the phonemic alternation (gradation), the word's stem is sometimes unrecognisable vis-à-vis the nominative case as given in dictionaries, e. g.:

Nominative

Genitive (stem)

uba
pidu
lammas
mees
naine

'bean'
'party'
'sheep'
'man'
'naine'

oa
peo
lamba
mehe
naise

'of the bean'
'of the party'
'of the sheep'
'of the man'
'of the naine'

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