Introduction to Estonian: Lesson 4

Estonian words actually have cases and we are going to learn the 3 most important of them now. First, I want you to look at simple words and learn about the cases:

Estonian for language is keel.

This is the plain simple form and it is called the nominative case (although you don’t have to worry about what it is called too much in this course: we will just call it the simple form). All words have the simple form which could be the word language keel, I mina, father isa and so on.

Then we have the possessive form of each word which in grammar is called the genitive case. Of the word language (keel) the possessive form is language’s which is keele, the possessive of I (mina) is my (minu) and the possessive of father (isa) is father’s isa (isa, just like ema, happens to be the same as the simple form in all three main forms by chance). The possessive is very important in Estonian since other cases are built on it by adding some ending (just like you saw when we made the adessive from the possessive by adding an l).

Thirdly, we have another very important form in Estonian called the partitive case (I like the name so we will stick with it). This is very Estonian because we usually do not have this case in other languages. The partitive form means some of the thing or a part of the thing and it is used very often in Estonian, its most common use being with objects of verbs (we will learn about these in a flash). We usually form the partitive by adding d or t on the end of the simple form but these rules are not completely strict. We had I (mina) and some of me would be mind, then father (isa) by same lucky chance stays some of father isa and finally language (keel) becomes some of a language keelt.

Some of the words, like isa or ema are the same in all forms but while you can sometimes guess the partitive by adding d and t, you usually have to learn the possessive separately from the simple form. There are a few rules which can help you but they are a bit beyond the scope of this course. The possessive is given along with the simple form in dictionaries (sometimes the partitive is given too).

So, you already know how to use the simple form but let’s reinforce it a bit.

Estonian for Estonian is eesti.

The word eesti is good in that all its simple, possesive and partitive forms are the same: eesti (they usually are the same for national adjectives: Estonian, English, Finnish and so on.).

How would you say:

1 translation: The Estonian language is good.

Okay, let’s talk about the possessive now. You have seen as it has been used to mean thing’s or of a thing. Try that:

Estonian for name is nimi.

It’s such a cute word and it sounds a bit like name me said fast. As a side fact, you can know that both the possessive and partitive forms of name (nimi) are nime. What would you say:

2 translation: My name is Paul.

3 translation: Dad’s name is Toomas.

Connect the two forms:

4 translation: The language’s name is Estonian.

Don’t worry if you don’t understand this line at all: it might be useful for you to know that the possessive form (i.e. the genitive case) is used in place of the accusative case all the time to note to object of the action, however, you usually use the partitive case for the object as we will soon find out.

Let’s learn the use of the partitive case. We have talked about how it is most commonly used with objects of verbs. Let’s find out what these are:

Objects are things in a sentence that an action (verb) is directed towards.

You see, verbs in sentences have objects. Look at these examples: I need a house, Tom throws a ball, Sharon speaks French, "Michael sees Tom", Life is great. The objects in these sentences are respectively: a house, a ball, French, Tom, and no object at all.

A good way to look at this is this: in each of these sentences there is an actor - somebody who is doing some action and an object - somebody or something that some action is being done to. We don’t have an object in the phrase Life is great because there is effectively no actor: life is but it is not doing anything, apart from being and plainly being does not qualify for doing something.

Alright, so, objects are usually used with the partitive form. But why, you might ask? Why isn’t there a separate case (form) for objects? Well, you can sometimes use the possessive form but the reason why partitive forms are usually used for objects is because when you talk about things you don’t mean the whole thing and just mean a part of it.

Think about it. When you say I am reading a book, you usually don’t mean I am reading the whole thing but you mean I am reading some part of it (now). When you speak Estonian, you don’t really speak the whole language (that’s quite impossible), you just speak some part of it. The objects of sentences, Estonians think, are almost never full, they are usually partitive. That’s why the partitive case. That, and Estonians clearly overdo it a bit too.

Let’s learn the difference.

Estonian for book is raamat.
The possessive form os book (ramat) is raamatu and the partitive form is raamatut.
Estonian for to read is lugema.

You would expect it to become lugen for I read but this is an irregularity and that u actually means o and g drops out. How would you say:

5 translation: I read.

All the other forms follow from loen and are just like you would expect them, though. The negative also comes from it so the word lugema actually acts as if it were loema instead.

So, imagine that you are preparing for an exam and you decided to sit back and read a book through, that is, cover to cover or completely and not just a part of it. Because of that, you would use the possessive and not the partitive. You would also need to add the word through which is läbi to the sentence to show that you aren’t just reading some of the book (otherwise the phrase doesn’t work). How would you say:

6 translation: I am reading a book through.

Now imagine that you are just going by bus and trying to pass a few minutes by reading some of the book (thus you use the partitive). How would you say:

7 translation: I am reading a book (some of it).

That’s the whole difference in this. As I have told already, you usually just use the partitive. For example, use the partitive form of keel which is keelt to say:

8 translation: I speak the Estonian language.

You always use the partitive with negations like ei.

Estonians think that if you have not done something, it is clear that you have not done at least some of it so you use the partitive. How would you say this (hint: remember that lugema acts as if it were loema when forming the negative or other forms):

9 translation: I don’t read the book.

So, you have used the partitive because you have a negation ei and an object. Pretty straightforward.

Alright, we have learnt a great deal today. Take a break before the last lesson where we learn even more and put it altogether. Untill then!

Answers to Lesson 4

1 answer: Eesti keel on hea.
2 answer: Minu nimi on Paul.
3 answer: Isa nimi on Toomas.
4 answer: Keele nimi on eesti.
5 answer: Mina loen.
6 answer: Mina loen raamatu läbi.
7 answer: Mina loen raamatut.
8 answer: Mina räägin eesti keelt.
9 answer: Mina ei loe raamatut.