Estonian is the official language of Estonia, a country in Northern Europe, and is spoken by around 1.1 million people. Estonian belongs to the Finno-Ugric family of languages, which also includes Finnish, Hungarian, and many other languages like Sami, Võro, and Komi. It is not part of the Indo-European group, which includes most European languages.
An interesting fact about the Estonian language is that it has a case system with 14 grammatical cases, which might seem like a lot when you haven’t learned a language with noun cases before. Each case carries specific grammatical functions and helps indicate the roles of nouns, pronouns, and adjectives in a sentence.
Understanding the case system is important to learning Estonian because it plays a big role in constructing sentences and conveying the exact meanings. Different cases can indicate possession, direction, location, and other relationships, and understanding the case system allows you to express these meanings correctly.
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What Is a Case System?
Grammatical cases refer to a system of endings that nouns and noun modifiers (for example, adjectives, determiners, or participles) take to indicate their grammatical function in a sentence. In Estonian, however, they only apply to nouns, adjectives, and pronouns. Cases provide information about the role a word plays within a sentence.
Estonian and English have different approaches to grammatical cases. Estonian has 14 cases, while English has a more limited use of cases. Each Estonian case conveys specific functions and meanings, while English has largely lost its case system, with only remnants of cases seen in pronouns like “he” (nominative) and “him” (accusative). English primarily relies on word order and prepositions to indicate grammatical relationships; for example, “The donkey chased the carrot” relies on word order, while “The donkey chased after the carrot” uses the preposition “after” to establish the relationship.
Overview of Estonian Cases
The first three Estonian cases are the most important ones, since they are known as the basic cases and are used as base forms for other cases.
The nominative or nimetav case is the first case, and it answers the questions kes (who), mis (what), milline / missugune (which, what kind). It is mostly used for the subject of the sentence. This case doesn’t have any specific ending.
Kes räägib? – Who is speaking?
Õde räägib – Sister is speaking.
Mis see on? – What is that?
See on raamat – It’s a book.
Milline värv sulle meeldib? – Which color do you like?
Mulle meeldib roheline – I like green.
Missugune ilm sulle meeldib? – What kind of weather do you like?
Mulle meeldib päiksepaisteline ilm – I like sunny weather.
The genitive case is called omastav in Estonian. It answers the questions kelle (whose, belonging to whom) and mille (belonging to what) and shows the possessor or owner of something. It’s the Estonian equivalent of ’s, such as in book’s, brother’s, house’s. The possessive word comes before the object that’s possessed, as you can see in the following example sentences.
Kelle raamat see on? – Whose book is this?
See on mu venna raamat – It’s my brother’s book.
Mille kaudu? – Through what?
Interneti kaudu – Through the internet.
Partitive is called osastav in Estonian. It answers the questions keda (whom) and mida (what). With the partitive case, a part of some unspecified whole is considered.
Tükk kooki – a piece of (some) cake
Tass kohvi – a cup of (some) coffee
Mida sa sööd? – What are you eating?
Ma söön õuna – I’m eating (some) apple.
Keda sa näed? – Who do you see?
Ma näen lindu - I see a (some) bird.
Sisseütlev kääne or illative case answers the questions kellesse (into whom), millesse (into what), and kuhu (into where). It shows movement into something or someone. It’s the Estonian equivalent of “to” and “into” but not always.
Kuhu sa lähed? – Where are you going?
Ma lähen poodi – I’m going to the shop
Kellesse sa usud? – Who do you believe in?
Ma usun endasse – I believe in myself.
Millesse sa kukkusid? – What did you fall into?
Ma kukkusin vette – I fell into the water.
Inessive case, seesütlev kääne, answers the questions kelles (in whom), milles (in what), and kus (where). Inessive case shows the location inside something or someone.
Kelles on jõudu? – Who has strength?
Temas on palju jõudu – He has lots of strength.
Milles asi on? – What’s going on? (In what the thing is?)
Selles on palju soola – There’s a lot of salt in that.
Kus sa elad? – Where do you live?
Ma elan linnas – I live in the city.
The elative case is called seestütlev kääne in Estonian. It answers the questions kellest (out of whom), millest (out of what), and kust (where from). It’s used to show the coming out of something or someone. It is normally used in the same way as the English prepositions “from” or “out of.” It can also be used to talk “about” something or someone.
Kellest te räägite? – Who are you talking about?
Me räägime emast – We’re talking about mom.
Millest see räägib? – What does it talk about?
See räägib ilmast – It’s talking about the weather.
Kust sa pärit oled? – Where are you from?
Ma olen pärit Eestist – I am from Estonia.
Me sõidame Tallinnast Tartusse – We’re driving from Tallinn to Tartu.
Ma ostan poest banaani – I’m buying bananas from the shop.
Allative (alaleütlev kääne) answers the questions kellele (onto whom, to whom), millele (onto what, to what), and kuhu (where to). It’s used to show movement or direction toward a specific location or recipient.
Kellele see on? – Who is it for?
See on mu sõbrale – This is for my friend.
Millele ma istuda võin? – What can I sit on?
Istu sellele toolile – Sit on this chair.
Ma panen taldriku lauale – I will put the plate on the table.
Kuhu sa reisid? – Where will you travel to?
Ma reisin Saksamaale – I am traveling to Germany.
The adessive case is called alalütlev kääne in Estonian and answers the questions kellel (on whom), millel (on what), and kus (where at). The adessive case is used to indicate location or presence on or at a specific place or object. It’s also used to show possession or express time.
Kellel on raamat? – Who has a book? (on whom is a book)
Mul on raamat – I have a book (on me is a book).
Millel on punane katus? – What has a red roof? (on what is a red roof)
Majal on punane katus – The house has a red roof (on house is a red roof).
Kus sa oled? – Where are you?
Ma olen peol – I’m at (on) a party.
The ablative (alaltütlev in Estonian) case answers the questions kellelt (off whom), millelt (off what), and kust (where from). It’s used to indicate movement away from a location. The second meaning indicates the person from whom something is received, taken, or demanded.
Kellelt need lilled on? – Who are these flowers from?
Ma sain need oma sõbralt – I got these from my friend.
Millelt sa alla hüppasid? – What did you jump down from?
Ma hüppasin toolilt alla – I jumped down from a chair.
Kust te pärit olete? – Where are you from?
Ma olen pärit Prantsusmaalt – I am from France.
Translative (saav in Estonian) answers the questions kelleks (becoming whom) and milleks (becoming what). It’s used to indicate turning into something or someone. The translative case is also used to express the objective or intended outcome of a verb’s action and to show the period or timeframe within which something happens or by which it is accomplished.
Kelleks sa saada tahad? – Who do you want to become?
Ma tahan saada arstiks – I want to become a doctor.
Ma õppisin arstiks – I studied to be a doctor.
Milleks see kasulik on? – What is it useful for?
Mis ajaks see peab valmis olema? – By what time does it need to be ready?
Ma lähen talveks reisile – I’m going on a trip for the winter.
Ma lähen reisile kaheks nädalaks – I’m going on a trip for two weeks.
Ma ostan sünnipäevaks ühe koogi – I will buy a cake for the birthday.
The terminative case is called rajav kääne in Estonian and answers the questions kelleni (until whom) and milleni (until what). It shows the specific time or point where an action ends or is limited.
Kelleni sa kõnnid? – Till whom will you walk?
Ma kõnnin sinuni ja tagasi – I’ll walk to you and back.
Milleni see rada läheb? – To what does this path go?
See viib sillani – It goes to the bridge.
Kella kuueni on veel aega – There’s still time until six o’clock.
Pood on avatud kaheksast viieni – The shop is open from eight till five.
Essive case (olev kääne in Estonian) answers the questions kellena (as whom) and millena (as what). It’s used to show when someone or something is temporarily in a specific role or acting as something else.
Kellena sa töötad? – Who do you work as?
Ma töötan raamatupidajana – I work as an accountant.
Ma tunnen ennast üksikuna – I feel lonely.
Lapsevanemana ei saa ta seda öelda – She can’t say this as a parent.
Abessive case (ilmaütlev kääne in Estonian) answers the questions kelleta (without whom) and milleta (without what). It indicates the absence or lack of something and is often used together with the preposition ilma (without). Ilma can be omitted, but the sentence often feels more complete with it.
Me ei saa ilma temata alustada – We can’t begin without him.
Milleta sa ei suudaks elada? – What could you not live without?
Ma ei suudaks ilma oma arvutita elada – I could not live without my computer.
Ilma piletita sisse ei saa – You can’t get in without a ticket.
Comitative case (kaasaütlev kääne in Estonian) answers the questions kellega (with whom) and millega (with what). It’s the opposite of abessive case and is used to express the idea of with or together with someone or something. The preposition koos (together with) can be used along with the case. However, it isn’t as common as ilma with adessive case, so it’s okay to omit it.
Kellega sa peole lähed? – Who are you going to the party with?
Ma lähen peole Nelega – I’m going to the party with Nele.
Millega sa kohvi jood? – What do you drink coffee with?
Ma joon kohvi koorega – I drink coffee with cream.
Lapsed saabusid koos vanematega – The children arrived (together) with the parents.
Behind the nose
Just a fun note: The last four cases are taught to Estonian kids in school as NI - NA - TA - GA, which sounds like nina taga, behind the nose, to help them remember the order of the cases better.
Estonian Case Endings
Let’s first go over different case endings in Estonian. This might seem like a lot to remember, but there are rules that make it a lot easier.
No specific ending
-d, -t, -a, -e, -i, -u
-id, -sid, -e, -i, -u
-sse, vowel ending
-desse, -tesse, -isse
-des, -tes, -is
-dest, -test, -ist
-dele, -tele, -ile
-del, -tel, -il
-delt, -telt, -ilt
-deks, -teks, -iks
The three most important cases that you need to remember are nominative, genitive, and partitive. You just need to learn these because there is no quick way to memorize them. However, to form the rest of the cases you only need to know the genitive form of the word plus the correct ending. Here are some examples.
Koeraga, koerata, koerale, koerani
Majata, majas, majast, majaks
Tüdrukust, tüdrukuna, tüdrukult, tüdrukuks
The same rule applies to plural forms. You take the genitive plural and add the correct ending to it.
Koertega, koerteta, koertele, koerteni
Majadeta, majades, majadest, majadeks
Tüdrukutest, tüdrukutena, tüdrukutelt, tüdrukuteks
Nominative plural can be formed in the same way. You first need to know the genitive singular form of the word, then simply add -d to the end of it and you have the nominative plural form of the word.
Koera – koerad
Tüdruku – tüdrukud
Maja – majad
To form the genitive plural, you need to know the partitive singular. Genitive plural can either end with -de or -te, and this depends on the ending of the partitive singular. The -de ending is the most common. One rule to keep in mind is that if the singular ends with -t, then the genitive plural would usually end with -te, but, as usual with Estonian, this rule doesn’t always apply.
Koera – koerte
Tüdrukut – tüdrukute
Kassi – kasside
Maja – majade
In Estonian the adjective must be in the same case as the noun it’s describing. However, when the noun is in any of the last four cases (NI-NA-TA-GA cases), the adjective remains genitive. Here are some examples.
Kollasesse majja – into the yellow house
Kollasel majal – on the yellow house / the yellow house has
Kollase majani – until the yellow house
Kollase majata – without the yellow house
Challenges and Tips
As with learning any language, there are also challenges when it comes to learning Estonian. That’s why it’s important to learn what these challenges are and how to tackle them.
Inner and Outer Locative Cases
Something that Estonian learners often struggle with is knowing when to use inner or outer locative cases. We’ll explain here the trick to know which one to use. Let’s concentrate on the questions kuhu (where to), kus (where), and kust (where from). These questions apply to both inner (illative, inessive, elative) and outer (allative, adessive, ablative) locative cases.
A good trick to know which one to use is to think whether the place that you’re talking about has walls or not. If it has walls, then you generally use inner locative and if not then outer locative.
Kuhu? – Where to?
Poodi – to the shop (short illative)
Kooli – to school (short illative)
Turule – to the market
Koju – to home (short illative)
Tööle – to work
Kontorisse – to the office
Peole – to a party
-maa, -mäe, -järve, -jõe
Maa in Estonian means land, ground, and earth. So when a place name ends with -maa, then it will always need to be used in outer locative cases when the questions are kuhu, kus, or kust. This is because you can’t be inside land or go inside land, but you can be on top of it. The same applies when a place name ends with -mäe (of mountain) and -järve (of lake), -jõe (of river) or when talking about an island, but in the case of islands there can be some irregularities.
Kus? – Where?
Harjumaal – in Harjumaa
Saksamaal – in Germany
Venemaal – in Russia
Islandil – in Iceland
Ülejõel – in Ülejõe
Kohtla-Järvel – in Kohtla-Järve
Eestis – in Estonia
Lätis – in Latvia
Soomes – in Finland
Itaalias – in Italy
Jaapanis – in Japan
Austraalias – in Australia
We’ve talked about quite a lot of rules in this article, but one thing you need to keep in mind is that there are almost always words that the rules don’t apply to, and there are sometimes no quick ways to know which words they are. This is why they’re called irregular words.
Tips for learning the cases
The best way to learn cases is to first find a method that helps you to memorize the first three forms, as they are the most important ones. Once you know these, then forming the rest of the cases becomes a lot easier.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Estonian doesn’t have as strict a word order as English does, so even if you mess up the order of words or don’t use the correct ending, then people will generally still understand what you mean.
Read or listen to Estonian to get familiar with the sentence structure. Getting a lot of exposure to the language will help you immensely.
Continue learning Estonian with Lingvist
Learning Estonian can seem like a difficult task at first, especially when you don’t know any similar languages before starting; however, this shouldn’t keep you from learning this beautiful language. Starting out with an understanding of how the case system works will make learning the rest of the grammar a lot easier, because you’ve already learned one of the most important parts of the Estonian grammar system.
Learning Estonian can be an especially rewarding experience, as it is often considered a difficult language to learn, and it isn’t a language spoken by many people in the world. Native Estonian speakers, though, will definitely appreciate you making an effort to communicate with them in their native language.
If you want to take your Estonian skills to the next level, then you should definitely try out Lingvist’s Estonian course. With Lingvist, you can learn the most common Estonian words in only ten minutes of study per day.