Cases in Finnish

The Finnish language has about fourteen or fifteen cases for nouns. They correspond to English prepositions roughly as follows:

#case suffix English prep. sample word form translation of the sample
1nominatiivi – : t talo : talot house
2genetiivi -n : -jen …of talon : talojen of (a) house
3essiivi -na : -inaas talona : taloina as a house
4partitiivi -(t)a : -ja …- taloa : taloja house (as an object)
5translatiivi -ksi : -iksito (role of) taloksi : taloiksi to a house
6inessiivi -ssa : -ssain talossa : taloissa in (a) house
7elatiivi -sta : -istafrom (inside) talosta : taloista from (a) house
8illatiivi -an, -en … :
-ihin, -isiin
into taloon : taloihin into (a) house
9adessiivi -lla : -illaat, on talolla : taloilla at (a) house
10ablatiivi -lta : -ilta from talolta : taloilta from (a) house
11allatiivi -lle : -illeto talolle : taloille to (a) house
12abessiivi -tta : -ittawithout talotta : taloitta without (a) house
13komitatiivi -ine- together with taloine(ni) with my house(s)
14instruktiivi -n : -in with (the aid of)taloin with (a) house

The translation given is for the singular, except for the last two cases, which are normally used in plural only. The notation “…” indicates that there are other variants of the suffix.

Notes

  1. Nominatiivi (nominative) is the case of a subject and has no ending in the singular. In plural it has the ending -t, whereas in most other cases, the plural suffix is -i- which appears before the case suffix (e.g.: taloissa).
  2. Genetiivi (genitive) indicates mainly relations similar to those expressed using the genitive or the "of" preposition in English. It is also one of the cases of a grammatical object. In plural, it has several possible suffixes, partly depending on the stem, partly in free variation, as i nomena : omenien ~ omenoiden ~ omenoitten ~ omenain,
  3. Essiivi usually indicates some sort of role,
  4. Partitiivi indicates, among other things, the partiality of a grammatical object. E.g., the sentence söin omenaa has such an object and it it would normally be translated as 'I was eating an apple'. In contrast, söin omenan contains a so-called total object (with the object in genitive), meaning that the entire apple was eaten, and it could be translated as 'I ate an apple' or 'I ate the apple', depending on the context. However, in many situations, partitiivi is simply the grammatical form "required" by the verb, as in rakastan sinua 'I love you'. It is also used (in singular!) with numerals, e.g. kolme taloa 'three houses’.
  5. Translatiivi may indicate the result of a state or role transition, e.g. tulla opettajaksi 'become a teacher'. It has many other uses as well, e.g. suomeksi 'in Finnish'.
  6. Inessiivi usually refers to being within or in close contact with something.
  7. Elatiivi typically indicates movement from within (or from close contact with) something. It is also used in more abstract meanings, as in minusta 'in my opinion'.
  8. Illatiivi normally indicates movement into (or to close contact with) something.
  9. Adessiivi can refer to being near or on the surface of something. It has several other uses as well, including the indication of instrument or method or manner, as well as idiomatic expressions like minulla on 'I have' (literally, 'at me there is').
  10. Ablatiivi indicates movement from the neighborhood (or from the surface of) something.
  11. Allatiivi indicates movement to the neighborhood (or to the surface of) something, or indicates the recipient (of giving something, for example).
  12. Abessiivi corresponds to English preposition "without". It is used rarely, except in sayings and in nominal forms of verbs.
  13. Komitatiivi indicates company. The ending is followed by a possessive suffix (except in adjective attributes). It is used rarely and always grammatically in plural.
  14. Instruktiivi indicates in principle an instrument, but see below for literary uses of the instruktiivi. The singular forms, identical with the genitive form, are almost exclusively adverb-like (e.g. jalan 'by foot'). Normally, an instrument is expressed using adessiivi or other cases.
  15. Akkusatiivi (accusative, objective, the case of a grammatical object) is often listed as a case, too. Howeverm its form coincides with the form of the nominative or the form of the genitive, except for the personal pronouns that have specific accusative forms (minut, sinut, etc.) and the interrogatory pronoun kuka ~ ken (akkusatiivi: kenet).

Among the cases, the six cases inessiivi, elatiivi, illatiivi, adessiivi, ablatiivi, allatiivi form a rather orthogonal system of locative cases, with the first three referring to inner relations (in, from, into) and the rest to corresponding outer relations. In practise, the rules for selecting inner or outer locative case are complicated and have a lot of exceptions. For instance, we say Helsingissä 'in Helsinki' but Tampereella 'in Tampere' with no easily explainable reason. (Even Finns have problems in selecting the correct case when using a less common municipality name. A list of municipality names and their cases has been composed for such purposes.)

Moreover, the cases essiivi and partitiivi originally had locative meanings, too, and this is still preserved in some adverbs and sayings (e.g. ulkona 'outside'). Translatiivi can be regarded as an abstract locative case. Thus, in total nine of the fourteen cases can be explained as referring to locality of some sort!

Frequency of usage

The cases can be roughly divided into three categories by frequency:

  1. the common cases nominatiivi, genetiivi and partitiivi, which cover about 76 % of all occurrences
  2. the nine locative cases in the broad sense, as explained above
  3. the rare cases abessiivi, komitatiivi and instruktiivi, which mostly live in special phrases only.
Frequency of usage of cases in Finnish
35.24 %nominatiivi
15.69 %genetiivi
9.89 %nominatiivi pl.
7.65 %partitiivi
3.85 %genetiivi pl.
3.79 %illatiivi
3.50 %partitiivi pl.
3.31 %inessiivi
2.55 %elatiivi
2.30 %adessiivi
2.25 %instruktiivi pl.
1.73 %essiivi
1.40 %elatiivi pl.
1.23 %translatiivi
0.95 %allatiivi
0.93 %inessiivi pl.
0.74 %illatiivi pl.
0.73 %adessiivi pl.
0.58 %allatiivi pl.
0.51 %essiivi pl.
0.47 %ablatiivi
0.31 %abessiivi
0.17 %ablatiivi pl.
0.14 %translatiivi pl.
0.04 %komitatiivi pl.
0.04 %akkusatiivi
0.01 %akkusatiivi pl.
0.01 %abessiivi pl.

The table gives the distribution of cases in the texts of the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper during the first half of 1997 (N = 2,515,113). The entries with the text "pl." indicate the frequency of plural forms, while the entries without such text are for singular. Thus, for example, nominatiivi alone accounts for about 45 % of all occurrences.

The table is based on automated analysis, which in known to produce some incorrect results, due to the impossibility of disambiguating some word forms without semantic analysis. For example, the singular forms of instruktiivi coincide with those of genetiivi and are counted under it; this however does not cause much distortion, since instruktiivi is very rare in singular.

In the table, "akkusatiivi" refers to those forms of personal pronouns that are morphologically distinguishable as akkusatiivi, e.g. "minut".


Notes on suggested cases

The variation in the number of cases in different sources of information about Finnish is mostly explained by the inclusion or exclusion of akkusatiivi as a separate case. Otherwise there is little disagreement about the matter, but for completeness I mention a few issues:

Confused? That's understandable. Please notice that none of the suggested cases in the list above passes the following congruence test: in Finnish, an adjective attribute (almost always) complies in its form with the noun, e.g. isossa talossa, isoilla taloilla etc. That is, the case (and number) is expressed both in a noun and in an attached adjective attribute. And none of the proposed cases can take such an attribute, so they are more adequately regarded as classes of adverbs or as other constructs than cases.