Published: April 27, 2022

Author: Aidan Carroll
Nominator: Hannah Haynie
Course: LING 4420 Morphology & Syntax, Fall 2021
LURA 2022

Fewer people speak Finnish and Estonian combined than the population of New York City by a margin of some 2.5 million, a fact which would be easy to blame on the complexities of the two languages in comparison to… well, most other languages, especially in regard to their case marking systems. Finnish and Estonian both feature detailed case marking systems that serve multiple grammatical and locative functions within their respective languages, and in my 2021 paper “Case Marking Structures in Finnish and Estonian” I both detail these functions as well as how the two closely-related languages compare in their usage of case marking.

Now… what does any of this mean? To an English speaker, the concept of case marking is entirely foreign to begin with, as English has only featured relics of case marking for several centuries (For example, the distinction between “I” [nominative] versus “me” [accusative]). In short, a ‘case’ marks the function of a noun within a phrase: where English uses linguistic structures like prepositions and strict word order to denote a noun’s role in a phrase, Finnish and Estonian employ grammatical (denoting noun relations within the phrase) and locative (denoting noun locations in physical/conceptual space) cases to express the role of a noun in a sentence.

For example, consider the English phrase “I am petting the dogs”: it is clear by the order of the words that it is me who is petting the dog, since “I” comes before the verb “pet” and “dog” comes after. In Finnish, the same meaning is derived from minä silitin koirata, literally “Me I am petting part of the whole of all dogs”—this, notably, is a much more complex meaning achieved by markedly fewer words than the English equivalent, due to Finnish’s case marking system. The partitive grammatical case marker -a on koirat “dogs” implies that only some out of all dogs in the world are being pet by me in this moment: if the marker were not used, the meaning would imply I am petting all of the dogs in the world, which, while a lovely idea, would unfortunately be all but impossible. 

Additionally, due to these case markers, strict word order is not needed, and can in fact be modified for emphasis on different parts of the phrase: having the object at the beginning, as in koirata minä silitin, would emphasize it is the dogs I was petting, say, in opposition to the cats; similarly, silitin koirata minä emphasizes that I was petting the dogs specifically, say, in opposition to feeding the fish. This same example is used in my essay with somewhat more detail as to the linguistic implications of this phenomenon—in short, Estonian case marking functions approximately the same, albeit with more locative cases than Finnish and certain vocabulary-dependent forms of the language’s case markers.

In my analysis I conclude that while the languages are closely related, Estonian features much more irregular case marking than Finnish and as such the languages would be all but unintelligible even before lexical differences are taken into account: nevertheless, their case marking systems function very similarly, especially in regard to the degree of specificity within phrases these systems provide when compared to “blunter” languages like English. This kind of case marking is rare in the world’s languages, which is regrettable considering the small community of speakers both languages have. Overall my research encapsulates the uniqueness of Finnish and Estonian and, in my opinion, the humble elegance of these languages as achieved by their case marking systems.

Header image credit: The Finnic Languages - By ValtteriLahti12 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,