Oppiminen Suomeksi / Learning Finnish: Cases


What are cases and why does Finnish have 15 of them and what does that mean for those of use trying to learn Finnish?

I’m glad you asked! Let me try to tell you!

Grammatical case is the phenomenon where changing the inflection of a word conveys different information. Cases usually get applied to nouns, pronouns, adjectives, participles and numerals.

In English, we tend to do this with prepositions. Words like “to”, “from”, “at”, “going”. These words convey some meaning to the nouns and adjectives that follow them.

If you’re a native English speaker, like I am, you’re not very familiar with idea of case and how cases work, because, quite frankly, English doesn’t have them. Not really.

Technically speaking, english has three cases:

  • Possessive
  • Subjective
  • Objective

For more information on these cases, feel free to read this article.

Back to Finnish cases!

As previously mentioned, Finnish has 15 cases! They are:

  • Nominative
  • Genitive
  • Partitive
  • Accusative
  • Inessive
  • Elative
  • Illative
  • Adessive
  • Ablative
  • Allative
  • Essive
  • Translative
  • Abessive
  • Comitative
  • Instructive

For this article, which is only intended to introduce the idea of cases and how Finnish uses them, we will briefly take a look at just three of these cases:

  • Nominative
  • Genitive
  • Inessive

For each of these examples, we will use the classic example that’s used in every beginner Finnish textbook, or article and that is the word talo, which is the Finnish word for “house”.

Nominative / Nominatiivi

So, let’s start with the nominative case. The nominative case, nominatiivi, is known as the base form of a word. It’s the word you find in the dictionary.

It should come as no surprise the word talo is the nominative form of that word. It is the exact word we would look up in the dictionary should we wish to know what talo means.

Genitive / Genitiivi

The genitive case, genitiivi, indicates possession. When a word appears in the genitive it tells us it owns the object that follows it.

To form the genitive form of a word, we simply take the word stem (a concept I will likely cover in another article) and append -n to the end. So, the genitive form of talo is talon. The sentence talon ovi translates to “the door of a/the house”.

Interestingly, if there are determiners, or pronouns indicating ownership of the object, the genitive case gets applied to them, so if we wanted to say “the door of this house” we would say tämän talon ovi, where the word tämä translates to “this”. Since the ovi belongs to the talo and that word tämä belongs with the talo, it must take the same case. Since talon is the genitive case, tämä becomes tämän.

This is a great example of how cases are applied in general. In many cases, determiners and adjectives will take on the same form of the nouns they are grouped with.

I remember the first time I realized this was during a lesson on Duolingo where I was asked to translate the phrase puu on isossa vanhassa metsässä.

My first reaction to seeing this sentence was legitimately WTF?! That is, until I realized that I actually recognized the word stems of those last three words: iso (big), vanha (old) and metsä (forest). I also knew that the word puu meant “tree”.

Inessive / Inessiivi

It just so happens that last sentence is also an example of how the inessive case works.

The -ssa, or -ssä case ending is the inessive case indicates something is inside something else. So, going back to the talo example, the inessiivi form of talo is talossa, which means something is inside the house.

For example, if I wanted to say “the dog is in the house”, I would say koira on talossa. If I wanted to say “the big dog is in the big house”, I would say iso koira on isossa talossa.

Here we see the same thing we saw earlier. The word iso appears twice in this sentence, but it’s in different cases (nominative and inessive) because it’s taking on the case of the words it’s describing.

Since koira is in the nominative case, iso must be in the same case in that part of the sentence. Likewise, since talo is in the inessive case, iso must, again, take the same case in that part of the sentence.

So, going back to the other sentence again – puu on isossa vanhassa metsässä – I think we now know enough to translate this sentence to english: “the tree is in the big, old forest”.

Finnish cases, though there are many of them, are relatively simple to learn because they all follow very simple rules and the rules are pretty consistent in their application, with very few exceptions (that I know of).

This is just simple introduction. Personally, I’m still learning about cases and how to use them. I understand what the cases endings I’ve encountered do to the word, but how that translates to English isn’t always clear.

For example, the phrase minulla on kuuma which, translated literally means “hot is at me”, or “I have hot”. However, it is colloquially translated to mean “I am hot”.

It’s the same thing with being hungry, or thirsty. Finns have hunger (minulla on nälkä) and thirst (minulla on jano). It’s not a state.


Anyway, I hope that makes sense. Hopefully, I will get around to doing an article that covers each of the cases and their uses in more detail.

Until then – kiitos ja näkemiin!






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