Something weird about the prolative case in Estonian.

Let’s go back to Estonian for a second.

Estonian has a pretty extensive case system: it innovated a number of cases originally not reconstructed for Protofinnougric, and then introduced some other cases through grammaticalization, such as the comitative. In total, most linguists would say that Estonian has 14 productive cases.

In Estonian, the genitive functions as an oblique case to which other case endings are added, so for example:

  • hommik (nom), ‘morning’
  • hommik-u (gen.)
  • hommik-u-l (gen+adessive) ‘in the morning’

Basically, this system works for every case. This means that whatever case ending you want to add to the noun, it will be based on the genitive case. A notable exception to this is the old prolative case, which is no longer productive as a case (but occasionally found as a suffix), basically expressing the means by which something is done, which is formed using the suffix -ti/-si/-tsi (apparently going back to Protobaltofinnic -ci).

Examples of the prolative are for example jalgsi, ‘by foot’; käsitsi, ‘by hand’; himuti, ‘lustily’. People who know Estonian will undoubtedly have noticed that the formation of this case ending is apparently based the nominative rather than the genitive. Although I don’t really know Finnish, I understand that a similar case exists there as well, e.g. meritse, ‘by sea’; maitse, ‘by land’; jäitse, ‘by ice’ (which were later borrowed wholesale in Written Estonian). However, there are also various cases of the prolative being based on the genitive as well. For example, we find forms like hommikuti not *hommiksi, küljetsi/külitsi not *külgsi, õhutsi, not *õhksi.

The reason for this variation is not entirely clear to me. Although it is obvious that there are some phonological constraints at work, resulting in the adding of an epenthetic vowel after some consonant clusters, such as hetketi (rather than *hetkti) (itself the result of the loss of final vowels after non-short syllables in Estonian), this does not explain why some forms are based on an oblique genitive case even when there are no phonotactical constraints, such as with näotsi, which would otherwise be *nägutsi; or alati rather than *algsi. Similarly, it does not even seem that phonotactics are that big of a deal, considering the attestation of the form holpsti ‘with a jump’, where we have four consecutive consants.

So I decided to look a bit further and to see if there are some general trends as to which form has an oblique nominative, which one has an oblique genitive, and which form has something else altogether. It turns out that forms with –si are always based on a nominative oblique, e.g. jalgsi, ‘by foot’; silmsi, ‘with [your own] eyes; eye to eye’; pimesi, ‘blindly (‘in the dark’)’; vägisi, ‘by force; involuntarily’; eksi, ‘mistakenly; erroneously’. As far as I know, there are no exceptions to this rule.

Both -(s)ti and –tsi are usually based on the oblique genitive, e.g. hommik-u-ti, ‘in the morning’; ilusasti, ‘beautifully’; kahe-ti, ‘from two sides (<kaks, ‘two’); in pairs’, libe-da-sti, ‘smoothl‎y’, and kao-tsi, ‘having disappeared’ (<kaduma, ‘to disappear’); küljetsi, ‘sideways’ (<külg, ‘side’); näo-tsi, ‘face-to-face’ (<nägu, ‘face’).

Moreover, there’s a whole list of prolatives that appear to be formed on another base altogether.For example, we find talviti, ‘each winter’ (<talv, ‘winter’; talvi); keeliti ‘from language to language’ (<keel, ‘language’; keeli). Where it gets really interesting, however, is with adverbs apparently based on the partitive plural, but whose internal morphology changed due to consonant gradation. Examples of these include põsitsi, ‘cheek-to-cheek’, of which the nominative singular is põsk, the genitive singular is põse, and the partitive plural is põski. Other examples of this include rinnutsi, ‘breast-to-breast’, rind, rinna, rindu; and külitsi, ‘sideways’ (see above).

These forms have to be based on the historical partitive plural, although I’m not yet sure at which point the internal consonants underwent gradation, which is something that I will have to come back to at a later point.


One thought on “Something weird about the prolative case in Estonian.

  1. One main issue here is that the modern Estonian prolative is suppletive, mixing together several earlier categories. E.g. (some) forms in -si are historically rather instructives built on the adjectival suffix *-ise- (> Estonian -ne : -se): compare Finnish jalkaisin ‘on foot’, väkisin ‘by force’; and (some) forms in -sti are historically adverbs, cf. Fi. iloisesti ‘happily’.

    From a historical viewpoint it is also not really accurate to say that even the likes of näotsi would be built on the genitive stem. The original prolative ending *-ccek simply itself triggered consonant gradation, just as the genitive *-n did: näo, näotsi < *nägo-n, *nägo-ccek.

    The examples based on the “partitive plural plus gradation” are similarly actually based on the original Proto-Finnic weak-grade oblique plural stem, which has been mostly eliminated in Estonian in favor of new plural formations. -i- as a plural marker in the partitive plural meanwhile continues the older strong-grade oblique plural stem. Compare e.g. Fi. rinta : rinnan : rintoja : rinnoissa (PF strong sg. *rinta(-) : weak sg. *rinda- : strong pl. *rintoi- : weak pl. *rindoi-); likewise talvi : talvia : talvissa.


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