The Estonian adverb: the difference between ‘Being in town’ and ‘seeing in town’

Recently I’ve had many discussions with friends about why it seems that under certain circumstances, originally genitive nouns are used in adverbial usage in Estonian. Basically in Estonian, there are different strategies to create adverbs: generally, the noun stands in adessive case, e.g.:

  • me olime  hommiku-l        linna-s              |   ta   reisis         öösel          Riiga
    we were   morning-add.  city-inessive    |   he  travelled  night-add.  Riga.illative

‘We were in the town in the morning’      |  ‘He travelled to Riga at night’

However, in vernacular usage (and in many, many Estonian dialects) the adverb appears to have been based on the genitive instead:

  • hummog-u      ao-aigo                     sõit peigmiis (South Estonian)
    morning.gen  time.gen-time.prt. drove bridegroom

‘In the morning, from time to time, the bridegroom would drive […]’

  • ommik-u         akkasime lõikkama   õhtass               ol’id  lõegattud (Western Estonian)
    morning-gen we.began to.cut         evening.trans. were cut.passiv

‘In the morning, we started to cut; by the evening, it would be cut’

  • aga ommukk-u     kui      sii       tüdrik  üless  tõus’i       ütle (Eastern Estonian)
    but morning-gen when the(?) girl       up      rose         said

‘But in the morning, when the girl got up, she said’

You get the picture. Now, I’ve had many different discussions with different people about this subject already. Some of them argued that the underlying form must have been the adessive, but that the final consonant was simply elided (lõpukadu). Although this is definitely not impossible, I would point out that it is much more common for final vowels to be elided rather than final consonants, although I realize that this is not necessarily a very strong argument (especially considering how, for example, this is exactly what happened to the old genitive in Estonian, namely n > ø).

Maybe a better argument is that if we do assume that the underlying form was the adessive, then we would find a significant distribution of adessives. However, a search for adverbs with the underlying form hommik*+adv gives 283 results, of which only 17 (arguably up to 21) actually reflect the adessive, about 6% of all adverbs. It’s even worse for underlying päeval, ‘during the day’; where have only one attestation of the adessive out of 63 total forms. For underlying õhtul, ‘at night’ we have 7-10 adessives out of 245 total (2.8%) and for underlying öösel we find 10 adessives out of a total 293 (~3%).

I think that such a low frequency of adessives is significant, so I started thinking of reasons as to how this phenomenon actually came to be. Because I like language contact, I initially thought that it’s possible that the replacement of the adessive with the genitive was due to Russian or German influence. It’s worth pointing out that when talking about times of the day, German also uses the genitive, e.g.:

  • Morgens         und im Winter würden sie
    morning.gen and in   winter will.subj. you

‘In the morning and in winter you may [also bring your children without a ticket]’

Although it’s true that Russian generally uses the instrumental in temporal expressions, e.g. утром, ‘in the morning’, it has been pointed out on various occasions that constructions like на утра до вечера, ‘from the morning until the evening’ take the genitive ending as well (Launer 1973:302-4), and so it’s possible that these forms arose due to contact linguistics. A pretty good argument against this idea is that you would then expect this same temporal adverb on the genitive to also occur in written Estonian, due to the not insignificant influence of German and Russian on the Estonian written language. Despite that, this construction is considered purely colloquial (cf. hommiku, päeva, “Eesti keele seletav sõnaraamat“).

My idea right now is that the form actually reflects an internal development in Estonian, in which the object of verbs with ambiguous valence were reanalyzed as adverbs, which were then generalized and applied in every situation. For example, when we have a phrase like veetsime hommiku (gen.) linnas, ‘we spent the morning in town’, it is possible to interpret hommiku as the direct object of the verb veeta ‘to spend’, but similarly, simply as an adverb. This reminds me, that in English we could agree that ‘the morning’ is the object of the phrase ‘we spent the morning in town’; but who would respond to the question ‘what did you spend in town’ with ‘the morning?’

Either way, this system was then generalized and applied everywhere, potentially initially in phrases with intransitive verbs, e.g. rong sõitis terve päeva, ‘the train rode all day’. In written Estonian this is still perfectly acceptable, but the moment a transitive verb is introduced, the temporal adverb must stand in the adessive, e.g. nägin hommiku-l oma sõpru, ‘I saw my friends in the morning’. It’s possible that the form of the genitive in dialectal Estonian reflects a natural development of the temporal adverb, and that written Estonian stopped this development in order to avoid possible confusion of the object with the adverb.

Launer, M. (1973) Prefixal and suffixal derivation in the Russian adverb.


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