The Uralic languages are well known for having a large number of grammatical cases. The two Uralic languages with the most speakers are Hungarian and Finnish. Finnish has 15 cases and Hungarian has between 17 and 27 grammatical cases, depending on how some items are analysed.
In contrast, looking only at some examples in languages of the Indo-European family, Latin had 6 cases, Russian has 6 cases, German has 4 cases, French makes no case distinctions at all. English has minor remnants of distinctions between 3 cases—though some people dispute whether case distinctions still exist at all in English, as discussed in Does English really have case? – Language Miscellany
Karlsson (2018) identifies 15 cases in Finnish. Kenesei, Vago and Fenyvesi (1998) identify between 17 and 27 cases in Hungarian. Table 1 summarises the number of cases in Hungarian and Finnish, in 3 categories: major cases, local cases and minor cases.
|Minor cases||5||5 to 15|
|Total||15||17 to 27|
The rest of this post looks at the major cases in both languages. Separate posts will cover local cases (expressing such concepts as location, movement to or from a place) and minor cases.
Writing conventions used below
In both languages, case markings are typically suffixes added to the end of a word. To make it easier to identify the suffixes, in the examples below I separate the word from its suffix with a dash <->. That dash does not appear in normal Hungarian and Finnish writing. For instance, one Hungararian example below includes kilometer-t. This would normally be kilometert, with no hyphen separating the accusative suffix -t.
The literal translations of examples below use the following (mostly self-explanatory) abbreviations: nom(inative); acc(usative); dat(ive); part(itive).
Table 2 lists the major cases in each language
Both Finnish and Hungarian use the nominative case to mark the subject of transitive and intransitive verbs. Also, in both languages, there is no case suffix on a noun in the nominative case.
In Finnish, the subject is in the:
- partitive if the sentence denies the subject’s existence, and also in some questions expecting a negative answer.
- genitive for some verbs, for example some impersonal verbs of necessity or obligation, and in some infinitive or participle constructions.
In Hungarian, the accusative suffix is -t (sometimes supported by a vowel: -ot /-et/-öt). The accusative case marks:
- the object of a transitive verb.
- nouns expressing distance with verbs of motion
Két kilometer-t futtottam (I ran two kilometres). (The verb futtottam is in the indefinite form, indicating that it does not have a direct object.)
But, to express distance with other verbs, postpositions are used instead.
In contrast, Finnish marks nouns expressing quantity of, for example, distance or time, as:
- partitive in negative sentences
- nominative in passive and imperative sentences, and in some numeral phrases
- genitive in affirmative sentences expressing a result
For Finnish, there are two different ways to analyse the accusative. The traditional analysis focuses on the context where the forms are used (direct object of a verb). This analysis treats the various forms as different implementations of the same case (accusative), even though the ‘accusative’ forms of all nouns are identical to forms used for other grammatical cases. The form of the accusative:
- is identical to the partitive form when the object is negated or when the object is not a total object. Total objects are discussed below in a sub-section of the discussion of the partitive.
- is identical to the genitive singular form when the object is a single total object.
- is identical to the nominative plural form when the object is a plural total object.
- ends in -t for the following personal pronouns: minut (me); sinut (you); hänet (him / her / it); meidät (us); teidät (you, plural); heidät (them); kenet (whom). [There is no form ending in -t for pronouns which do not refer to people: se (it); ne (them, not of people).]
I don’t know whether this -t ending has the same historical origin as the -t suffix in the Hungarian accusative or whether this is just coincidence.
A more modern analysis focuses on the forms This analysis treats it as no coincidence that the forms for nouns are always identical to forms for other grammatical cases (partitive, genitive, nominative). In this analysis, the accusative is used only for the 7 pronouns listed above (case 4 above). For nouns, the partitive case is used in case 1, the genitive singular case in case 2 and the nominative plural in case 3. Karlsson (2018) adopts this view, as does the major grammar Iso Suomen Kielioppi.
In Hungarian, the dative suffix is -nak / -nek. The form -nak marks nouns containing back vowels and the form -nek marks nouns containing front vowels.
The dative is used:
- to mark the indirect object, for example a recipient or a beneficiary.
Hoztam eg level-et Péter-nek (I brought a letter to / for Peter)
- as the object of some verbs, for example, örül (be happy about something), telefonál (telephone)
Nagyon örülök az ajándék-nak (I am very happy about the gift).
- as the subject complement of some verbs, for example látszik (appear) and tűnik (appear): A lány szomorú-nak látszik (the girl appears sad)
- as the object-complement of some verbs, such as tart (consider).
Mária-t mindenki butá-nak tartja (everybody considers Maria stupid)
- as the subject of an infinitival clause when that clause itself is the subject of the main clause: Péter-nek néhez franciául olvasni (for Peter it is hard to read in French).
- to mark the possessor in the have construction. (Hungarian has no transitive verb meaning have).
Ritá-nak szép gyerek-ei vannak.
(Rita has beautiful children. Literally: to Rita beautiful children there are.)
The possessed noun (gyerek in the example) bears a personal suffix (-ei in the example).
- to mark the possessor of another noun when the focus is on the possessed noun
- János-nak a könyve nem veszett el.
(As for János’s book, it didn’t get lost.)
The focus here is on the possessed item (a könyve) or the whole possessive phrase (János-nak a könyve).
- János-nak nem veszett el a könyve.
(As for János, his book didn’t get lost.)
The focus here is only on the possessor (János), not on the possessed noun.
In this case, the possessor (János-nak) is outside the phrase containing the possessed noun (a könyve).
- János könyve nem veszett el.
(John’s book didn’t get lost.)
The nominative (János) is used here because there is no focus on the possessed noun or possessor.
- János-nak a könyve nem veszett el.
- to mark a function: Az-t a pulovért-t használtam párná-nak
(I used that pullover as a pillow. Literally: that-acc the pullover-acc I used pillow-dat)
When the indirect object is animate, the postpositions részére or számára can replace the dative case suffix, particularly in formal contexts. In above example Hoztam eg level-et Péter-nek, részére or számára can replace Péter-nek.
Finnish has no dative case. Finnish marks:
- some indirect objects, for example a recipient or a beneficiary, with the allative case (a local case, ending in the suffix -lle).
- the possessor of another noun with the genitive.
- the possesor in the have construction with the adessive case (another local case, ending in the suffix -lla / -llä). (Like Hungarian, Finnish has no transitive verb meaning have).
Isä-llä on harmaat hiukset (my father has grey hair. Literally: at/on my father are grey hairs)
In Finnish, the partitive bears the suffix -A or -tA (and sometimes, in the singular only, -ttA). The upper case <A> here indicates that this vowel is subject to vowel harmony: it surfaces as /a/ in words containing back vowels and as /ä/ in words containing front vowels. Particularly in the plural, the partitive suffix changes the stem of the noun.
The partitive is used to mark:
- a subject that is indefinite and not limited in quantity
Torille tuli Kansa-a (Some people came to the tower. Literally: tower-to came people-part)
But: Kansa tuli torille (The people came to the tower. Literally: people-nom came tower-to)
Täällä on laps-ia (There are some children here. Literally: here is children-part. A partitive subject is generally at the end of the sentence and the verb is always in the 3rd person singular, even if the noun is plural.)
But: lapse-t ovat täällä (The children are here. The plural verb agrees with the nominative plural lapse-t)
- a subject whose existence is denied, a subject in some questions expecting a negative answer, or the object of a negated verb
Maa-ssa ei ole halitus-ta
The country has no government (literally in-country not is government-part)
Onko teillä tä-tä kirja-a?
Do you have this book? (literally: Is to you this-part book-part?)
En osta auto-a (I will not buy a car / the car)
But: Ostan auto-n (I will buy the car = genitive singular) and
Ostan auto-t (I will buy the cars = nominative plural)
- an object that is not a total object (see sub-section below on total objects)
- an adjective or noun used as the predicate of a singular noun that is divisible:
Kahvi on kuuma-a (coffee / the coffee is hot, partitive)
But: kuppi on kuuma (The cup is hot, nominative)
Tämä on punaviini-ä (this is red wine, partitive)
But: Tässä on VIINI! (This (here) Is (the WINE! nominative)
- an adjectival complement when the subject is either an infinitive clause or a subordinate clause, or when there is no subject:
On ilmeis-ta, että … (It is clear that…)
On paras-ta lähteä (It is better to leave)
Luennolla oli hauska-a (It was nice at the lecture. At-the-lecture was nice-part)
- nouns quantified by numerals (except yksi [one]) or by other expressions of quantity.
viisi tyttö-a (5 girls. Always partitive singular after numerals)
vähän maito-a ([a] little milk. Partitive singular for divisible words)
kaksi kilo-a omeno-i-ta (2 kilos of apples. Partitive singular of kilo with numeral. Partitive plural of omeno-i-ta with indivisible word).
- the complement of some prepositions (eg lähellä, near) and postpositions (eg kohtaan, towards)
- nouns used in many fixed expressions, such as Päivä-ä (How are you? [Day-part]); Tervetulo-a (Welcome!); ulko-a (from outside)
Partitive object and total object: Finnish
Finnish distinguishes 2 important classes of object of verbs:
- A partitive object is an object that (a) is of an indefinite or unlimited quantity, or (b) has not been totally affected by the end result of the verb.
- A total object is one that is of a definite, limited quantity and has been totally affected by the verb.
Many verbs inherently have no end result and so their objects are often in the partitive. Example: rakasta (love).
Table 3 summarises when objects are considered partitive and when they are considered total. The table also gives examples.
|Partitive object |
(use partitive case)
|Object of verb with no result:|
tyttö luki kirja-a
the girl was reading the book
|Object of verb with a result:|
tyttö luki kirjan
the girl read the book (genitive singular)
tyttö luki kirjat
the girl read the books (nominative plural)
|Object: mass noun (divisible)|
I will buy some ice cream
|Object: definite quantity of a mass noun|
I will buy the ice cream (genitive singular)
|Object: indefinite quantity of plural count noun|
Näen ihmisi-ä (partitive plural)
I see some people (plural)
|Object: definite quantity of plural count noun|
I see the people (nominative plural)
Hungarian has no partitive case, but expresses the following distinctions:
- definite / indefinite: by presence or absence of definite article (a / az) and/or definite / indefinite verb form
György itta a bor-t (George was drinking the wine, definite article, definite verb)
György bor-t ivott (George was drinking the wine, George the wine drank, no definitive article, indefinite verb)
- complete / incomplete action: by presence or absence of perfectivising verbal prefix (such as meg- or el-).
György meg-itta a bor-t (George drank the wine)
In Finnish, the genitive case is used to indicate possession. Its suffix is -n in the singular and in the plural typically -en, -tten, -den, -ten.
The genitive is used to mark:
- the possessor of another noun
Hanna-n auto (Hannah’s car)
Tämä kirja on Leo-n (that book is Leo’s)
Helsingi-n yliopisto (University of Helsinki)
maido-n hinta (price of milk)
- a singular noun that is the total object of a verb (see sub-section above on total objects)
- the subject of: some impersonal verbs of necessity, obligation; of some verbs with a modal meaning; and of the verb olla (be) with adjectives such as hyvä (good), paha (bad) and hauska (nice)
Minu-n täytyy lähteä (I must leave)
Mies-ten on pakko poistua (the men have to go away)
Sinu-n ei pidä uskoa kaikkea (you must not believe everything)
Suome-n kannattaa yrittää (it is worth Finland trying)
Suomalais-ten oli paha palata (the Finns felt bad about returning)
- the subject of some subject-and-infinitive or participle constructions
Talve-n tullessa (when winter comes, literally: winter-of coming-in)
- the complement of many postpositions
talo-n sisällä (inside the house)
- a premodifier of an adjective
karhu-n värinen (bear-coloured)
- the first part of some compound words
työ-ntekijä (employee, literally work doer); työ-nantaja (employer, work giver)
Hungarian has no genitive case. The possessor is typically marked with the dative (when there is focus on the possessor) or nominative (when there is no focus on the possessor).
Finnish: a comprehensive grammar, by Fred Karlsson (2018)
Hungarian (Routledge Descriptive Grammars Series), by István Kenesei, Robert M. Vago and Anna Fenyvesi (1998)