Unmarked case in Estonian nominals


This paper analyzes a case-marking alternation seen in the standard Estonian numeral-noun construction and pseudopartitive construction (e.g., tükk leiba ‘a piece of bread’). In nominative and accusative contexts, the second noun (N2) is marked with partitive case while the first noun/numeral (N1) is marked with the case of the pseudopartitive. In all other case contexts both nouns must bear the case of the pseudopartitive. I propose that the partitive case on N2 is an unmarked case in the sense of Baker (2015) and Marantz (1991), among others. It is assigned to complements of nouns that do not already have a case value. This derives the case-marking alternation as a matter of timing: nominative and accusative are assigned too late to affect case-marking internal to the pseudopartitive. I show that pseudopartitives are not amenable to an analysis in terms of case-stacking as has been proposed for similar phenomena. The analysis presented here also extends to collocations of numerals and pseudopartitives in Estonian. I also show how the analysis can be extended to account for differences between Finnish and Estonian, and I suggest a typology of pseudopartitive-marking predicted by the analysis I propose. The analysis has implications for case realization and assignment as well as pseudopartitive and DP structure.

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  1. 1.

    Naturally occurring examples are indicated in the following ways. Examples marked with ekss come from an online version of an Estonian language dictionary (Eesti keele seletav sõnaraamat), and the entry title is indicated. Some examples also come from corpora: balanced, a balanced literary corpus (15 million words) containing equal parts journalism, fiction, and academic writing, and parliament, a corpus of parliamentary transcripts (13 million words) from 1995–2001. These three sources are all available online at http://www.keeleveeb.ee/, (accessed 25 July 2017). Unannotated examples are from my fieldwork with native Estonian speakers in the San Francisco Bay area and Tartu, Estonia.

    Glossing abbreviations are as follows: 1 first person, 2 second person, 3 third person, abe abessive, acc accusative case, ade adessive case, all allative case, com comitative, dat dative case, ela elative case, ess essive, gen genitive case, ill illative case, ine inessive case, inf infinitive (da-infinitive), neg negation, nom nominative case, par partitive case, pl plural number, pst past tense, pst.pcpl past participle, ter terminative, trl translative case, sup supine (ma-infinitive), sg singular number.

  2. 2.

    The non-agreement pattern is also found in accusative contexts, but accusative and nominative numerals are indistinguishable in these languages. This fact is critical in many previous analyses of these phenomena, as we will see. It is also worth noting that McGarry (2015, 2016) argues against a case-based analysis of the alternation in Belorussian and Ukrainian (and in Slavic more broadly), but I will not discuss her account here, as the facts she discusses do not hold in Estonian.

  3. 3.

    Anticipating the analysis to come, let me state that there is reason to find the label pseudopartitive unsatisfying for these constructions, as the substance phrase can be quite large, and Selkirk’s (1977) original usage of the term was for constructions like those in (2) and (3) where the phrase containing the second noun is quite small. However, as Tamm notes, “the generally assumed semantics that distinguished partitives from pseudopartitives on the basis of definiteness is not useful in mapping to distinct morphosyntactic forms in Estonian.” Rather, she uses the term pseudopartitive as I do here and applies the term partitive to constructions like these where the phrase containing the second noun is marked with elative case instead of partitive case. See Tamm (2011) for more thorough discussion of the semantics of the constructions. See fn. 5 for reference to other partitive-like constructions in Estonian.

  4. 4.

    Richards (2012) only considers cases that are assigned in the syntax. He does argue against case concord occurring in the morphology, but only in a sense where that would require case concord to take place much later than the actual assignment of case. The analysis presented here essentially agrees with Richards on the timing of case concord, though our assumptions about when cases may be assigned are different.

  5. 5.

    As an aside, I must note that there are other partitive-like constructions in Estonian. First, there are partitive-like constructions where N2 is marked with elative case, e.g., tükk leiva-st ‘piece bread-ela’. These are the most similar to pseudopartitives, and Tamm (2011) discusses the semantic differences between elative partitives and what she (we) calls pseudopartitives in some detail. In addition, there are partitive-like constructions where N2 is marked with comitative case, e.g., korv õunte-ga ‘basket apples-com’ and constructions where the N2 is marked with genitive case and is prenominal, e.g., riide meeter ‘cloth.gen meter’. Since the focus of this paper is the case-marking alternation visible on N2, and case-marking of N2 in these constructions is invariant, I do not discuss them further.

  6. 6.

    I have had some difficulty eliciting similar examples from speakers, but the ones given here have been accepted and judged to be normal. Erelt et al. (1993) also provide some examples, though they note that there is a tendency to avoid non-nominative plural measures and use alternative structures, such as compounds, e.g., leivaviilud ‘bread slices’ instead of viilud leiba ‘slices of bread’ or other kinds of modifiers, e.g., ämbrid veega ‘buckets with water’ instead of ämbrid vett ‘buckets of water’. These are the kinds of examples that my speakers typically suggest as alternatives when presented with examples using plural measures. See also Hankamer and Mikkelsen (2008) for similar observations in Danish.

  7. 7.

    To make this point more concrete, I comment briefly on existing analyses of cardinal numerals. The literature on the syntax of numerals cross-linguistically nearly runs the gamut in terms of syntactic position and syntactic category. It has been proposed that numerals are heads in the nominal spine (Ionin and Matushansky 2004, 2006; Nelson and Toivonen 2000; Ritter 1991), specifiers of a functional projection (Corver and Zwarts 2006; Julien 2005; Watanabe 2006; Zabbal 2005), and adjuncts in the nominal spine (Sigurðsson 1993:188). It has also been proposed that numerals may occupy different syntactic positions cross-linguistically and within the same language (Danon 2012; Franks 1994; Pereltsvaig 2006). As for category, it has been proposed that numerals are nouns (Ionin and Matushansky 2004, 2006), functional categories (e.g., Card0, Num0, or Q0, Babby 1987; Franks 1994, 1995; Giusti and Leko 1995, 2005; Julien 2005; Nelson and Toivonen 2000; Ritter 1991; Rutkowski 2001; Sigurðsson 1993; Watanabe 2006), and that they are of various categories (Corver and Zwarts 2006; Danon 2012; Zabbal 2005). I do not attempt to argue in favor of a particular analysis of numerals here—there are multiple ways that we could set the assumptions about numerals that would still be fully compatible with the analysis I ultimately propose.

  8. 8.

    This is a bit of an oversimplification, given that there are also numeral-noun constructions where the numeral is plural, e.g., kolme-d kääri-d ‘three-pl.nom scissor-pl.nom’, and in these constructions, partitive case is never assigned. These constructions can be incorporated into the analysis I propose as follows. First, I follow Danon (2012), who proposes that numeral-noun constructions can have varying syntactic structures, not just across languages but even within the same language. For the same type of construction in Finnish, he proposes that the plural numerals (and the numeral ‘one’) are adjoined modifiers rather than heads in the nominal spine. If we adopt that assumption, then the requisite configuration for partitive case is not met, and we expect instead full case concord regardless of syntactic context.

  9. 9.

    In coordinations, these cases can be marked on both members of the coordination or only on the rightmost, with the other members bearing genitive case instead. Under the analysis adopted here, these patterns arise due to coordination of PPs on the one hand and coordination of DPs with a single P0 on the other. See Norris (2015) for more explicit discussion and argumentation.

  10. 10.

    In the terms of the analysis developed below, they are P0-heads that select KPs whose K0 is genitive.

  11. 11.

    An anonymous reviewer proposes the following alternative for the matching pattern cases. They observe that each of the nouns in the pseudopartitive can appear independently as possessors or as objects of adpositions, and in those cases, they would be marked genitive case. Thus, the case matching here can be viewed as marking each element as the object of an adposition or a possessor independently rather than marking the entire pseudopartitive constituent. However, the same logic should extend to pseudopartitives in object position, resulting in genitive case on both N1 and N2, i.e., case matching, but this is not what we see. Thus, I do not pursue this alternative here.

  12. 12.

    By modifiers, I mean adjuncts whose case is independent of the nominal spine they attach to. Of course, it is possible for modifying adjectives, demonstratives, etc. to bear nominative case when they modify a nominative noun.

  13. 13.

    Baker (2015) is an important exception. I discuss the differences between Baker’s proposal and mine in Sect. 3.5.

  14. 14.

    Those familiar with Finnic languages may be curious about the relationship between the partitive case in nominals and partitive case in the language more broadly. For example, a reviewer asks whether the unmarked partitive that I propose could be extended to cases of partitive case assignment in VPs that is often given a semantic explanation. These facts are most familiar from Finnish—see, e.g., Kiparsky (1998, 2001). While I do not have space to discuss this possibility in detail, I address it briefly in the conclusion (Sect. 6). I am grateful to the reviewer for suggesting this comparison.

  15. 15.

    There are languages where case concord may even spread case features to elements that are already case-marked (see, e.g., Plank 1995; Richards 2012). This is the reason behind the parentheses surrounding “but X does not” in (35). Estonian does not transparently allow this in the way that Lardil does (that is to say, it is not plainly visible in the language’s morphology), and as will become clear, I have found no other reason to assume it occurs. Thus, for Estonian, I assume that case features do not spread to elements that are already case-marked.

    Relatedly, a reviewer questions whether the rule in (35) is intended to account for languages where predicate adjectives agree in case, suggesting it is not sufficiently general to account for such cases. Though I had DP-internal case concord in mind when crafting the formalism as I did, some of the work it was based on addresses predication. See, e.g., Matushansky (2008) for discussion and further references. One possible modification that could allow the rule as written to extend to predicate adjectives agreeing in case is removing the requirement that case concord apply within a single extended projection, although I do not explore such a modification here.

  16. 16.

    Note that the N2 phrase does not have a K0 head of its own, and this proposal is necessary to be able to capture the similarity between pseudopartitives and numeral-noun constructions. The guiding intuition is that the “N2 phrase” in these constructions does not form its own extended projection, at least as far as case is concerned. The proposal also allows for an explanation of the difference in case-marking between Estonian pseudopartitives and Finnish pseudopartitives, which differ in their case-marking properties. See Sect. 5.2 for further discussion.

  17. 17.

    A reviewer notes that treating the matching pattern as an extension of ordinary case concord is a bit counterintuitive given that case concord between a noun and its complement is not particularly common—certainly not as common as case concord between a noun and a modifying adjective or determiner. I agree that this pattern is exceptional. However, from a formal perspective, the exceptionality does not need to be pinned on case concord, as the reviewer notes. In my analysis, the exceptionality is tied to the presence of complements to N0 that do not have case-marking in Estonian. When that is combined with a rule of case concord like the one I proposed, the result is the pattern seen in Estonian.

  18. 18.

    My analysis would work just the same if we allowed accusative to spread all the way down to the N2 phrase, stacking outside the previously assigned partitive. We could then follow Baker and Vinokurova (2010) and assume that the innermost case value is always realized; this would account for the partitive pattern just as well. However, case stacking would serve no purpose in such a system, so I make the stronger claim and propose that it is not possible in Estonian.

  19. 19.

    In particular, Baker’s proposals regarding the phase-based timing of case assignment are essentially what I propose here. Baker’s distinction between soft and hard phase heads is compatible with my proposal so long as K0 is a soft phase head. In the case of nominative/accusative pseudopartitives, K0 is not valued when it is merged. If K0’s complement is spelled out at that moment, it would leave N1 and its modifiers without a case value, which they need in order to be properly spelled out. If K0 is a soft phase head, then their morphological form is not fixed at that time, so they can still be marked, e.g., with accusative case. The essential issue here is how case concord interacts with Baker’s proposals. Baker does not discuss this in detail, focusing instead on how case is assigned to maximal phrases. However, the facts discussed here can be incorporated as long as K0 is a soft phase head.

  20. 20.

    Baker later revises case assignment rules to apply to maximal nominal projections with unique indices (174–175), so this instance of NP should be taken to mean maximal nominal projection.

  21. 21.

    The choice of treating genitive as an inherent case may seem somewhat radical, given that genitive is generally treated as a structural or unmarked case within nominals in many other languages. There are instances of non-structural genitives elsewhere. Karlsson (1999:183–184) notes that subjects in some Finnish necessive constructions (e.g., with pitää ‘have to’ or täytyy ‘must’) must bear genitive case. There are inherent genitives in languages outside Finnic as well: there were arguably inherent genitives in Ancient Greek (although there were many cases of structural genitive as well, see Anagnostopoulou and Sevdali (2015:455) and references there) and there are inherent genitives in Icelandic (see, for example, Thráinsson 2007:290). A common test for structural/non-structural cases is to see whether they are preserved in passives—since true genitive (i.e., not accusative) case is never assigned to objects in Estonian, this test is not applicable. This is further complicated if a particular case (e.g., genitive) need not be uniformly structural/non-structural within a single language, as Alexiadou et al. (2014), Anagnostopoulou and Sevdali (2015) argue to be a possible state of affairs.

    In any case, even though Estonian does not possess some of the evidence that exists in other languages, there are no serious negative consequences from this choice, and there is something to be gained in terms of parsimony and coherence of analysis. Furthermore, the morphological facts neatly define two groups of cases, with genitive behaving like cases that are more clearly inherent/lexical. Thus, I continue to treat genitive as an inherent case, leaving this as an open issue for future research.

  22. 22.

    I do not think it is possible to square this with Baker’s proposal that it is not syntactic labels but referential indices that determine targets for case assignment. This would necessitate ascribing distinct indices to numerals and their nominal complements, and though Baker (2003) does not address the issue directly, such a move seems at odds with the semantic underpinning of the referential index.

  23. 23.

    Baker (2015) does consider situations where non-maximal nominals serve as case competitors (e.g., they can trigger dependent case on some other nominal), but it is only maximal nominals that are assigned case in the theory that he develops.

  24. 24.

    There is a number distinction as well in (44)—the adjective is plural while the noun appears to be singular. See Pesetsky (2013) for more discussion.

  25. 25.

    The difference between the forms in (47) and (48) is the stem choice: mehe is the proper stem for ‘man’ in allative case, mees is the proper stem for ‘man’ in partitive case. However, neither is well-formed.

  26. 26.

    Pesetsky initially calls it the One-Suffix Rule (11) and later replaces it with the One-Prototype Rule (101).

  27. 27.

    The only exceptions are the first- and second-person pronouns meie and teie.

  28. 28.

    An anonymous reviewer suggests an alternative morphological account that aims to define nominative and accusative as a morphological natural class. The reviewer suggests that accusative and nominative could be treated as a natural class morphologically on the grounds that neither case has vocabulary items of its own, because nominative is null and accusative is non-autonomous, borrowing from the genitive in the singular and nominative in the plural. Then, the realization of partitive could be keyed to whether or not the particular case is linked to its own unique form. If so, then that case is realized rather than partitive.

    I set aside the particulars of the formalization of this idea, though I note that it would be difficult to implement in a framework that gives no formal status to paradigms, like Distributed Morphology. More importantly, this alternative makes different predictions from the analysis I propose. Concretely, this alternative predicts the existence of a language with a uniquely-marked accusative which has the partitive pattern only for nominatives and the matching pattern elsewhere. This alternative also predicts that, in a language with partial syncretism (determined by, e.g., declension class), words with impoverished paradigms would extend the partitive pattern to more contexts than words with robust paradigms, on the assumption that the matching pattern obtains only for cases that have unique exponents. Because my analysis is not connected to case qua morphological strings, it does not predict the existence of these languages. I do not know of any attested examples of this kind, though the predictions are certainly worth investigating if any language with a pattern like Estonian’s is discovered.

  29. 29.

    The numeral ‘one’ is an exception in these languages. It behaves more like an adjective in that it does not participate in the N2 case alternation but always shows concord with the noun that it modifies, including having distinct nominative and accusative forms.

  30. 30.

    Of course, this is not to say that all numeral-noun-noun sequences will exhibit either the partitive pattern or full case matching. For example, in kahe-le rusika-s käe-le two-all fist-ine hand-all ‘onto two cramped hands’, case-marking is not uniform, as ‘fist’ is in inessive case. Nouns frequently occur with case-marking as modifiers (loosely speaking) and their case-marking is independent of the nominals they are modifying in such circumstances.

  31. 31.

    Recall that I have assumed that numerals are nouns taking NumP complements, although I emphasize again that these are not the only assumptions compatible with my analysis. See the discussion in Sect. 1.2.

  32. 32.

    The Estonian cognate of the Finnish word joukko ‘set’ is jõuk ‘gang/mob’, but this word is not typically used for inanimate objects like cars, so I have changed it to the more semantically-neutral measure noun hulk.

  33. 33.

    Partitive has many functions in Finnish (and in Estonian), and though its uses overlap substantially in the languages, the uses also diverge in other ways beyond the pseudopartitive facts discussed here. I am not proposing that all instances of partitive case in Finnish are inherent—for discussion, see Csirmaz (2012), Vainikka (1989, 1993), Vainikka and Maling (1996).

  34. 34.

    As a reviewer notes, it would be interesting to see if this difference had any ramifications for syntactic differences between the two languages. Unfortunately, I do not know what those differences might be, especially given that this is a fairly narrow corner of the grammar of these languages.

  35. 35.

    Some caveats are necessary. Like Estonian, German has at least two partitive constructions, which van Riemsdijk calls the direct and indirect partitive constructions. When I refer to German here, I am referring to the direct partitive construction. As van Riemsdijk shows, the two constructions require different analyses. As for Greek, the empirical generalization as claimed in the literature is that N1 and N2 always share the same case (see, e.g., Alexiadou et al. 2007:410). However, the case system of Modern Greek is rather impoverished, and it is difficult to find an example where both N1 and N2 are unambiguously in nominative or accusative case, because the two are often syncretic. I am grateful to Melita Stavrou (p.c.) for creating these examples, where both N1 and N2 are distinct for nominative and accusative.

  36. 36.

    Harley (2009) treats of as a more broadly available last resort case mechanism. In her analysis, it is used to rescue nominalization constructions that lack a VoiceP, and thus, a means of assigning accusative case to the internal argument under her analysis. Harley assumes that of a dissociated morpheme, inserted postsyntactically for morphological well-formedness reasons (329).

  37. 37.

    A reviewer notes that there is a long-standing tradition of identifying this use of of as a kind of genitive case and wonders if this is importantly different from what I propose here. The answer to that depends crucially on how this genitive of is introduced into the structure. For example, Harley and Noyer’s (1998) proposal for of is very similar to what I propose here. However, if the of is a case in name but formalized as a PP headed by of, that would be quite different from my analysis, where the of-marked phrases are smaller than PP.

  38. 38.

    Like German, Danish also has an indirect partitive construction, but Hankamer and Mikkelsen (2008) argue quite convincingly that the N2 phrase in these constructions is a regular PP, so I set them aside here.

  39. 39.

    Thanks to a reviewer for raising the possibility of this comparison.


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This project has a long history, and I am indebted to many people for their assistance at various stages of that history. Thanks are due especially to Mark Baker, Sandy Chung, Amy Rose Deal, Jorge Hankamer, Boris Harizanov, Ruth Kramer, Jim McCloskey, David Pesetsky, Melita Stavrou, and Anie Thompson. I am thankful for the very constructive comments of Julie Anne Legate and three anonymous NLLT reviewers. I would also like to thank audiences at LSA 2013 and BLS 41. I thank the following Estonian speakers for discussing their language with me: Katrin Jänese, Mervi Kalmus, Leelo Kask, Mirjam Kuusik, Kärt Lazić, Maarja Lutsar, Maire Moisto, and Siim Põldre. All errors are my own.

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Norris, M. Unmarked case in Estonian nominals. Nat Lang Linguist Theory 36, 523–562 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11049-017-9377-9

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  • Estonian
  • Case
  • Pseudopartitives
  • Numerals
  • Morphology