McWhorter, J. PhD Linguistics (Stanford). The Language Hoax (2016). p. 56 Bottom.

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I speak no Estonian. 1. But how does the preposition 'like' conveys the Translative Case? E.g., an encyclopedia looks 'like a book', but encyclopedias are not becoming or changing to books, as they aren't intended to be read cover-to-cover like books.

The translative case (abbreviated TRANSL) is a grammatical case that indicates a change in state of a noun, with the general sense of "becoming X" or "change to X".

  1. Doesn't 'like a book' befit the Essive Case (see green arrow) more?
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    How would you concisely give the English equivalent of the translative case, given that it is best translated with different prepositions depending on the context? Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 9:13

3 Answers 3


The glosses look approximately reasonable to me, but the English glosses themselves are arguably ambiguous and don't summarize well what kinds of situations the cases are used in.

(I don't speak Estonian, but I do speak Finnish, which is closely related, so I'm taking the liberty to use Finnish examples instead.)

The translative case is used when something becomes something else; "he turned to stone", "hän muuttui kiveksi" (the root word is kivi; but of course the English "into something" is generally and literally translated with the illative case, so if I drill a hole into a piece of rock, "poraan reiän kiveen"). It is also used e.g. for metaphors; "for a stone this one is soft", "kiveksi tämä on pehmeä". Also, "for example" is "esimerkiksi". Maybe a better gloss would be "for a book" but it's no less misleading and opaque than the given gloss.

The essive case is used when something is in a particular place, position, or attitude. If I dress up as a book, I go to the costume ball "kirjana". If I am really in a hurry my hair flies back like a horn, "tukka torvena" and I move like my head was my third foot "pää kolmantena jalkana". When I am at home I am literally "kotona" (the base word koti means home; though native speakers who start thinking about this phrase will often find the construction somewhat archaic).

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    The pair raamat / raamattu is a well-known pair of false friends between Estonian and Finnish. The Finnish word raamattu means "Bible" and no other book. The word kirja is based from a verb which means "to tally" from which a word for "writing" was derived.
    – tripleee
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 15:59

I can't speak Estonian either, but I can grab the first Google link that comes up: https://www.colanguage.com/translative-case-estonian

Estonian cases, like all cases, can develop idiosyncratic usages that are somewhat tenuously related to the prototypical meaning of the case. They are, after all, cases and not mere postpositions -- although postpositions can develop just as idiosyncratic meanings.

From the link, the translative is also used to express nouns acting as purposes; for example, getting someone a book as a present.

We still express such purposives in English with as, and not like, and I don't see anything in the linked article that corresponds more closely to English like.

It may be that the linked article is not exhaustive. Or it may be that McWhorter is once again being sloppy in a popular exposition, doesn't particularly care about the nuances of Estonian, and arbitrarily changed the gloss of the translative so as not to coincide with the essive.


A nice question, especially when having considered the implications of non-static -- that is, as, since it is often related to verbs -- vs static -- like --dichotomy in English.

Unlike in English semantics, the Estonian pairs of Translative VS Essive include not just static/non-static, but also evident / non-evident dichotomy.

The semantics of the Estonian cases are indeed similar to those of Finnish, with the exception of the modal meaning. Cf. the examples as found in the link given by Nick Nicholas:

Est. Translative: Ta peab mind targaks = He considers me (to be) smart. Õpetaja oli meile eeskujuks = The teacher was a model figure for us.

Finn. Essive: Hän pitää mua fiksuna. Opettaja oli meille esikuvana.

The general difference between Translative and Essive is that of 'Non-Static and Evident' Translative vs 'Static and Non-Evident Essive', cf Finnish:

Liikemiehenä olen samaa mieltä. = As a businessman, I agree. (The state of being a businessman is not evidential to an addressee)

Hänkin tulee liikemieheksi. = He is to become a businessman, too. (The state or possibility of becoming a businessman is evident to a speaker).

The Estonian seems to follow the same rules, except that 'Modal Essive' in Finnish -- [to be regarded or to be considered as] -- has become the Estonian 'Modal Translative'.

Also, the Estonian case semantics seem to be more verb-driven as compared to those in Finnish, cf. Estonian Ta tuli esimeseks ((S)he arrived first).

with the Finnish phrase Hän tuli ensimmäise.

Therefore, my intuition is that the author has been referring mainly to that particularly Estonian, 'modal' semantics of the Translative.

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