Finnish essive v. Russian instrumental cases

Among the many cases Finnish has, one is the essive, essiivi.. It is characterised by its -na/nä ending. As the name hints, it is linked to the concept of ‘being’. Opiskelija means ‘student’, and:

  • Opiskelijana työskentelin tehtaalla. ‘When I was a student, I worked in a factory.’

Or, in other words, ‘being a student’ (although that has a different connotation in English). Some other examples (and these appear in newspapers all the time):

  • Maksukanavan tavoitteena on päästä näyttämään muun muassa SM-liigaa, Mestistä, KHL:ää tai jääkiekon Mestareiden liigaa. ‘The aim of the paid channel is for [viewers] to be able to watch, among others, the Liiga, the Mestis, KHL or the CHL.’ Source:
  • Palkinnon tarkoituksena on tuoda esille laadukasta suomalaista lastenmusiikkia. ‘The meaning [point, sense] of the prize is to bring quality Finnish children’s music to the fore.’ Source: Helsingin Sanomat.

I’ve never understand why the newspapers don’t just write tavoite on, ‘the aim is’ or tarkoitus on, ‘the point is’. Is this some sort of journalese? It seems comparable to saying in English, ‘the prize has as its aim‘.

A similar issue exists in Russian. The instrumental case, творительный падеж [tvorityel’nyi padyezh], with its -ом/ем/ой/ей suffixes, is used, as I learnt in first-year Russian, for the past tense of the verb быть [byt’], ‘to be’. Thus:

  • С 2008 по 2012 года я был начальником отдела. [S 2008 po 2012 goda ya byl nachal’nikom otdyela.] ‘From 2008 to 2012 I was the head of the department.’

Not always, though! Judging from the amount of examples online, it’s possible to say:

  • Я был ребёнок. [Ya byl rebyonok.] ‘I was a child.’ (masculine singular)
  • Я была молодая. [Ya byla molodaya.] ‘I was young.’ (feminine singular)

But the instrumental alternatives, я был ребёнком and я была молодой, are also widely used. Some cursory Googling with the use of quotation marks shows the nominative form я был ребёнок is only slightly less used than the instrumental я был ребёнком*. As for the ‘young’ example, я была молодой, instrumental, is twice as frequent as я была молодая and я была молода together (long and short adjectival forms, respectively).

If the verb ‘to be’ is a bit of a muddle, then at least with other verbs there is more clarity:

  • У нас в саду ящик служил столом. [U nas v sadu yaschik sluzhil stolom.] ‘In our garden a box served as a table.’
  • Машина лежала на дороге боком. [Mashina lezhala na dorogye bokom.] ‘The car lay on the road on its side.’

In these examples there is the sense of performing a function or doing something in a certain manner. Here, you can’t use the nominative *служил стол or *лежал бок.

Two similar, but not identical, cases exist in both Finnish and Russian. But why, especially with the verb ‘to be’, do they allow so many exceptions?


*Searches were performed using ребенок, ребёнок, ребенком and ребёнком.


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