Estonian

Tere tulemast – Welcome

Estonian (Eesti keel) is a member of the Finnic branch of the Uralic language family. It is related to Võro, Vod and Finnish, the latter spoken on the other side of the Gulf of Finland. It is also distantly to Hungarian spoken in central Europe. Finnish and Estonian share a great deal of their vocabulary. Throughout its history, Estonia was under Danish, Swedish, Teutonic, and Russian rule. In 1721, Estonia became part of the Russian Empire when Russian was declared its official language. mapDuring World War II, Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 and subsequently occupied by the Germans until 1944. Under the Soviet rule Estonia went through another period of russification until its independence in 1990, when Estonian became the national language.

 

Status

 

At present, Estonian is spoken by about 1 million people in the Republic of Estonia. In addition it is spoken by another 100,000 people in Australia, Canada, Finland, Latvia, Russia, Sweden, United Kingdom, and USA (Ethnologue). It is the official language of the Republic of Estonia and one of the official languages of the European Union. Standard Estonian is used and accepted at all levels of society. After the dissolution of the USSR, Estonia became an independent republic and although Russian is still widely used as a second language, Estonian is taught in schools, and competency in it is required for citizenship.

Dialects

Estonian has two major mutually intelligible dialects,

  • Northern Estonian, based on the dialect of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia
  • Southern Estonian, based on the dialect of Tartu, the second-largest city in Estonia.

Structure

 

Sound system

 

In general, the sound system of Estonian is similar to that of Finnish. The language is rich in vowels and relatively poor in consonants.

Vowels

Estonian has 9 vowel phonemes all of which can appear in three different lengths: simple, long, and overly long. Simple and long vowels are distinguished by relative length, whereas the so-called overly long vowels are distinguished by a tonal contour. In writing, long vowels are represented by doubling, but the overly-long vowels are not marked at all. There is a contrast between some rounded and unrounded front and back vowels. In addition, there are 19 diphthongs.

Close
i
y
u
Mid
e
ø
ɤ
o
Open
æ
ɑ
  • /y/ = second vowel in statue
  • /ø/ has no equivalent in English
  • /æ/ = a in cat
  • /ɤ/ has no equivalent in English
  • /ɑ/ = a in father

 

Consonants

Estonian has relatively few consonants. A distinguishing feature is the presence of palatalized consonants which were probably acquired from the neighboring Slavic languages. Palatalization is not represented in the writing system. Consonants, like the vowels, can be short, long and overly long. In orthography, long consonants are represented by double letters.

Stops voiceless plain
p
t
k
palatalized
voiced plain
b
d
g
palatalized
Fricatives voiceless plain
(f )
s
(ʃ)
h
palatalized
voiced plain
v
palatalized
Nasals plain
m
n
(ŋ)
palatalized
Lateral plain
l
palatalized
Trill
r
Semivowels
j
  • /pʲ/, /bʲ/, /tʲ/, /dʲ/, /kʲ/, /gʲ/, /nʲ/, /lʲ/ represent palatalized consonants pronounced with the blade of the tongue coming in contact with the hard palate.
  • /ʃ/ = sh in shop
  • /ŋ/ = ng in song
  • /j/ = y in yet
  • Consonants in parentheses occur only in loanwords.
  • All consonants can be short or long, e.g., lina ‘linen,’ and linna ‘city.’

 

Stress

Stress usually falls on the first syllable of a word, but loanwords and foreign words usually retain their original stress. Vowel length makes most syllables appear evenly stressed.

Grammar

Like other Uralic languages, Estonian represents a combination of agglutinative and fusional elements. In an agglutinative language, grammatical suffixes are added to stems in a sequence, with each suffix representing one grammatical function. In a fusional (inflecting) language, several grammatical functions are represented by one suffix.

Nouns

Estonian nouns are marked for the following grammatical categories.

 

Verbs

Estonian consist of a stem + tense/mood suffix + person/number suffix.

  • There are two tenses: present and past.
  • There are three moods: indicative, conditional and subjunctive.
  • The person/number suffix represents the person/number of the subject and the person of the object.

 

Word order

The normal word order in Estonian is Subject-Verb-Object. At the same time, word order in Estonian sentences is determined by topic and comment. Topic is the part of the sentence that is known, while comment is the new information that is being added about the topic. In Estonian sentences, topic comes first.

Vocabulary

The basic vocabulary of Estonian reflects its Uralic origin. However, since throughout its modern history, Estonia has been ruled by foreign powers, most notably Germany, Sweden, and Russia, Estonian has a large number of loanwords from these languages. Other borrowings come from Finnish, French and English. Below are some common Estonian words and phrases.

Yes Jah
No Ei
Hello
Tere
Good bye
Head aega
Thank you
Tänan, aitäh
Please
Palun
Excuse me
Vabanda, vabandage
Man Mees
Woman Naine

Below are Estonian numerals 1-10.

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
üks
kaks
kolm
neli
viis
kuus
seitse
kaheksa
üheksa
kümme

Writing

The oldest records of Estonian date from the 8th century AD. The first complete texts in Estonian, the Kullamaa prayers, appeared in the 1520s, followed by other religious texts. The first grammars appeared in the early 17th century during Swedish rule. Folk songs and oral poetry were first recorded in the 18th century. The modern written form of the language began to take shape in the first half of the 19th century. The first Estonian newspapers appeared in the second half of the 19th century. Throughout most of its history, Estonian has used the Roman alphabet. Since I t was first written by German scholars, its spelling was heavily influenced by German until the 1850s when the orthography underwent a reform aimed to bring it closer to the spoken language. The present-day alphabet has seventeen consonants and nine vowels. The Estonian orthography is quite regular, meaning that each phoneme is represented by one letter. There are a few exceptions. Four vowel letters representing sounds specific to Estonian are listed at the end of the alphabet. The alphabet lacks the letters f, c, q, w, x, y which are used only for writing foreign names and loanwords. Additional letters š and ž are used for writing borrowed words.

A a
B b
C c
D d
E e
G g
H h
I i
J j
K k
L l
M m
N n
O o
P p
R r
S s
T t
U u
V v
à ã
Ä ä
Ö ö
Ü ü

Take a look at Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Estonian.

Artikkel 1. Kõik inimesed sünnivad vabadena ja võrdsetena oma väärikuselt ja õigustelt. Neile on antud mõistus ja südametunnistus ja nende suhtumist üksteisesse peab kandma vendluse vaim
Article 1 All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Difficulty

Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn Estonian? Estonian is considered to be a Category II language in terms of difficulty for speakers of English.