The Estonian Language

Estonian, unlike the vast majority of European languages, is not a member of the Indo-European group. This means that its vocabulary and grammar are far more alien to an English speaker than, say, Welsh or Russian, or even Persian. It belongs to the Finno-Ugric group, along with its near-relative Finnish and its distant relative Hungarian.

The grammar is extremely daunting: it has 14 cases, including the inessive, the allative and the comitative. This means that where English uses a preposition like to or with to give some information, Estonian is more likely to change a word's ending: in effect, schoolto or sugarwith. An example of the problems this can cause: Creina and I were looking in the supermarket for sparkling mineral water, and couldn't tell which bottle was with bubbles and which without from the label - one read, I think, karboniseeritud, and the other karboniseerimata. There is no gender in Estonian, even in pronouns, so everyone is it rather than he or she. And, as in Russian, there are no indefinite or definite articles, (a or the), which must make it difficult for them to learn other languages that have them. (I'm reminded of the story of the Russian at the dinner table who asked his neighbour, 'Can you pass water, please?')

Pronunciation is not so difficult. The main thing to know is that both vowels and consonants can be single, double or triple (both doubles and triples written as two letters rather than one aa or mm, for example). A double or triple vowel is just a longer version of the vowel: a is pronounced uh, while aa is pronounced ah. A double consonant is pronounced just as in Italian, with both letters sounded. But I never got to grips with triple consonants and vowels, which I have trouble even imagining. Estonian also has one vowel which no one succeeded in explaining to me, and which sounded different every time it was demonstrated. It is written õ, and Estonians take a great pride in its inaccessibility to foreigners. But there are also regions of Estonia where the inhabitants can't pronounce it.

I have a fascinating pamphlet on the language published by the Estonian Institute. Among the example sentences it translates into Estonian are the following:

  • Our nightingale has gone elsewhere this year.
  • Spotted ties suit even representative theatre directors.
  • Peter did not understand a mushroom
It even features a cartoon of Peter not understanding the mushroom.

While I enjoyed trying to work out a bit of Estonian during my stay, I only dared say two words, tere (hallo, hi) and tänan (thank you).

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