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