Estonian is the second most spoken Finnic language in the world, following closely behind Finnish itself. Together, Estonian and Finnish, along with Hungarian and Maltese, are the four only non-Indo-European languages that are official member languages of the European Union!
It is the official language of Estonia, where it is spoken by around 950,000 people, and by 160,000 outside of Estonia’s borders. Though it has some overlap in vocabulary with Latvian and Russian, there is no relation there other than borrowings and loan words.
These facts describe some interesting aspects of Estonian that you may not know!
A Few Facts about the Finnic Language Estonian
1. Estonian shares about one third of its vocabulary with Germanic languages, especially German, despite not being related to them at all
This is due to high crossovers between cultures during German rule in Estonia, as well as later High German influence. Swedish and Russian also share significant similar vocabulary, but to a lesser extent.
2. The Uralic languages were a sister-language to the Indo-European languages in that they were both one of the world’s primary languages, but their descendants are unrelated.
Below is a tree showing the ancestry of Estonian. Struck through languages no longer exist.
3. The Estonian Liberation War (or Independence War) between Estonia and its allies against the Soviet Union reinvigorated national pride in Estonian culture and language
This war lasted between 1918 and 1920, at which point Estonian became the country’s official (and most widely-spoken) state language.
4. In WWII, Estonia was once again invaded and occupied by the Soviet Union, and bilingualism or even Russian monolingualism was encouraged and even enforced.
Russian was even the language of education to Estonian children, even as early as kindergarten age. Non-Estonian Soviet immigrant children were supposed to learn Estonian as a second language, but this was rarely put into practice.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Estonian once again became the only official state language and its use was encouraged while Russian was discouraged. Most descendants of non-Estonian Soviet immigrants in Estonia now also speak Estonian.
5. There are 27 official letters in the Estonian language, and an additional 5 only used in foreign words.
The Estonian language is as follows:
|Aa||/a:/||As in balm|
|Bb||/b/||As in boy|
|Cc||/ts/||As in catsONLY used in foreign proper names, never in Estonian. Not an official letter of the alphabet overall.|
|Dd||/d/||As in dog|
|Ee||/e/||As in dress|
|Ff||/f/||As in frogONLY used in foreign proper names and in loanwords. Not an official letter of the alphabet overall.|
|Gg||/g/||As in rag|
|Hh||/h/, /ɦ/, /ç/, or /x/||As in hat, behind, Spanish rojo, and Scottish loch|
|Ii||/i/||As in piano|
|Jj||/j/||As in yell|
|Kk||/k/ or /kː/||As in sky or breaking|
|Ll||/l/||As in lion|
|Mm||/m/||As in mother|
|Nn||/n/||As in no|
|Oo||/o/||As in old|
|Pp||/p/ or /pː/||As in pole or stopping|
|/k/||As in kingONLY used in foreign proper names, never in Estonian. Not an official letter of the alphabet overall.|
|Rr||/r/||As in road|
|Ss||/s/||As in sun|
|Šš||/ʃ/||As in shedONLY used in foreign proper names and in loanwords. Not an official letter of the alphabet overall.|
|Zz||/z/||As in buzzONLY used in foreign proper names and in loanwords. Not an official letter of the alphabet overall.|
|Žž||/ʒ/||As in televisionONLY used in foreign proper names and in loanwords. Not an official letter of the alphabet overall.|
|Tt||/t/||As in top|
|Uu||/u/||As in root|
|Ww||/ʋ/||A sound between “v” and “w”, like the German wasONLY used in foreign proper names, never in Estonian. Not an official letter of the alphabet overall|
|Õõ||/ɤ/||As in chute, but with unrounded lips|
|Ää||/æ/||As in general American pat|
|Öö||/ø/||Similar to Õõ, but with a slightly different mouth movement, like German schön|
|Üü||/y/||As in German über. Exists in Finnish alphabet as Y.|
|Xx||/ks/||As in fixONLY used in foreign proper names, never in Estonian. Not an official letter of the alphabet overall|
|Yy||/i/||As in pianoONLY used in foreign proper names, never in Estonian. Not an official letter of the alphabet overall|
6. There are 14 cases used to inflect Estonian, split into four categories
1. The basic cases
- Nominative – the subject of a verb
- You read the article.
- Genitive – the possessive or relative case
- The case’s description (or) The subject of the article.
- Partitive – a subject with only partial identity or unknown quantity
- I want some water
- Do you have any chocolate? (as opposed to, do you have [specific] chocolate? (nominative))
2. Locative cases – interior
- Illative – into the object
- The cat went into the box
- Inessive – inside of the object
- The cat is inside the box
- Elative – out of the object
- The cat got out of the box
3. Locative cases – exterior
- Allative – onto the object, time, or direction
- I left my work to go onto my break
- Adessive – on top of the object
- The pen is on the table
- Ablative – away from
- I walked away from my friend
- I got a gift from my friend
4. Other cases
- Translative – becoming the object
- It got big.
- Terminative – goals or endings
- Until the end
- As far as the big house
- Essive case – definitive period or temporary time or location
- When I was an employee there.
- Abessive – absence and lack
- I did it without a reason
- The train didn’t show up
Estonian is a relatively small language with just over one million speakers, but it is one which packs a significant political punch. Knowing a bit about Estonian is knowing a bit more about the world than you did before – and it means you can go out and learn!