Estonian language

Estonian language

Infobox Language
nativename=eesti keel
region=Northern Europe
speakers=1.1 million
EUR|European Union
agency=Institute of the Estonian Language / Eesti Keele Instituut (semi-official)

Estonian ("Audio|et-eesti keel.ogg|eesti keel"; pronounced|ˈeːsti ˈkeːl) is the official language of Estonia, spoken by about 1.1 million people in Estonia and tens of thousands in various émigré communities. It is a Finno-Ugric language and is closely related to Finnish.

One distinctive feature that has caused a great amount of interest in linguists is that Estonian has what is traditionally seen as three degrees of phoneme length: short, long, and "overlong", such that IPA|/toto/, IPA|/toˑto/ and IPA|/toːto/ are distinct. In actuality, the distinction isn't purely in the phoneme length, and the underlying phonological mechanism is still disputed.

Another feature that sets Estonian apart from most languages is the vowel õ (IPA| [ɤ] ), a close-mid near-back unrounded vowel, which is farther back than the schwa (IPA| [ə] ), but unrounded unlike IPA| [o] .

tate Language

"Cannot the tongue of this land"
"In the fire of incantation"
"Rising up to the heavens"
"Seek for eternity?"
::::"Kristjan Jaak Peterson"

Those lines have been interpreted as a claim to reestablish the birthright of the Estonian language. Kristjan Jaak Peterson (1801-22) the first student at the then German-language University of Tartu to acknowledge his Estonian origin, is commonly regarded as a herald of Estonian national literature and considered the founder of modern Estonian poetry. His birthday on March 14 is celebrated in Estonia as the Mother Tongue Day. [ [ Culture and Customs of the Baltic States By Kevin O'Connor; P.126] ISBN 0313331251]

The domination of Estonia after the Northern Crusades, from the 13th century to 1918 by Denmark, Germany, Sweden, and Russia resulted in few early written literary works in the Estonian language. Writings in Estonian became significant only in the 19th century with the spread of the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment, during the Estophile Enlightenment Period (1750-1840). Although Baltic Germans at large regarded the future of Estonians as being a fusion with the Baltic Germans, the Estophile educated class admired the ancient culture of the Estonians and their era of freedom before the conquests by Danes and Germans in the 13th century. [ [ Estonia:Identity and Independence By Jean-Jacques p.84 ISBN 9042008903 ] ]

After the Estonian War of Independence, the Estonian language became the state language of the newly independent country. When Estonia was invaded and occupied by the Soviet Union in World War II, the status of the Estonian language changed to the first of two official languages (Russian being the other one). [ [ Encyclopedia of Bilingualism and Bilingual Education By Sylvia Prys Jones, Colin Baker] ISBN 1853593621] In the second half of the 1970s, the pressure of bilingualism intensified, resulting in widespread knowledge of Russian throughout the country. The Russian language was termed as ‘the language of friendship of nations’ and was taught to Estonian children as early as in kindergarten. Although teaching Estonian to non-Estonians in schools was compulsory, in practice learning the language was often considered unnecessary. [ [ Russification] at] During the Perestroika era The Law on the Status of the Estonian Language was adopted in January 1989. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to the restoration of Republic of Estonia's independence. Estonian went back to being the only state language in Estonia.

Estonian literature

The oldest records of written Estonian date from the 13th century. "Originates Livoniae" in Chronicle of Henry of Livonia contains Estonian place names, words and fragments of sentences. The earliest extant samples of connected Estonian are the so-called Kullamaa prayers dating from 1524 and 1528. [ [ Aspects of Altaic Civilization By Denis Sinor] ISBN 0700703802] In 1525 the first book published in the Estonian language was printed. The book was a Lutheran manuscript, which never reached the reader and was destroyed immediately after publication. The first extant Estonian book is a bilingual German-Estonian translation of the Lutheran catechism by S.Wanradt and J. Koell dating to 1535, during the Protestant Reformation period. For the use of priests an Estonian grammar was printed in German in 1637. [ [ Dictionary of Languages By Andrew Dalby; p. 182] ISBN 0231115695] The New Testament was translated into southern Estonian in 1686 (northern Estonian, 1715). The two dialects were united based on northern Estonian by Anton Thor Helle. Writings in Estonian became more significant in the 19th century during the Estophile Enlightenment Period (1750-1840).

The birth of native Estonian literature was in 1810 to 1820 when the patriotic and philosophical poems by Kristjan Jaak Peterson were published. From 1525 to 1917 14 503 titles were published in Estonia, as opposed to the 23 868 titles which were published 1918 and 1940.

In modern times Jaan Kross [ [ Jaan Kross] at google.books] and Jaan Kaplinski [ [ Jaan Kaplinski] at google.books] remain as two of Estonia's best known and most translated writers.


Estonian belongs to the Finnic branch of the Finno-Ugric languages. Estonian is thus closely related to Finnish, spoken on the other side of the Gulf of Finland, and is one of the few languages of Europe that is not Indo-European. Despite some overlaps in the vocabulary due to borrowings, in terms of its origin, Estonian is not related to its nearest neighbours, Swedish, Latvian and Russian, which are all Indo-European languages.

Estonian is distantly related to Hungarian (there is no mutual intelligibility between the two). It has been influenced by Swedish, German (initially Middle Low German, later also standard German), Russian, and Latvian, though it is not related to them genetically.

Like Finnish and Hungarian, Estonian is an agglutinative language, but unlike them, it has lost the vowel harmony of Proto-Finno-Ugric, although in older texts the vowel harmony is still to be recognized. Furthermore, the apocope of word-final sounds is extensive and has caused a shift from a purely agglutinative to an inflected language. The basic word order is Subject Verb Object.


The Estonian dialects are divided into two groups - the northern and southern dialects, usually associated with the cities of Tallinn in the north and Tartu in the south, in addition to a distinct "kirderanniku" dialect, that of the "northeastern coast" of Estonia.

The northern group consists of the "kesk" or middle dialect that is also the basis for the standard language, the "lääne" or western dialect, roughly corresponding to Läänemaa and Pärnumaa, the "saarte" (islands') dialect of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa and the "ida" or eastern dialect on the northwestern shore of Lake Peipsi.

The southern group consists of the Tartu, Mulgi, Võro and Seto dialects. These are sometimes considered either variants of a South Estonian language, or separate languages altogether. Also, Seto is not usually considered a dialect of Estonian, but rather a variant of Võro.

Writing system


Like Finnish, Estonian employs the Latin alphabet, in addition to which the Estonian alphabet contains letters "ä", "ö", "ü", and "õ", plus the later additions "š" and "ž". The letters "c", "q", "w", "x" and "y" are limited to proper names of foreign origin, and "f", "z", "š", and "ž" appear in loanwords and foreign names only. "Ö", and "ü" are pronounced similarly to their equivalents in Swedish and German. Unlike in standard German, "Ä" is pronounced [æ] , as in English "mat". The vowels Ä, Ö and Ü are, unlike in German, clearly separate phonemes and inherent in Estonian, although the letter shapes come from German. The letter "õ" denotes IPA|/ɤ/, unrounded IPA|/o/, or a close-mid back unrounded vowel. (It has a different sound from the same letter in Portuguese. It is similar to the Turkish ı, Kazakh ұ and the Vietnamese ơ, and it is also close to the Russian "ы".)


Estonian orthography is essentially phonemic with each phoneme of the language represented by exactly one grapheme. Exceptions to this derive from historical agreements: for example the initial letter 'h' in words, preservation of the morpheme in declension of the word (writing b, g, d in places where p, k, t is pronounced) and in the use of 'i' and 'j'. Where it is very impractical or impossible to type "š" and "ž", they are substituted with "sh" and "zh" in some written texts, although this is considered incorrect. Otherwise, the "h" in "sh" represents a voiceless glottal fricative, as in "pasha" ("pas-'ha"); this also applies to some foreign names.

Modern Estonian orthography is based on the "Newer Orthography" created by Eduard Ahrens in the second half of the 19th century based on Finnish Orthography. The "Older Orthography" it replaced was created in the 17th century by Bengt Gottfried Forselius and Johann Hornung based on standard German orthography. Earlier writing in Estonian had by and large used an "ad hoc" orthography based on Latin and Middle Low German orthography. Some influences of the standard German orthography — for example, writing 'W'/'w' instead of 'V'/'v' persisted well into the 1930s.

It should be noted that Estonian words and names quoted in international publications from Soviet sources are often incorrect back-transliterations from the Russian transliteration. Examples are the use of "ya" for "ä" (e.g. Pyarnu instead of the correct Pärnu) and "y" instead of "õ" (e.g., Pylva instead of the correct Põlva). Even in the "Encyclopaedia Britannica" one can find "ostrov Khiuma", where "ostrov" means "island" in Russian and "Khiuma" is back-transliteration from Russian instead of correct "Hiiumaa" (Hiiumaa>Хийума(а)>Khiuma).



# The mid vowels are not close-mid or open-mid; the usual IPA notation uses these symbols.

There are nine phonemic monophthongs, with three phonetic lengths. Of these, simple and long are segmentally phonemic, and the third length level is suprasegmentally phonemic and aided by a distinctive tonal contour. The script distinguishes only short and long, marked by vowel doubling, e.g. "öö" "night". There are 19 segmental diphthongs,Mati Hint. "Häälikutest sõnadeni." Valgus 1978, Tallinn.] and polysyllablic vowel clusters are also found. There are very few instances of vowel allophony: 'ä' may have pronunciations IPA| [æ] and IPA| [ɛ] , and the phoneme IPA|/yː/ is pronounced as the diphthong IPA| [yi] .


#IPA| [ŋ] only appears as an allophone of IPA| [n] before IPA| [k] .
#IPA| [f] and IPA| [ʃ] are considered foreign sounds and they only appear in loanwords.

There is one series of stops, unvoiced unaspirated, with three phonemic lengths, written b d g, p t k and pp tt kk. The rest of the consonants also have distinctive length, but only short and long are distinguished in writing. As with vowels, two segmental length levels are phonemic, and the third level is suprasegmentally phonemic. For example, for 'n', short 'n' in "lina" "sheet", half-long 'n' in "linna" "town's", over-long 'n' in "linna" "to the town". The latter addition of length is traceable to a grammatical marker *"-han" that has elided.

The fricatives are s h, added with f š ž z for loans. The other consonants are j l m n r v, plus the allophonic velar nasal in nk and ng. Consonants may be palatalized; but this is not written in the orthography, as palatalization generally occurs before front vowels (also in the final consonant in the nominative case of nouns if such vowel follows in the genetive). About 0.15% of the vocabulary features fully phonemic palatalization, where palatalization occurs without the front vowel. The process is similar to that found in Eastern Finnish dialects, where word-final 'i' is elided, leaving the palatalization on the consonant. Thus, palatalization does not necessarily need a front vowel, and palatalized vs. plain continuants can be articulated.

Proto-Finnic, the ancestor of the Estonian language, lost palatalization, but Estonian is one of those languages which reacquired it from Slavic. Yet, it underwent further modification, which makes Estonian palatalization different from Russian palatalization. In Russian, palatalization causes some affrication and necessarily features a palatal approximant/fricative offglide, which is not the case in Estonian, where the consonant is otherwise unaffected.


In Estonian, sounds alternate between various grades of sound length and sound quality in different grammatical forms of a word; see also vowel gradation, consonant gradation, lenition.

Quantitative changes (strong grade : weak grade)
* alternation of overlong and long vowels "aaa : aa, eee : ee, ooo : oo, uuu : uu" ("saal : saali, keelama : keelata, kool : kooli, suur : suure")
* alternation of overlong and long consonants "nnn : nn, lll : ll" ("linn : linna, kallama : kallata")
* alternation of long and short consonants "pp : p, tt : t, kk : k, ss : s" ("sepp : sepa, võtta : võtan, hakkan : hakata, kirss : kirsi")
* alternation of strong and weak consonants "p : b, t : d, k : g" ("kupja : kubjas, kartma : kardan, vilkuda : vilgub")

Qualitative changes (strong grade : weak grade)
* alternation of long and lowered long vowels "iu : eo, ua : oa, ue : oe, uu : oo, üi : öe" ("pidu : peo, tuba : toa, lugema : loen, sugu : soo, süsi : söe")
* alternation of weak and assimilated weak consonants "b : m, d : n/l/r, s : r" ("hamba : hammas, kandma : kannan, vars : varre")
* alternation of weak and lenited weak consonants "b : v, d : j, g : j" ("kaebama : kaevata, rada : raja, märg : märja")
* alternation of weak and elided weak consonants "b : Ø, d/t : Ø, g/k : Ø, s : Ø" ("tuba : toa, leht : lehe, arg : ara, mesi : mee")

Partition of grades in declension
* singular nominative and singular genitive have the opposite grades ("leht : lehe" - strong : weak, "hammas : hamba" - weak : strong)
* singular nominative and singular partitive have the same grades ("leht : lehte" - strong : strong, "hammas : hammast" - weak : weak)
* plural partitive has the strong grade ("lehti" - strong, "hambaid" - strong)

Partition of grades in conjugation
* "-da" infinitive and present tense have the opposite grades ("lugeda : loen" - strong : weak, "hakata : hakkan" - weak : strong)
* "-ma" infinitive has the strong grade ("lugema" - strong, "hakkama" - strong)
* "-tud" participle has the weak grade ("loetud" - weak, "hakatud" - weak)


The stress in Estonian is usually on the first syllable. There are some exceptions with the stress on the second syllable: "aitäh" "thanks", "sõbranna" "female friend". In loanwords, the original stress can be borrowed as well: "ideaal" "ideal", "professor" "professor". The stress is weak, and as length levels already control an aspect of "articulation intensity", most words appear evenly stressed.


:"Main article: Estonian grammar"Typologically, Estonian represents a transitional form from an agglutinating language to a fusional language. Over the course of Estonian history, German has exercised a strong influence on Estonian, both in vocabulary and syntax.

In Estonian nouns and pronouns do not have grammatical gender, but nouns and adjectives decline in fourteen cases: nominative, genitive, partitive, illative, inessive, elative, allative, adessive, ablative, translative, terminative, essive, abessive, and comitative, with the case and number of the adjective(s) always agreeing with that of the noun (except in the terminative, essive, abessive and comitative, where there is agreement only for the number, the adjective being in the genitive form). Thus the illative for "a yellow house" ("kollane maja") — "into a yellow house" is ("kollasesse majja").

The direct object of the verb appears either in the accusative (for total objects) or in the partitive (for partial objects). The accusative coincides with the genitive in the singular and with nominative in the plural. Accusative vs. partitive case opposition of object used with transitive verbs creates a telicity contrast, just as in Finnish. This is a rough equivalent of the perfect vs. imperfect aspect opposition.

The verbal system lacks a distinctive future tense (the present tense serves here) and features special forms to express an action performed by an undetermined subject (the "impersonal").


Although the Estonian and Germanic languages are of completely different origins, one can identify many similar words in Estonian and English, for example. This is primarily due to the fact that the Estonian language has borrowed nearly one third of its vocabulary from Germanic languages, mainly from Low Saxon (Middle Low German) during the period of German rule, and High German (including standard German). The percentage of Low Saxon and High German loanwords can be estimated at 22-25 percent, with Low Saxon making up about 15 percent.

Ex nihilo lexical enrichment

Estonian language planners such as Ado Grenzstein (a journalist active in Estonia in the 1870s-90s) tried to use formation ex nihilo, Urschöpfung, [See p. 149 in Zuckermann, Ghil'ad 2003, [ ‘‘Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew’’] , Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, (Palgrave Studies in Language History and Language Change, Series editor: Charles Jones). ISBN 1-4039-1723-X.] i.e. they created new words out of nothing. Examples are Ado Grenzstein's coinages "kabe" ‘draughts, chequers’ and "male" ‘chess’. [See p. 149 in Zuckermann, Ghil'ad 2003, [ ‘‘Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew’’] , Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, (Palgrave Studies in Language History and Language Change, Series editor: Charles Jones). ISBN 1-4039-1723-X.]

"The most famous reformer of Estonian, Johannes Aavik (1880-1973), also used creations ex nihilo (cf. ‘free constructions’, Tauli 1977), along with other sources of lexical enrichment such as derivations, compositions and loanwords (often from Finnish; cf. Saareste and Raun 1965: 76). Aavik belonged to the so-called Noor-Eesti (‘Young Estonia’) movement, which appeared in Tartu, a university town in south-eastern Estonia, around 1905 (for discussion, see Raun 1991). In Aavik’s dictionary (1921), which lists approximately 4000 words, there are many words which were (allegedly) created ex nihilo. Consider • "ese" ‘object’, • "kolp" ‘skull’, • "liibuma" ‘to cling’, • "naasma" ‘to return, come back’, • "nõme" ‘stupid, dull’, • "range" ‘strict’, • "reetma" ‘to betray’, • "solge" ‘slim, flexible, graceful’ (which did not gain currency, cf. Contemporary Estonian "graatsiline" ‘graceful’), and • "veenma" ‘to convince’. Other Aavikisms ex nihilo (not appearing in Aavik 1921) include • "nentima" ‘to admit, state’, • "nördima" ‘to grow indignant’, • "süüme" ‘conscience’, and • "tõik" ‘fact’." [See p. 149 in Zuckermann, Ghil'ad 2003, [ ‘‘Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew’’] , Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, (Palgrave Studies in Language History and Language Change, Series editor: Charles Jones). ISBN 1-4039-1723-X.]

"Note, however, that many of the coinages that have been considered (often by Aavik himself) as words concocted ex nihilo could well have been influenced by foreign lexical items, for example words from Russian, German, French, Finnish, English and Swedish. Aavik had a broad classical education and knew Ancient Greek, Latin and French. Consider • "relv" ‘weapon’ versus English "revolver", • "roim" ‘crime’ versus English "crime", • "siiras" ‘sincere’ versus English "sincere"/"serious" • "embama" ‘to embrace’ versus English "embrace", and • "taunima" ‘to condemn, disapprove’ versus Finnish "tuomita" ‘to judge’ (these Aavikisms appear in Aavik’s 1921 dictionary). Consider also • "evima" ‘to have, possess, own’ (cf. also Estonian "omama" ‘to own’, and "mul on", lit. ‘to me is’, i.e. ‘for me there is’, meaning ‘I have’) versus English "have"; • "laup" ‘forehead’ versus Russian лоб lob ‘forehead’; • "mõrv" ‘murder’ and "mõrvama" ‘to murder’ versus English "murder" (these Aavikisms do not appear in Aavik 1921); and • "laip" ‘corpse’ versus German "Leib" ‘body’ and German "Leiche" ‘body, corpse’. These words might be better regarded as a peculiar manifestation of morpho-phonemic adaptation of a foreign lexical item. The often irregular and arbitrary sound changes could then be explained not as subconscious foreign influence but rather as conscious manipulation by the coiner. Aavik seems to have paid little attention to the origin of his neologisms. On occasion, he replaced existing native words or expressions with neologisms of foreign descent. Therefore, Aavik cannot be considered a purist in the traditional sense, i.e. he was not ‘anti-foreignisms/loanwords’ as such." [See p. 150 in Zuckermann, Ghil'ad 2003, [ ‘‘Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew’’] , Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, (Palgrave Studies in Language History and Language Change, Series editor: Charles Jones). ISBN 1-4039-1723-X.]

Language example

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Estonian:

"Kõik inimesed sünnivad vabadena ja võrdsetena oma väärikuselt ja õigustelt. Neile on antud mõistus ja südametunnistus ja nende suhtumist üksteisesse peab kandma vendluse vaim."

(All people are born free and equal in their dignity and rights. They are given reason and conscience and they shall create their relationships to one another according to the spirit of brotherhood.)


ee also


External links

* [ Summer School of Estonian at Tallinn University]
* [ article]
* [ Estonian literary magazine]
* [ Maps of dialect areas] from the Institute of the Estonian Language
* [ Estonian Language Handbook (Eesti keele käsiraamat)] — Institute of the Estonian Language
* [ Õigekeelsussõnaraamat: shows the inflection of more than 100000 Estonian words, based on 90 patterns of nouns and 200 patterns of verbs]
* [ Estonian verb conjugator and noun declinator]
* [ Learn to speak Estonian]
* [ *Eesti keel ja meel* ("Estonian Language and Mind").] A computer-based course in colloquial Estonian using English, German, French, Russian, Italian, Dutch, Romanian, Greek, or Hungarian as the source language. It is best suited for advanced beginners and intermediate students of Estonian. It can be used on-line or purchased as a DVD-disk (ISBN-13 9789985979457).
* [ Estonian language course]


*An [ Estonian-English dictionary (Institute of the Estonian Language)]
*An [ English-Estonian-English dictionary (Institute of Baltic Studies)] — based on a common school dictionary
*An [ English-Estonian dictionary / Inglise-Eesti sõnastik] (
*An [ Estonian-English-Estonian dictionary]
*An [ Estonian-English-Estonian dictionary]

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