Rääkimine eesti keelt — A Journey in Estonian

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When people talk about Estonia or Estonian, the first thing which usually comes to mind is, what is Estonia? Let me try to enlighten you in the most unbiased way possible. Estonia, or Eesti, is a country in the Baltic region of Northern Europe (not eastern), just south of Finland and west of Russia. It is known as Viro in Finnish, and it is where Skype came from, along with Tallink, the cruise service which links Tallinn and Helsinki by sea, and Vana Tallinn, a type of liquor created in the 1960s. More details about Estonia explained in a more interesting way are shown in Geography Now’s Estonia Episode (it’s really good I recommend it).

As for Estonian, it is a Finno-Ugric language and a very close cousin to Finnish, but less well known in comparison to Finnish. Spoken by some 1.1 million people, Estonian is the third most commonly spoken Finno-Ugric language in the world, behind Finnish (5.5 million) and Hungarian (13 million). Known as eesti keel in Estonian, this language shares a lot of similarities with Finnish, but with more vowels and no vowel harmony. Yes, Estonian has no vowel harmony, and it is quite apparent when we compare some words between Estonian and Finnish, like Finnish “kysymys” and Estonian “küsimus” (lit. question), and Finnish “tänään” and Estonian “täna” (today). The mixing of front and back vowels within the same word is quite obvious in Estonian, and the non-mixing is apparent in Finnish. This is one of the interesting differences between the two languages.

Having learnt a bit of Finnish before learning Estonian, I expected my learning experience to be roughly similar. I was correct for the most part, then came the sound that was foreign to Finnish ears — õ. It carries the sound of /ɤ/, something like a Russian “ы”. Most people would describe it as trying to pronounce “y” in “city” while having someone punching you in the stomach. That was true for learners of Russian, however, but I think it applies with anything having to do with that sound /ɤ/, and Estonian õ was no exception. Other than this letter, Estonian has a phonology quite similar to Finnish, which made learning the sounds quite manageable.

Estonian has this consonant gradation thing as well, which works similar to Finnish with strong and weak grades. It is still a hassle to learn, but having learnt Finnish before, I was able to get used to it sooner.

Like Finnish, Estonian has about a dozen or so case endings, but with no vowel harmony rules. The case endings are quite similar to Finnish as well, but maybe with some phonetic changes. To say “in Tartu” (that is where the Kissing Students’ Sculpture is found), Finns say Tartossa, but Estonians say Tartus. Another challenge is to learn the four dictionary forms of the same noun, but in Estonian, which are given by singular nominative, genitive, partitive and plural partitive. In addition to these cases, there are also short forms of the illative, where rules can vary based on what letters there are. As a beginner, I glossed over the short forms, only skimming through how complex it looked at first sight. I would visit it later when I attain a higher standard, however.

Estonian verbs pretty much are like Finnish ones, as with negative conjugation rules, tense, the four infinitives and there is not really much difference other than the endings used and negation particles. One difference is that Estonian does not use -ko- for a yes/no question unlike in Finnish. Instead, they use a standalone particle ‘kas’, as in ‘Kas sa saad aru?’ (Do you understand?). All in all, I would say that a significant portion of Estonian grammar is similar to Finnish grammar, like how Swedish is to Danish.

One thing I noticed was that I see many long Estonian words as with Finnish ones, and it is most likely due to Estonian having the tendency to agglutinate words into a long one. Finnish, as you can see from my previous post, houses a pool of long ones like ‘Juoksentelisinkohan?’ (I wonder if I should run around aimlessly?) and ‘hyppytyynytyydytys’ (bouncy cushion satisfaction), and Estonian’s long words are by no means a pushover. ‘Uusaastaöövastuvõtuhommikuidüll’ at 31 letters, denoting an idealistic morning after the new year, and ‘sünnipäevanädalalõpupeopärastlõunaväsimus’ means the tiredness one feels on the afternoon of the weekend birthday party. Oh, and how about probably the longest palindromic word I have ever encountered in a language: ‘kuulilennuteetunneliluuk’, meaning hatch of the bullet pathway tunnel.

One key characteristic of Finnish which is not really talked about in Estonian is the possibility of ambiguity. In my previous post, Finnish memes have encompassed almost all aspects of the language, including ambiguous sentences, like the famous ‘kuusi palaa’. Another sentence would be ‘vihdoin vihdoin vihdoin’, which means ‘finally finally finally’, or ‘I finally whipped myself with a birch branch’. Sounds like a typical thing to do in a sauna, but that is not the point. Finnish, with its agglutinating nature and its various case endings, cannot escape the clutches of ambiguity in the language, and it is quite often talked about in social media, eventually becoming memes. In Estonian, this characteristic is not mentioned as much, and at this stage of learning, I am unsure if such ambiguities exist in Estonian, other than being unable to differentiate future from present tense since both would employ the use of the present tense. Thus, this is one aspect of Estonian grammar I would want to explore further.

All in all, Estonian, like its cousin Finnish, is difficult to learn to the English / Chinese native speaker (from personal experience), and it requires constant practice and reading to get a foothold on this learning curve. It starts off gentle, but gets real steep in a few weeks. This would last all the way into fluency. Looking back at social media, I feel that Estonian is not getting the coverage it deserves, unlike Finnish. Memes, books and articles do not really talk much about this language of some 1.1 million, but I believe that there would be interested learners of Estonian. Challenging in its own right, Estonian would also pose a challenge to those who want to learn it.

One thought on “Rääkimine eesti keelt — A Journey in Estonian

  1. Pingback: Hyppytyynytyydytys | Omniglot blog

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