Reaching a level of language proficiency where you can freely understand all the idioms and slang the natives so casually throw around is a cherished milestone for many. Reading the meaning behind a seemingly nonsensical string of words that make up the idioms and proverbs of a language is often complicated and you can really achieve this level only through knowing the culture and history of your target language.
So, in an effort to get you even more closely acquainted with Estonian, here are 25 Estonian idioms and proverbs that you should definitely know:
1. Igal oinal oma mihklipäev
Translates to “Every ram has his St. Michael’s Day”.
St. Michael’s Day was a day that official concluded the summer and traditionally, a sheep or a ram was killed and eaten on that day. The meaning of the proverb is essentially that everything good will come to an end at one point. Also used to mean that no bad deed goes unpunished.
2. Pill tuleb pika ilu peale
Directly translates to “Tears come after long beauty”, more loosely “Long joy will result in tears”.
The next proverb to remind us not to get too optimistic about life and that everything good can come to an abrupt end. Most often used in context when children are playing and someone gets hurt.
3. Ära hõiska enne õhtut
Translates to “Don’t cheer before the evening”.
Another idiom to bring Estonians back to Earth (as if that was ever an issue). Used in the same context as “Don’t count your chicks before they hatch” – so, wait for the finish line before you start celebrating.
4. Õnnetus ei hüüa tulles
Translates to “An accident doesn’t shout when (it’s) coming”, more loosely “An accident doesn’t announce its arrival”.
Serves to remind everyone to continue being vigilant and careful. Also used to console people when something bad has happened by saying that accidents (or anything negative, really) happen without reason or notice.
5. Küsija suu pihta ei lööda
Translates to “You don’t hit an asker on the mouth”.
One of the few Estonian proverbs that encourages questioning and enquiry. The meaning is essentially that you should be free to ask questions and for favours without fear of punishment. Used mostly when talking to and about children. It’s also used to signify the importance of asking for permission first.
6. Enda silmas palki ei näe, teise silmas pindu küll
Translates to “You’re unable to see the log in your eye, but don’t miss the splinter in another’s”.
A very roundabout way of saying that we’re often blind to our own shortcomings but critical of others. Reminds us to first deal with our own flaws before putting others down.
7. Kes ei tööta, see ei söö
Translates to “Who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat”.
One of the most common proverbs used to glorify working hard. The theme of work (and the need to do it well) is thoroughly covered in Estonian proverbs.
8. Tühi kott ei seisa püsti
Translates to “An empty bag won’t stand up”.
Used very often by grandmothers forcing everyone to eat their own bodyweight in home-cooked meals. Essentially means that you should eat well (and take care of yourself) before attempting a demanding task (most probably some more work).
9. Julge hundi rind on rasvane
Translates to “The brave wolf’s chest is fat”.
Again, highlighting the importance of being brave, clever, and hardworking.
This particular proverb has a very close cousin – Jänes šampust ei joo (A rabbit won’t be drinking champagne) which, although not as common, might be a bit more interesting. Rabbits are strongly associated with cowardice and champagne is used as a metaphor for victory, so they both aim at the same point: be a brave go-getter if you want to succeed.
10. Magavale kassile hiir suhu ei jookse
Translates to “A mouse won’t run into the mouth of a sleeping cat”.
Carrying on with the themes of being proactive and hardworking, this idiom highlights the need to go after the things you want (as a cat would a mouse) and not to lie around hoping they’d come to you.
11. Kuidas töö, nõnda palk
Translates to “How (you) work, so (you get) paid”.
In meaning it’s quite similar to “What goes around, comes around” but with a bit more focus on work (in true Estonian spirit). Helps to remind us to behave and be kind to others (whilst holding fear of retribution over your head).
12. Kes teisele nime annab, see ise seda kannab
Translates to “He who names another (person), will carry it”.
This is used most often in response to school bullying situations and is, in that sense, similar to “Stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”. In this case, however, it’s used to highlight that whatever flaw the bully might find in their victim, they are undoubtedly carrying the trait themselves.
13. Kingitud hobuse suhu ei vaadata
Translates to “You don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”.
This proverb, luckily, has a very clear equivalent in English.
14. Kes ees see mees
Translates to “Who (is) in front, (is) a/the man”.
A complicated one to translate but the meaning is somewhat similar to “Finders keepers”. It essentially tries to convey that whomever discovers or reaches something first, has a right to it.
15. Käbi ei kuku kännust kaugele
Translates to “The pine cone doesn’t fall far from the tree”.
Another one with a clear English equivalent – “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”. In this one, though, thanks to Estonians’ unending love for their pine trees, the pine cone takes the place of the apple.
16. Nagu hane selga vesi
Translates to “Like water on a goose’s back”.
Once you replace the goose with a duck, the meaning becomes clear – “Like throwing water on a duck’s back”. It’s used in the same way as well, meaning that an action is without any apparent effect. Since the goose’s back is bigger, it probably makes for an easier target.
17. Oma silm on kuningas
Translates to “(Your) own eye is king”.
The meaning mostly conveys that you shouldn’t just take anyone’s word for something you can check yourself. Also used to express doubt over an unbelievable tale or situation.
18. Rääkimine hõbe, vaikimine kuld
Translates to “Speaking silver, silence gold”.
Stereotypically not known as the most talkative bunch, this idiom helps to highlight Estonians’ love for peace and quiet. Quite frankly demonstrates the value of being quiet and listening instead of talking.
19. Meest sõnast, härga sarvest
Translates to “(You grab) a man by his word, an ox by the horn”.
This one is often used to remind people to keep their word in addition to showing the importance of remaining honest and forthright. In keeping with the last proverb, the theme combining the two would be “If you need to talk, do so honestly”.
20. Mida Juku ei õpi, seda Juhan ei tea
Translates to “What Juku doesn’t learn, Juhan doesn’t know”.
At first glance, this seems rather nonsensical. However, Juku is a shortened version of Juhan which is often used for children. So, it essentially comes down to what you don’t learn as a child, you won’t know as an adult. Very often used to remind kids to do well and give their best in school.
21. Valel on lühikesed jalad
Translates to “A lie has short legs”.
This is another proverb pressing the importance of honesty. The short legs of the lie mean that it won’t be able to outrun the truth and will be caught sooner or later.
22. Hommik on õhtust targem
Translates to “Morning is wiser than the evening”.
This is the first of the three proverbs pressing the importance of taking your time and not making rash decisions. The morning being wiser means you should sleep on important questions and not rush into anything you might regret.
23. Tasa sõuad, kaugele jõuad
Translates to “Row slowly, go far”.
Instead of calculating decisions, this one refers to the general attitude of taking things slowly and not overexerting yourself by rushing (with the oars). It implies that the best course of action is being slow and calculated, instead of rowing quickly and tiring yourself out before you reach your destination.
24. Üheksa korda mõõda, üks kord lõika
Translates to “Measure nine times, cut once”.
In addition to calculation, this one reminds us that actions have consequences. The reference is to sewing where you need to be very sure of how much cloth you need to cut before starting, otherwise you ruin the cloth and are also left without whatever you were making in the first place.
25. Lõpp hea, kõik hea
Translates to “End good, all good”.
Luckily, “All’s well that ends well”.