You probably haven’t thought that much about Estonian before. After all, it is only spoken in a very tiny part of Europe and the chances that you’ve heard the language spoken are quite slim, as there are only around a million people in the world, whom you could listen to. But, great things come in small packages, as they say. And Estonian is certainly a language that punches above its weight when it comes to being interesting!
So, here are 7 interesting facts about the Estonian language to pique your interest and get you learning more!
#1 – You can hear Estonian in Siberia
Despite the vast majority of Estonian speakers (around 90%) living within Estonia, the Estonian diaspora is rather far-reaching and the language can be heard all over the planet. While Finland understandably leads the table as the destination for Estonian emigrants, there are still villages in Siberia where the inhabitants speak Estonian as their first language. Estonian villages in Siberia mostly comprise of the descendants of settlers who were offered land there at the end of the nineteenth century.
There are still around 20,000 Estonian-speakers (that’s over half a percent!) in various villages in Siberia.
#2 – Despite one official language, regional dialects very much exist
While it might be surprising that a language as small as Estonian has dialects, regional differences very much exist. They might not be as pronounced as with languages spanning bigger or more complex geographical areas, but a keen ear can certainly pick up a few idiosyncrasies.
The most famous one is the lack of the “Õ” sounds on Saaremaa – the biggest island. Inhabitants from that particular island seem to agree that Estonian has far too many vowels as it is and simply do not recognise the difference between “Õ” and “Ö”.
While omitting the “Õ” sound will certainly mark you out, there are more subtle nuances in vocabulary that divide people from the north and south of the country. For example, there’s the question of whether snow “pakib” or “hakkab kokku”, when you’re trying to make a snowball. Or whether you should say “Tere hommikut!” or “Tere hommikust!” when sleepily rubbing your eyes in the morning.
#3 – … Not to mention (at least) one other language entirely
In addition to subtle differences in standard Estonian, some regions of this tiny country speak what they insist are separate languages altogether. And one can see why, as the dialects almost remain entirely undecipherable for anyone speaking standard Estonian. Only the biggest one of these, Võro, has been given an ISO code, although several sub-dialects are widely recognised.
(credit: Wikimedia, Sulev Iva)
To get a better understanding of why Võro is considered a separate language from Estonian, take a look at this dictionary.
#4 – It has no sex and no future
This common joke refers not only to the declining birthrate of the country itself but applies to the language as well. It refers to the fact that Estonian doesn’t have gendered nouns (unlike Spanish or German, for example) and only a gender-neutral pronoun – both men and women are referred to as “tema”. Nor does Estonian have a future tense – everything yet to happen is determined by adding temporal markers: Ma lähen homme (I go tomorrow).
#5 – Despite being a Baltic country, the language has nothing in common with Latvian or Lithuanian
The three Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – are often thought of as a rather homogenous cultural block in the West. However, while Latvian and Lithuanian do belong among Baltic languages, Estonian reached its current geographical area from the north. So, instead of its Baltic neighbours, the language is very closely related to Finnish (which lies across the bay). In fact, Estonians and Finns have very little trouble having simple conversations with each other, even without having learned each other’s languages. That’s how much mutual intelligibility there is.
#6 – The language is very fond of vowels
In addition to making use of the common vowels used in the Latin alphabet – a, e, i, o, u – Estonian felt the need to invent a few of its own. Õ, ä, ö, ü are very common in the language and, more often than you might like, you’ll come across words that consist only of vowels. One of the more striking examples might be “äiaõeoaaiaoaõieau”. While the translation (“bean-flower honour in father-in-law’s sisters’ bean garden”) shows that it might not be the most commonly used term in the language, you will certainly have hours of fun contorting your jaw.
Estonian is widely thought of as one of the hardest languages for English-speakers to learn because there is much dissimilarity between the languages. However, we don’t subscribe to such nonsense. Whether you will find a language easy or hard to learn will mostly come down to your own motivation. And if there’s ever an interesting language to learn, it’s Estonian – as evidenced by the facts above.