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Estonia Spoken Languages

A member of the Finno-Ugric language family, Estonian is spoken by more than 66 percent of the population of Estonia, where it is the official language. As a result of the Soviet era, Russian is the largest minority language, with nearly 25 percent of speakers. In some towns, especially in the northeast, Russian is the majority language. Additionally, select populations speak German, Swedish, Ukrainian, and Belarusian. 

Estonian / Eesti

History and Evolution

Estonian is a Finnic language with strong Germanic influence. Although it is not related to surrounding Indo-European languages, such as Russian, Latvian, and Swedish, Estonian does have a number of words from Proto-Indo-European, which arose potentially as early as 13,000 BCE when the earliest ancestors of the Estonians came to the region.

In the 1200s CE, the Order of the Brethren of the Sword, a group of Teutonic Knights of German origin, conquered and Christianized the region of Estonia, strongly influencing the language. Approximately 25 percent of words in Estonian have roots in Low German. Examples include aer (oar), kuld (gold), and kallas (shore).

The oldest written example of the Estonian language dates from approximately the 1200s, in the Livonian Chronicle of Henry. While the entire document is not written in Estonian, it contains words, partial sentences, and place names in Estonian. The first full book written in Estonian was a Lutheran tract published in 1525 during the Reformation. It was immediately destroyed due to the controversial nature of its content.

Estonian literature thrived during the 1800s. In 1919, when the country achieved independence from Russia, it made Estonian the state language. Soon after, however, the Soviet Union invaded during World War II and introduced Russian as a state language. The Estonians held on to their language even more strongly in protest, and it became a symbol of Estonian nationalism.

Geographic Distribution

Approximately 1.1 million people speak Estonian, mostly in the country of Estonia, with immigrant communities speaking the language throughout the world. There are two main dialects, North and South Estonian. A third dialect, Kirderanniku, is spoken mainly on the country’s northeastern coast. Northern Estonian is the basis for standard Estonian.

The Northern and Southern Estonian dialects are so different that they are sometimes considered separate languages, and each has several subdialects. This is probably because early ancestors of contemporary Estonians migrated to the region in two separate groups, each speaking different Finnic languages.

Prominence in Society

Estonian is a language of government, education, business, and media in Estonia.

Unique Characteristics

One of Estonian’s unusual features is the varying length of its vowels. There is a short version, a mid-length version, and a long version. Estonian is partially tonal; words with long vowels are spoken with a falling pitch, while words with short or mid-length vowels are spoken with a level pitch. Examples include:

  • Short: sada (hundred)
  • Mid-length: veere (edge)
  • Long: jäääärne (on the edge of the ice)

The stress on most Estonian words falls on the first syllable, as on ne in neli (four). There are some exceptions, especially in foreign loanwords; for example, the stress in mehaanik (mechanic) falls on the second syllable haa.

Estonian uses the Latin alphabet, with the addition of š, ž,  ö, ü, and õ. Some letters are only used in foreign loanwords; these include f, š, z and ž. C, q, w, x, and y are only used in place names, personal names, and foreign words. Examples include šampoon (shampoo) and tiraaž (edition).

There is no future tense in Estonian. The present tense is used to express actions in the future. For instance, someone who wants to express that she will go home in the future might say Ma lähen homme koju  (I go home tomorrow) or Ma lähen koju järgmisel kuul (I go home next month).

Loanwords in English

There are no Estonian loanwords in English.

Say Whaaat?

During the late 1800s, when the Estonian language was experiencing a resurgence in literature and culture, several language reformers attempted to enrich the language by making up new words. Examples include male (chess), reetma (to betray), and naasma (to come back). Approximately 4,000 of these words were included in a 1921 dictionary published by Estonian language reformer Johannes Aavik.

 

Writer: Jennifer Williamson

Estonian Quick Facts

Origin

Estonia

Native Speakers

1–1.2 million

Second-language Speakers

200,000–500,000

Official Language

 Estonia

Recognized Language

N/A

Language Family

Uratic

  • Finnic
    • Estonian

Standard Form

Standard Estonian

Dialects

Kirderanniku (northeast coast)

Keskmurre (central)

Läänemurre (western)

Saarte Murre (islands)

Idamurre (eastern)

Tartu (south)

Mulgi (south)

Võro (south)

Seto (south)

Script

Latin script

Alphabet

Estonian alphabet

Regulated by

Eesti Keele Instituut

ISO Codes

ISO 639-1 (et)

ISO 639-2 (est)

ISO 639-3 (est)

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