Learning Estonian

Non-Indo-European languages present the native English speaker with particular challenges. Word origins are not shared so acquiring a vocabulary is more difficult, and the grammatical structure can be radically different. Both these factors are true of Estonian. On the plus side there is no grammatical gender in Estonian nor is there a definite or indefinite article; there are also many imported words which tend to turn up in areas of interest to the visitor, krediitkaarte and tualettpaber being two useful examples. German speakers will be helped by the large proportion of German words that have been absorbed into Estonian over the centuries. Another plus is that Estonian is a highly phonetic language, i.e. each letter has one sound and is generally sounded consistently.

The difficulties that appear at first sight become more manageable when one understands two basic characteristics: one is that Estonian is primarily an agglutinative language; the other is that it has a special syllable-accent system.

An agglutinative language is one in which meaning is conveyed more by adding components to words rather than relying on word order or prepositions, so in Estonian single words often have to be unpacked into an English phrase. This process can frequently be seen at work in English, although it is not a primarily agglutinative language like Estonian, e.g. in the formation of words like 'beautiful', 'backwards', 'fullness', 'hyperactivity', etc and especially in the formation of new words, particularly from Latin and Greek.

The Estonian syllable-accent system is unusual. It has three contrasting vowel and consonant lengths, short, long and 'overlong', which can represent important differences in meaning. Thus taevas (short e) means 'sky', taevas (long e) 'in the sky'; lina 'linen', linna (two short n's) 'of the city', linna (long n and short n) 'into the city'.

Long sounds are simply indicated by doubling the vowel or consonant. The extra-long sound is not indicated by any special mark, but among the consonants b d g count as singles, while p t k are doubles and pp tt kk are extra-long.

Pronouncing consonants

Estonian consonants sound much the same as their English equivalents, except for those that are topped by a diacritic, i.e š and ž which are pronounced like the 'sh' in 'shot' and the 's' in 'pleasure'.

b, d, and g are softer than in English.

h - sometimes silent, but usually pronounced, especially between a vowel and consonant, and between vowels, e.g. in Tere õhtust- 'Good evening'.

j- always like 'y' in 'yacht', as in Tagasi pole vaja - 'Keep the change'.

c, f, q, w, x, y and z only occur in foreign words and personal names and are pronounced accordingly.

Pronouncing vowels

Single vowels are pronounced separately: vowels in combination - diphthongs - are spoken as two quick separate sounds, e.g. Headaega 'Goodbye'.

Long vowels are represented by doubling: they lengthen but retain their basic sound.

a as in 'father'; ä as in 'hat'.

e as in 'get' and 'café'.

i as in 'pit' and the ee in 'keen'.

u as in 'to' and 'too'; ü as in German, e.g. compare 'u' in soodustust with ü in üheotsapilet .

Stress vowels

This is always on the first syllable, except with imported words which usually retain their original stress, e.g. krediitkaart. However you will observe that stress is in general not emphatic. The effect of varying stress and intonation is to give spoken Estonian a markedly rhythmic, musical quality.