This month we are going to take a look at a Northern European language that is spoken in Estonia, the most northerly of the three Baltic states, nestled between the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea, between Latvia and Russia. It boasts of over 1500 islands, hilltop fortresses, endless forests and woodlands, two Unesco World Heritage sites and some wonderfully preserved medieval architecture, in addition to being one of most digitalised countries and a major start-up hub. Now let’s learn a fact or two about Estonian.
Estonian – what and where?
The official language of Estonia is Estonian, which is spoken by about 1.1 million people there and in scattered pockets in surrounding regions. It is closely related to Finnish, and while Finnish may have many loanwords from Swedish, Estonian contains many words that are of German origin, in addition to a few being from Russian, Latin, Greek and English. There is said to be a considerable mutual intelligibility between Estonian and Finnish, since it is also a Southern Finnic language and is the second most spoken language among all the Finnic languages.
Did you know that the Estonian language supposedly has 8 dialects and 117 subdialects? On the whole, Estonian has two groups of dialects: northern and southern. The northern dialects are associated with the city of Tallinn, while the southern ones with Tartu. Standard Estonian is based on the northern dialects, and the southern dialects are sometimes considered separate languages altogether.
Tracing back the links
The oldest examples of written Estonian are names, words, and phrases found in early 13th century chronicles. With the evolution of written Estonian, two separate literary culture centres emerged: the city of Tallinn in the North and Tartu in the South. It’s a fact that the Estonian language that we use today is based on the 19th century’s revised orthography (i.e. the conventional spelling system of a language).
Estonian is one of the official languages of the European Union that is not of an Indo-European origin. Apart from its close connection to Finnish, Hungarian and Maltese, and despite some overlaps in the vocabulary, Estonian and Finnish are not related to their nearest geographical neighbours i.e. Swedish, Latvian, and Russian, which are all Indo-European languages. In fact, it is interesting to know that Estonian has borrowed nearly one third of its vocabulary from Germanic languages.
Fun facts and trivia
Estonia is known to be the first country in the world to adopt online voting and is also one of the few countries in the world, where the population is predominantly female. But did you also know that Estonia was a part of Russia until 1917? That’s the reason why the Estonian language is still spoken in many parts of Russia.
According to the Foreign Service Institute, Estonian is the fifth hardest language to learn! Especially for native English speakers, this language is difficult because it operates with 14 noun cases. On the other hand, Estonian is said to be significantly easier to learn for a Finnish speaker owing to the regional influence, as well as both the languages being from the Uralic language family.
So if Estonia is one of your next travel destinations, you might certainly want to start learning it right away 😉