Estonian language

Last updated
eesti keel
Native to Estonia
Ethnicity Estonians
Native speakers
1.1 million (2012) [1]
  • Finnic
    • Southern Finnic
      • Estonian
Latin (Estonian alphabet)
Estonian Braille
Official status
Official language in
Flag of Estonia.svg  Estonia
Flag of Europe.svg  European Union
Regulated by Institute of the Estonian Language / Eesti Keele Instituut, Emakeele Selts (semi-official)
Language codes
ISO 639-1 et
ISO 639-2 est
ISO 639-3 est – inclusive code
Individual codes:
ekk   Standard Estonian
vro    Võro
Glottolog esto1258 [2]
Linguasphere 41-AAA-d
Idioma estonio.PNG
Historical spread:
  North Estonian (incl. Northeastern coastal Estonian)
By today, the language islands outside Estonia have disappeared, and most speakers in the South Estonian area have switched to standard Estonian (based on North Estonian).
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

Estonian (eesti keel [ˈeːsti ˈkeːl] ( Loudspeaker.svg listen )) is a Uralic language of the Finnic branch spoken in Estonia. It is the official language of Estonia, spoken natively by about 1.1 million people; 922,000 people in Estonia and 160,000 outside Estonia. [3] It is a Southern Finnic language and is the second-most-spoken language among all the Finnic languages.



Estonian belongs to the Finnic branch of the Uralic language family.The Finnic group also includes Finnish and a few minority languages spoken around the Baltic Sea and in Saint-Petersburg and Karelian region in Russia. Alongside Finnish, Hungarian and Maltese, Estonian is one of the four official languages of European Union that is not of an Indo-European origin. Despite some overlaps in the vocabulary due to borrowings, in terms of its origin, Estonian and Finnish are not related to their nearest geographical neighbours, Swedish, Latvian, and Russian, which are all Indo-European languages.

Although the Estonian and Germanic languages are of very different origins, one can identify many similar words in Estonian and German, for example. This is primarily because the Estonian language has borrowed nearly one third of its vocabulary from Germanic languages, mainly from Low Saxon (Middle Low German) during the period of German rule, and High German (including Standard German). The percentage of Low Saxon and High German loanwords can be estimated at 22–25 percent, with Low Saxon making up about 15 percent. Swedish and Russian are the other two important sources of borrowings. [4]

Estonian is a predominantly agglutinative language, but unlike Finnish, it has lost vowel harmony, the front vowels occurring exclusively on the first or stressed syllable, although in older texts and in South Estonian dialects the vowel harmony can still be recognized. Furthermore, the loss of word-final sounds is extensive, and this has made its inflectional morphology markedly more fusional, especially with respect to noun and adjective inflection. [5] The transitional form from an agglutinating to a fusional language is a common feature of Estonian typologically over the course of history with the development of a rich morphological system. [6]

Word order is considerably more flexible than English, but the basic order is subject–verb–object.


The two different historical Estonian languages (sometimes considered dialects), the North and South Estonian languages, are based on the ancestors of modern Estonians' migration into the territory of Estonia in at least two different waves, both groups speaking considerably different Finnic vernaculars. [7] Modern standard Estonian has evolved on the basis of the dialects of Northern Estonia.

Estonian grammar published in Reval in 1637 by Heinrich Stahl EstonianGrammar1637.jpg
Estonian grammar published in Reval in 1637 by Heinrich Stahl

The oldest written records of the Finnic languages of Estonia date from the 13th century. Originates Livoniae in the Chronicle of Henry of Livonia contains Estonian place names, words and fragments of sentences.

Estonian literature

The earliest extant samples of connected (north) Estonian are the so-called Kullamaa prayers dating from 1524 and 1528. [8] In 1525 the first book published in the Estonian language was printed. The book was a Lutheran manuscript, which never reached the reader and was destroyed immediately after publication.

The first extant Estonian book is a bilingual German-Estonian translation of the Lutheran catechism by S. Wanradt and J. Koell dating to 1535, during the Protestant Reformation period. An Estonian grammar book to be used by priests was printed in German in 1637. [9] The New Testament was translated into southern Estonian in 1686 (northern Estonian, 1715). The two languages were united based on northern Estonian by Anton thor Helle.

Writings in Estonian became more significant in the 19th century during the Estophile Enlightenment Period (1750–1840).

The birth of native Estonian literature was in 1810 to 1820 when the patriotic and philosophical poems by Kristjan Jaak Peterson were published. Peterson, who was the first student at the then German-language University of Dorpat to acknowledge his Estonian origin, is commonly regarded as a herald of Estonian national literature and considered the founder of modern Estonian poetry. His birthday, March 14, is celebrated in Estonia as Mother Tongue Day. [10] A fragment from Peterson's poem "Kuu" expresses the claim reestablishing the birthright of the Estonian language:

Kas siis selle maa keel
Laulutuules ei või
Taevani tõustes üles
Igavikku omale otsida?

In English:

Can the language of this land
In the wind of incantation
Rising up to the heavens
Not seek for eternity?
Kristjan Jaak Peterson

In the period from 1525 to 1917, 14,503 titles were published in Estonian; by comparison, between 1918 and 1940, 23,868 titles were published.[ citation needed ]

In modern times Jaan Kross [11] and Jaan Kaplinski [12] and Viivi Luik are three of Estonia's best known and most translated writers.

State language

Writings in Estonian became significant only in the 19th century with the spread of the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment, during the Estophile Enlightenment Period (1750–1840). Although Baltic Germans at large regarded the future of Estonians as being a fusion with themselves, the Estophile educated class admired the ancient culture of the Estonians and their era of freedom before the conquests by Danes and Germans in the 13th century. [13]

After the Estonian War of Independence in 1919, the Estonian language became the state language of the newly independent country. In 1945, 97.3% of Estonia considered itself ethnic Estonian [7] and spoke the language.

When Estonia was invaded and occupied by the Soviet Union in World War II, the status of the Estonian language changed to the first of two official languages (Russian being the other one). [14] As with Latvia many immigrants entered Estonia under Soviet encouragement. [7] In the second half of the 1970s, the pressure of bilingualism (for Estonians) intensified, resulting in widespread knowledge of Russian throughout the country. The Russian language was termed as ‘the language of friendship of nations’ and was taught to Estonian children, sometimes as early as in kindergarten. Although teaching Estonian to non-Estonians in schools was compulsory, in practice learning the language was often considered unnecessary. [7]

During the Perestroika era, The Law on the Status of the Estonian Language was adopted in January 1989. The 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union led to the restoration of the Republic of Estonia's independence. Estonian went back to being the only state language in Estonia which in practice meant that use of Estonian was promoted while the use of Russian was discouraged. [15]

The return of Soviet immigrants to their countries of origin has brought the proportion of Estonians in Estonia back above 70%. And again as in Latvia, today many of the remnant non-Estonians in Estonia have adopted the Estonian language; about 40% at the 2000 census. [7]


An 1885 ABC-book in Voro written by Johann Hurt: "Wastne Voro keeli ABD raamat" Wastne Voro keeli A B D raamat.jpg
An 1885 ABC-book in Võro written by Johann Hurt: "Wastne Võro keeli ABD raamat"

The Estonian dialects [16] [17] are divided into two groups – the northern and southern dialects, historically associated with the cities of Tallinn in the north and Tartu in the south, in addition to a distinct kirderanniku dialect, Northeastern coastal Estonian.

The northern group consists of the keskmurre or central dialect that is also the basis for the standard language, the läänemurre or western dialect, roughly corresponding to Lääne County and Pärnu County, the saarte murre (islands' dialect) of Saaremaa, Hiiumaa, Muhu and Kihnu, and the idamurre or eastern dialect on the northwestern shore of Lake Peipus.

South Estonian consists of the Tartu, Mulgi, Võro and Seto varieties. These are sometimes considered either variants of South Estonian or separate languages altogether. [18] Also, Seto and Võro distinguish themselves from each other less by language and more by their culture and their respective Christian confession. [7] [19]

Writing system


Estonian employs the Latin script as the basis for its alphabet, which adds the letters ä , ö , ü , and õ , plus the later additions š and ž . The letters c, q, w, x and y are limited to proper names of foreign origin, and f, z, š, and ž appear in loanwords and foreign names only. Ö and Ü are pronounced similarly to their equivalents in Swedish and German. Unlike in standard German but like Swedish (when followed by 'r') and Finnish, Ä is pronounced [æ], as in English mat. The vowels Ä, Ö and Ü are clearly separate phonemes and inherent in Estonian, although the letter shapes come from German. The letter õ denotes /ɤ/, unrounded /o/, or a close-mid back unrounded vowel. It is almost identical to the Bulgarian ъ /ɤ̞/ and the Vietnamese ơ, and is also used to transcribe the Russian ы.


Although the Estonian orthography is generally guided by phonemic principles, with each grapheme corresponding to one phoneme, there are some historical and morphological deviations from this: for example preservation of the morpheme in declension of the word (writing b, g, d in places where p, k, t is pronounced) and in the use of 'i' and 'j'.[ clarification needed ] Where it is very impractical or impossible to type š and ž, they are substituted with sh and zh in some written texts, although this is considered incorrect. Otherwise, the h in sh represents a voiceless glottal fricative, as in Pasha (pas-ha); this also applies to some foreign names.

Modern Estonian orthography is based on the Newer Orthography created by Eduard Ahrens in the second half of the 19th century based on Finnish orthography. The Older Orthography it replaced was created in the 17th century by Bengt Gottfried Forselius and Johann Hornung based on standard German orthography. Earlier writing in Estonian had by and large used an ad hoc orthography based on Latin and Middle Low German orthography. Some influences of the standard German orthography — for example, writing 'W'/'w' instead of 'V'/'v' — persisted well into the 1930s.

Estonian words and names quoted in international publications from Soviet sources are often back-transliterations from the Russian transliteration. Examples are the use of "ya" for "ä" (e.g. Pyarnu instead of Pärnu), "y" instead of "õ" (e.g., Pylva instead of Põlva) and "yu" instead of "ü" (e.g., Pyussi instead of Püssi). Even in the Encyclopædia Britannica one can find "ostrov Khiuma", where "ostrov" means "island" in Russian and "Khiuma" is back-transliteration from Russian instead of "Hiiumaa" (Hiiumaa > Хийума(а) > Khiuma).


There are 9 vowels and 36 diphthongs, 28 of which are native to Estonian. [1] All nine vowels can appear as the first component of a diphthong, but only /ɑ e i o u/ occur as the second component. A vowel characteristic of Estonian is the unrounded back vowel /ɤ/, which may be close-mid back, close back, or close-mid central.

Front Back
Unrounded Rounded Unrounded Rounded
Close i y ɤ u
Mid e ø o
Open æ ɑ


Typologically, Estonian represents a transitional form from an agglutinating language to a fusional language. The canonical word order is SVO (subject–verb–object). [20]

In Estonian, nouns and pronouns do not have grammatical gender, but nouns and adjectives decline in fourteen cases: nominative, genitive, partitive, illative, inessive, elative, allative, adessive, ablative, translative, terminative, essive, abessive, and comitative, with the case and number of the adjective(s) always agreeing with that of the noun (except in the terminative, essive, abessive and comitative, where there is agreement only for the number, the adjective being in the genitive form). Thus the illative for kollane maja ("a yellow house") is kollasesse majja ("into a yellow house"), but the terminative is kollase majani ("as far as a yellow house"). With respect to the Proto-Finnic language, elision has occurred; thus, the actual case marker may be absent, but the stem is changed, cf. maja – majja and the Ostrobothnia dialect of Finnish maja – majahan.

The direct object of the verb appears either in the accusative (for total objects) or in the partitive (for partial objects). The accusative coincides with the genitive in the singular and with nominative in the plural. Accusative vs. partitive case opposition of the object used with transitive verbs creates a telicity contrast, just as in Finnish. This is a rough equivalent of the perfective vs. imperfective aspect opposition.

The verbal system lacks a distinctive future tense [21] (the present tense serves here) and features special forms to express an action performed by an undetermined subject (the "impersonal").


Although the Estonian and Germanic languages are of very different origins and the vocabulary is considered quite different from that of the Indo-European family [6] , one can identify many similar words in Estonian and English, for example. This is primarily because the Estonian language has borrowed nearly one third of its vocabulary from Germanic languages, mainly from Low Saxon (Middle Low German) during the period of German rule, and High German (including standard German). The percentage of Low Saxon and High German loanwords can be estimated at 22–25 percent, with Low Saxon making up about 15 percent. [22]

Often 'b' & 'p' are interchangeable, for example 'baggage' becomes 'pagas', 'lob' (to throw) becomes 'loopima'. The initial letter 's' before another consonant is often dropped, for example 'skool' becomes 'kool', 'stool' becomes 'tool'.

Ex nihilo lexical enrichment

Estonian language planners such as Ado Grenzstein (a journalist active in Estonia in the 1870s–90s) tried to use formation ex nihilo , Urschöpfung; [23] i.e. they created new words out of nothing.

The most famous reformer of Estonian, Johannes Aavik (1880–1973), used creations ex nihilo (cf. ‘free constructions’, Tauli 1977), along with other sources of lexical enrichment such as derivations, compositions and loanwords (often from Finnish; cf. Saareste and Raun 1965: 76). In Aavik's dictionary (1921), which lists approximately 4000 words, there are many words which were (allegedly) created ex nihilo, many of which are in common use today. Examples are

Many of the coinages that have been considered (often by Aavik himself) as words concocted ex nihilo could well have been influenced by foreign lexical items, for example words from Russian, German, French, Finnish, English and Swedish. Aavik had a broad classical education and knew Ancient Greek, Latin and French. Consider roim ‘crime’ versus English crime or taunima ‘to condemn, disapprove’ versus Finnish tuomita ‘to condemn, to judge’ (these Aavikisms appear in Aavik's 1921 dictionary). These words might be better regarded as a peculiar manifestation of morpho-phonemic adaptation of a foreign lexical item. [24]

Sample text

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Estonian:

Kõik inimesed sünnivad vabadena ja võrdsetena oma väärikuselt ja õigustelt. Neile on antud mõistus ja südametunnistus ja nende suhtumist üksteisesse peab kandma vendluse vaim. (All people are born free and equal in their dignity and rights. They are given reason and conscience and they shall create their relationships to one another according to the spirit of brotherhood.)

See also

Related Research Articles

German language West Germanic language

German is a West Germanic language that is mainly spoken in Central Europe. It is the most widely spoken and official or co-official language in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, South Tyrol in Italy, the German-speaking Community of Belgium, and Liechtenstein. It is one of the three official languages of Luxembourg and a co-official language in the Opole Voivodeship in Poland. The German language is most similar to other languages within the West Germanic language branch, including Afrikaans, Dutch, English, the Frisian languages, Low German/Low Saxon, Luxembourgish, and Yiddish. It also contains close similarities in vocabulary to Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, although they belong to the North Germanic group. German is the second most widely spoken Germanic language, after English.

The partitive case is a grammatical case which denotes "partialness", "without result", or "without specific identity". It is also used in contexts where a subgroup is selected from a larger group, or with numbers.

Unless otherwise noted, statements in this article refer to Standard Finnish, which is based on the dialect spoken in the former Häme Province in central south Finland. Standard Finnish is used by professional speakers, such as reporters and news presenters on television.

Finnish orthography is based on the Latin script, and uses an alphabet derived from the Swedish alphabet, officially comprising 29 letters but also has two additional letters found in some loanwords. The Finnish orthography strives to represent all morphemes phonologically and, roughly speaking, the sound value of each letter tends to correspond with its value in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) – although some discrepancies do exist.

Estonian orthography is the system used for writing the Estonian language and is based on the Latin alphabet. The Estonian orthography is generally guided by phonemic principles, with each grapheme corresponding to one phoneme.

Votic, or Votian, is the language spoken by the Votes of Ingria, belonging to the Finnic branch of the Uralic languages. Votic is spoken only in Krakolye and Luzhitsy, two villages in Kingiseppsky District, and is close to extinction. In 1989, there were 62 speakers left, the youngest born in 1938. In its 24 December 2005 issue, The Economist wrote that there are only approximately 20 speakers left. In 2017, Votic was believed to have up to 8 native speakers and around 40 to 60 speakers with basic understanding of the language. There are moreover a few non-native speakers of Votic in Finland.

The Veps language, spoken by the Vepsians, belongs to the Finnic group of the Uralic languages. Closely related to Finnish and Karelian, Veps is also written using Latin script.

Consonant gradation is a type of consonant mutation found in some Uralic languages, more specifically in the Finnic, Samic and Samoyedic branches. It originally arose as an allophonic alternation between open and closed syllables, but has become grammaticalised due to changes in the syllable structure of the languages affected.

In linguistics, vowel length is the perceived length of a vowel sound: the corresponding physical measurement is duration. In some languages vowel length is an important phonemic factor, meaning vowel length can change the meaning of the word, for example in: Arabic, Finnish, Fijian, Kannada, Japanese, Latin, Old English, Scottish Gaelic and Vietnamese. While vowel length alone does not change word meaning in most dialects of English, it is said to in a few dialects, such as Australian English, Lunenburg English, New Zealand English and South African English. It also plays a lesser phonetic role in Cantonese, unlike other varieties of Chinese.

The exessive case is a grammatical case that denotes a transition away from a state. It is a rare case found in certain dialects of Finnic languages. It completes the series of "to/in/from a state" series consisting of the translative case, the essive case and the exessive case.

Finno-Samic languages language family

The Finno-Samic languages are a hypothetical subgroup of the Uralic family, and are made up of 22 languages classified into either the Sami languages, which are spoken by the Sami people who inhabit the Sápmi region of northern Fennoscandia, or Finnic languages, which include the major languages Finnish and Estonian. The grouping is not universally recognized as valid.

Proto-Uralic is the reconstructed language ancestral to the Uralic language family. The language was originally spoken in a small area in about 7000–2000 BCE, and expanded to give differentiated protolanguages. The location of the area or Urheimat is not known, and various strongly differing proposals have been advocated, but likewise the vicinity of the Ural Mountains is generally assumed.

Finnic languages language family of north-eastern Europe

The Finnic (Fennic) or Balto-Finnic languages are a branch of the Uralic language family spoken around the Baltic Sea by Finnic peoples. There are around 7 million speakers who live mainly in Finland and Estonia.

The Estonian vocabulary, i.e., the vocabulary of the Estonian language, was influenced by many other language groups.

Johannes Aavik Estonian philologist and Fennophile

Johannes Aavik was an Estonian philologist and Fennophile who played a significant role in the modernization and development of the Estonian language.

Finnish language Finno-Ugric language mostly spoken in Finland

Finnish, whose endonym is suomi, is a Uralic language of the Finnic branch spoken by the majority of the population in Finland and by ethnic Finns outside Finland. Finnish, along with Swedish, is an official language of Finland; Finnish is also an official minority language in Sweden. In Sweden, both Standard Finnish and Meänkieli, which can be classified as a separate language or a Finnish dialect, are spoken. The Kven language, which is similar to the situation of Meänkieli, is spoken in Finnmark by a minority group of Finnish descent.

The northeastern coastal dialect is a Finnic dialect traditionally considered part of the Estonian language. The Estonian coastal dialects were spoken on the coastal strip of Estonia from Tallinn to river Narva. It has very few speakers left nowadays.

This article is about the phonology and phonetics of the Estonian language.

Proto-Sami is the hypothetical, reconstructed common ancestor of the Sami languages. It is a descendant of the Proto-Uralic language.

Proto-Finnic or Proto-Baltic-Finnic is the common ancestor of the Finnic languages, which include the national languages Finnish and Estonian. Proto-Finnic is not attested in any texts, but has been reconstructed by linguists. Proto-Finnic is itself descended ultimately from Proto-Uralic.


  1. Estonian at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Standard Estonian at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Võro at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Estonian". Glottolog 3.0 . Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. "Estonian in a world context". Retrieved 2018-09-26.
  4. Ehala, Martin (2009). "Linguistic strategies and markedness in Estonian morphology". STUF - Language Typology and Universals. 62 (1–2). doi:10.1524/stuf.2009.0003. ISSN   1867-8319.
  5. 1 2 Rehm, Georg; Uszkoreit, Hans (2012), "Language Technology Support for Estonian", White Paper Series, Springer Berlin Heidelberg, pp. 47–64, doi:10.1007/978-3-642-30785-0_9, ISBN   9783642307843
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Rannut, Mart (2004). "Language Policy in Estonia". Noves SL.: Revista de sociolingüística (in Spanish). No. 1–2. ISSN   1695-3711.
  7. Aspects of Altaic Civilization By Denis Sinor ISBN   0-7007-0380-2
  8. Dalby, Andrew (2004). Dictionary of Languages: The Definitive Reference to More Than 400 Languages (rev. ed.). New York: Columbia University Press. p. 182. ISBN   0231115695. OCLC   56555329.
  9. O'Connor, Kevin (2006). Culture and Customs of the Baltic States. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 126. ISBN   0313331251.
  10. Jaan Kross at google.books
  11. Jaan Kaplinski at google.books
  12. Jansen, Ea (2004). "The National Awakening of the Estonian Nation". In Subrenat, Jean-Jacques (ed.). Estonia: Identity and Independence. Translated by Cousins, David; Dickens, Eric; Harding, Alexander; Waterhouse, Richard C. Rodopi. p. 84. ISBN   90-420-0890-3.
  13. Baker, Colin; Jones, Sylvia Prys (1998). Encyclopedia of Bilingualism and Bilingual Education. Multilingual Matters. p. 207. ISBN   1853593621.
  14. Leclerc, Jacques. "Estonie". Retrieved 2014-08-23.
  15. "Map of Estonian Dialects". Tartu University’s Estonian Dialect Corpus. Retrieved 2014-08-23.
  16. "Home". Tartu University’s Estonian Dialect Corpus. 2013-03-28. Retrieved 2014-08-23.
  17. "Culture Tourism in South Estonia and Võru county" (PDF). Siksali. Retrieved 2 July 2013.
  18. "Estonian Dialects". The Institute of the Estonian Language. Retrieved 2014-08-23.
  19. "" (in Russian). Retrieved 2014-08-23.
  20. Pérez, Efrén O.; Tavits, Margit (January 24, 2017). "Language Shapes People's Time Perspective and Support for Future-Oriented Policies". American Journal of Political Science . Midwest Political Science Association. 61 (3): 715–727. doi: 10.1111/ajps.12290 .
  21. "History of Estonian vocabulary". Archived from the original on 2007-07-21.
  22. 1 2 Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2003). Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmillan. pp.  149. ISBN   978-1403917232.
  23. Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2003). Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew . New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmillan. pp.  150. ISBN   978-1403917232.

Further reading