Estonian – a diverse language of a small nation

People visiting Estonia for the first time probably find the language very unfamiliar. The reason is that Estonian only has some similarities to the Finnish language as they both belong to the Fenno-Ugric language family, or to be more precise, to the Baltic-Finnic language.


Gute Reise! Flughafen Hiiumaa
"Head Reisi!" - "Godspeed!", written on the airport of Hiiumaa island.

The Finnish language contains many German loans, but Estonian has them even more, even though they are not identifiable at first. As the Estonian language borrowed many words from the Germanic languages, a large number of words resemble those of English and Dutch.   


The language, rich in vowels and melody does not like “sharp” sounds or “tongue twisters” (there are only few exceptions in foreign words such as šokolaad [chocolate] – the letter š is used here indeed, but only because the word is adopted from another language; in original Estonian words the letter is not used).


The German word Schloss (castle) is shortened into loss which is pronounced very softly (the word can often be found in the Street name of Lossi, literally meaning “castle street”). The German word Zwiebel (onion) could have been “very difficult” to pronounce as well.


Estonian language
At the taxi stand in Tartu.

That is why the Estonians say sibul. A bit more abstract relation to the German language can be found in the word “language”: keel. The Estonian word does not relate to the German word for “language” Sprache but to the word for “throat” Kehle.


Further examples of the elimination of all “sharp” sounds of the German language are to be found in the following words: naps (German: Schnaps), tund (German: Stunde – hour), koer (meaning: dog, relating to the German word Koeter – “cur” instead of Hund – dog), pekk (German: Speck – bacon) and the list could be continued for quite a while…


In Estonian, the emphasis is always on the first syllable. Because of the unfamiliar sound of the language it is not always easy (even for native speakers of German) to spot the German loan words.


Many similarities to the German language occur in words such as plats (German: Platz – square, place), pilt (German: Bild – picture, image), mantel (German: Mantel – coat) or arst (German: Arzt – doctor).


The Estonian alphabet (ABC):

The Estonian alphabet is based on the Latin alphabet. It consists of 32 letters and can be divided into two parts. There are 9 letters that are only used in names or foreign words. These are the letters Cc, Qq, Ww, Yy, Ff, Šš (schaa), Zz (zett), Žž (gee – like the g in the French word “plage”) .


The 32 letters:

Aa, Bb, Cc, Dd, Ee, Ff, Gg, Hh, Ii, Jj, Kk, Ll, Mm, Nn, Oo, Pp, Qq, Rr, Ss, Šš, Zz, Žž, Tt, Uu, Vv, Ww, Õõ, Ää, Öö, Üü, Xx, Yy


Without the  "foreign letters" the Estonian alphabet consits of 23 letters:

Aa, Bb, Dd, Ee, Gg, Hh, Ii, Jj, Kk, Ll, Mm, Nn, Oo, Pp, Rr, Ss, Tt, Uu, Vv, Õõ, Ää, Öö, Üü


To make your communication a bit easier, you’ll find a detailed selection of common words and phrases in the Phrasebook.




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