Estonia and language
Do you know Estonia?
The Estonian language belongs to the Finnic branch of Finno-Ugric group of languages. Estonian differs from its closest large related language, Finnish, at least as much as English differs from Frisian. The difference between Estonian and Hungarian is about as significant as between German and Persian. Along with Icelandic, Estonian is at present one of the smallest languages in the world that fulfils all the functions necessary for an independent state to ‘perform’ linguistically. Teaching, at both primary school and university level, is in Estonian; it is also the language of modern science (molecular biology, astronomy, computer science, semiotics, etc.). Estonian is used in the army, in the theatre, aviation, journalism — in all walks of life. Estonian is the only official language in Estonia in local government and state institutions. Since 2004 Estonian is an official language of the European Union.
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Facts about the Estonian Language
1. Estonian belongs to the Finno-Ugric language family, which means that its largest relatives are Hungarian and Finnish. Furthermore, Finnish and Estonian could be considered sister languages – they even sound rather similar. Hungarian, on the other hand, is in that regard Estonian language’s distant, but no doubt dear, cousin.
2. The oldest words in the Estonian language probably date from the 4th millennium BC. They include ela(ma) (to live), ema (mother), jõgi (river), kaks (two), kala (fish), kalm (burial mound), keel (tongue), kuusk (spruce), kõiv (birch), lumi (snow), minia (daughter-in-law), muna (egg), nimi (name), nool (arrow), puu (tree). Hing (soul), ilm (weather), isa (father), jalg (foot), jää (ice), kask (birch), koda (house), käsi (hand), küla (village), leem (broth), lind (bird), maa (land), nõid (witch), veri (blood), öö (night) and üks (one) probably date from the 3rd millennium BC.
3. There are no grammatical genders in Estonian – for example, both men and women are referred to as “tema”. So, we could say that some protection of personal identity is already built into the language.
4. There is no future tense in the Estonian language – grammatically, tenses range from pluperfect to present. Of course, even Estonians talk about the future, but that is greatly dependent on the context. For example, “Ma lähen praegu koju” (I’m going home now) vs “Ma lähen homme koju” (I’m going home tomorrow). Perhaps Estonians just like to live in the moment.
5. In the first half of the thirteenth century, Henry of Latvia recorded a few words in Estonian in his Livonian Chronicle of Henry. These immortal phrases were “Laula! Laula! Pappi!” and “Maga magamas” (Sing! Sing! Priest! and Sleep asleep).
6. The longest word in Estonian is “kuulilennuteetunneliluuk” (24 letters, meaning “the hatch a bullet flies out of when exiting a tunnel”). This word is a palindrome, which means it reads the same backwards as forwards. Although, it must be admitted, it is not too often that you hear this word in everyday speech – it’s a tad too specific for that.
7. In the popular TV series Game of Thrones, one of the languages spoken by the characters is Dothraki, which was inspired by Estonian, among other languages (it was created from 12 languages altogether).
8. Estonian alphabet is based on the Latin alphabet, and it contains 23 letters, 32 including foreign letters. There is also an entirely unique letter in the Estonian alphabet – “Õ”. It was added to the alphabet by pastor and man of letters Otto Wilhelm Masing in 1816. Why? To denote the mid central vowel, of course!
9. Estonian as a mother tongue is spoken by 1.1 million people (922 000 in Estonia and 160 000 elsewhere).
10. The order of words is quite relaxed in Estonian. For example, these two sentences both mean the same and are equally coherent: “Tihti tähti taevas nähti” and “Taevas tihti nähti tähti” (Often stars were seen in the sky).
11. Since stress falls usually on the first syllable in Estonian, it is easier to learn to detect spaces between words by focusing on the accented parts of the speech.
12. Estonian speech sounds are divided in two: vowels (9) and consonants (14). But Estonian is a vowel-laden language. Sometimes words might boast quadruple consecutive vowels. For example, Kuuuurijate töööö jäääärel (Lunar researchers’ working night on the edge of ice).
13. Estonia has one of the highest literacy rates in the world – 99.8% of adults can write.
14. Estonian poet Contra has said that the Estonian language is like a woodpecker’s tongue – it’s much longer than imagined, and it has many prongs on the surface, which help seize prey. So, why not give it a go yourself!