Estonian is the official language of Estonia, spoken by about 1.1 million people in Estonia and tens of thousands in various émigré communities. It is a Finno-Ugric language and is closely related to Finnish.
One distinctive feature that has caused a great amount of interest in linguists is that Estonian has what is traditionally seen as three degrees of phoneme length: short, long, and "overlong", such that /toto/, /toˑto/ and /toːto/ are distinct. In actuality, the distinction isn't purely in the phoneme length, and the underlying phonological mechanism is still disputed.
Those lines have been interpreted as a claim to reestablish the birthright of the Estonian language. Kristjan Jaak Peterson (1801-22) the first student at the then German-language University of Tartu 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 on March 14 is celebrated in Estonia as the Mother Tongue Day.
The domination of Estonia after the Northern Crusades, from the 13th century to 1918 by Denmark, Germany, Sweden, and Russia resulted in few early written literary works in the Estonian 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 the Baltic Germans, 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.
After the Estonian War of Independence, the Estonian language became the state language of the newly independent country. 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). In the second half of the 1970s, the pressure of bilingualism 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 as early as in kindergarten. Although teaching Estonian to non-Estonians in schools was compulsory, in practice learning the language was often considered unnecessary. During the Perestroika era The Law on the Status of the Estonian Language was adopted in January 1989. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to the restoration of Republic of Estonia's independence. Estonian went back to being the only state language in Estonia.
The birth of native Estonian literature was in 1810 to 1820 when the patriotic and philosophical poems by Kristjan Jaak Peterson were published. From 1525 to 1917 14 503 titles were published in Estonia, as opposed to the 23 868 titles which were published 1918 and 1940.
Estonian is distantly related to Hungarian (there is no mutual intelligibility between the two). It has been influenced by Swedish, German (initially Middle Low German, later also standard German), Russian, and Latvian, though it is not related to them genetically.
Like Finnish and Hungarian, Estonian is an agglutinative language, but unlike them, it has lost the vowel harmony of Proto-Finno-Ugric, although in older texts the vowel harmony is still to be recognized. Furthermore, the apocope of word-final sounds is extensive and has caused a shift from a purely agglutinative to an inflected language. The basic word order is Subject Verb Object.
The northern group consists of the kesk or middle dialect that is also the basis for the standard language, the lääne or western dialect, roughly corresponding to Läänemaa and Pärnumaa, the saarte (islands') dialect of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa and the ida or eastern dialect on the northwestern shore of Lake Peipsi.
The southern group consists of the Tartu, Mulgi, Võro and Seto dialects. These are sometimes considered either variants of a South Estonian language, or separate languages altogether. Also, Seto is not usually considered a dialect of Estonian, but rather a variant of Võro.
Like Finnish, Estonian employs the Latin alphabet, in addition to which the Estonian alphabet contains 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, Ä is pronounced [æ], as in English mat. The vowels Ä, Ö and Ü are, unlike in German, 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 has a different sound from the same letter in Portuguese. It is similar to the Turkish ı, Kazakh ұ and the Vietnamese ơ, and it is also close to the Russian ы.)
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.
It should be noted that Estonian words and names quoted in international publications from Soviet sources are often incorrect back-transliterations from the Russian transliteration. Examples are the use of "ya" for "ä" (e.g. Pyarnu instead of the correct Pärnu) and "y" instead of "õ" (e.g., Pylva instead of the correct Põlva). Even in the "Encyclopaedia Britannica" one can find "ostrov Khiuma", where "ostrov" means "island" in Russian and "Khiuma" is back-transliteration from Russian instead of correct "Hiiumaa" (Hiiumaa>Хийума(а)>Khiuma).
There are nine phonemic monophthongs, with three phonetic lengths. Of these, simple and long are segmentally phonemic, and the third length level is suprasegmentally phonemic and aided by a distinctive tonal contour. The script distinguishes only short and long, marked by vowel doubling, e.g. öö "night". There are 19 segmental diphthongs, and polysyllablic vowel clusters are also found. There are very few instances of vowel allophony: 'ä' may have pronunciations [æ] and [ɛ], and the phoneme /yː/ is pronounced as the diphthong [yi].
There is one series of stops, unvoiced unaspirated, with three phonemic lengths, written b d g, p t k and pp tt kk. The rest of the consonants also have distinctive length, but only short and long are distinguished in writing. As with vowels, two segmental length levels are phonemic, and the third level is suprasegmentally phonemic. For example, for 'n', short 'n' in lina "sheet", half-long 'n' in linna "town's", over-long 'n' in linna "to the town". The latter addition of length is traceable to a grammatical marker *-han that has elided.
The fricatives are s h, added with f š ž z for loans. The other consonants are j l m n r v, plus the allophonic velar nasal in nk and ng. Consonants may be palatalized; but this is not written in the orthography, as palatalization generally occurs before front vowels (also in the final consonant in the nominative case of nouns if such vowel follows in the genetive). About 0.15% of the vocabulary features fully phonemic palatalization, where palatalization occurs without the front vowel. The process is similar to that found in Eastern Finnish dialects, where word-final 'i' is elided, leaving the palatalization on the consonant. Thus, palatalization does not necessarily need a front vowel, and palatalized vs. plain continuants can be articulated.
Proto-Finnic, the ancestor of the Estonian language, lost palatalization, but Estonian is one of those languages which reacquired it from Slavic. Yet, it underwent further modification, which makes Estonian palatalization different from Russian palatalization. In Russian, palatalization causes some affrication and necessarily features a palatal approximant/fricative offglide, which is not the case in Estonian, where the consonant is otherwise unaffected.
Quantitative changes (strong grade : weak grade)
Qualitative changes (strong grade : weak grade)
Partition of grades in declension
Partition of grades in conjugation
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 "a yellow house" (kollane maja) — "into a yellow house" is (kollasesse majja).
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 object used with transitive verbs creates a telicity contrast, just as in Finnish. This is a rough equivalent of the perfect vs. imperfect aspect opposition.
The verbal system lacks a distinctive future tense (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 completely different origins, one can identify many similar words in Estonian and English, for example. This is primarily due to the fact that 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.
"The most famous reformer of Estonian, Johannes Aavik (1880-1973), also 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). Aavik belonged to the so-called Noor-Eesti (‘Young Estonia’) movement, which appeared in Tartu, a university town in south-eastern Estonia, around 1905 (for discussion, see Raun 1991). In Aavik’s dictionary (1921), which lists approximately 4000 words, there are many words which were (allegedly) created ex nihilo. Consider • ese ‘object’, • kolp ‘skull’, • liibuma ‘to cling’, • naasma ‘to return, come back’, • nõme ‘stupid, dull’, • range ‘strict’, • reetma ‘to betray’, • solge ‘slim, flexible, graceful’ (which did not gain currency, cf. Contemporary Estonian graatsiline ‘graceful’), and • veenma ‘to convince’. Other Aavikisms ex nihilo (not appearing in Aavik 1921) include • nentima ‘to admit, state’, • nördima ‘to grow indignant’, • süüme ‘conscience’, and • tõik ‘fact’.
"Note, however, that 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 • relv ‘weapon’ versus English revolver, • roim ‘crime’ versus English crime, • siiras ‘sincere’ versus English sincere/serious • embama ‘to embrace’ versus English embrace, and • taunima ‘to condemn, disapprove’ versus Finnish tuomita ‘to judge’ (these Aavikisms appear in Aavik’s 1921 dictionary). Consider also • evima ‘to have, possess, own’ (cf. also Estonian omama ‘to own’, and mul on, lit. ‘to me is’, i.e. ‘for me there is’, meaning ‘I have’) versus English have; • laup ‘forehead’ versus Russian лоб lob ‘forehead’; • mõrv ‘murder’ and mõrvama ‘to murder’ versus English murder (these Aavikisms do not appear in Aavik 1921); and • laip ‘corpse’ versus German Leib ‘body’ and German Leiche ‘body, corpse’. These words might be better regarded as a peculiar manifestation of morpho-phonemic adaptation of a foreign lexical item. The often irregular and arbitrary sound changes could then be explained not as subconscious foreign influence but rather as conscious manipulation by the coiner. Aavik seems to have paid little attention to the origin of his neologisms. On occasion, he replaced existing native words or expressions with neologisms of foreign descent. Therefore, Aavik cannot be considered a purist in the traditional sense, i.e. he was not ‘anti-foreignisms/loanwords’ as such.
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.)