This is a question a well-meaning English speaker could have after running the label ‘Meigiseen’ (as on the above picture) through Google Translate.
Luckily it is not so bad as it sounds. This mix-up can be easily explained. Someone in charge of translation has either used Google Translate or not used their imagination when translating ‘Makeup sponge’ from English into Estonian.
Moral of the story. Use Google Translate or any other machine translation engines with care. Better yet: let professionals do their work when you need a right message to get through.
As already mentioned, written Estonian follows the principle to have a unique letter for every distinctly articulated sound (phoneme). This makes reading and pronouncing Estonian simpler – with a little practice and skill one could be able to produce proper pronunciation of many simpler words. Perhaps that’s why we often think that people learning Estonian as a second language just need to get familiar with our letters and the rest follows.
However, I have noticed that vowels may be bit of a challenge at first. It is a struggle to get used to idea that in Estonian E is always pronounced as eh (as in enter) and I as ih (as in pick). Next, one can but notice that Estonian language has abundance of umlaut vowels such as Õ, Ä, Ö, Ü! While people with some German knowledge would be more or less fine with Ä, Ö, Ü, the O with a tilde on top, i.e. Õ, is something that seems to further complicate this entire pronunciation endeavour. Yet it’s good to know how to keep õnn (happiness) and onn (hut), uks (door) or üks (one) apart!
Here I’ll discuss only the vowels. Before getting specific, please note that while English sounds are mostly produced in the back portion of the mouth (how tongue moves towards the throat etc.), Estonian sounds are produced with the front part of the mouth and lips. For example, our rolling R (similar to Spanish R) is a result of letting the tongue tremble against the back of the upper gums while forcing the air through.
As a true Estonian, I will keep my talk short and give you a chance to hear and see how I pronounce Estonian vowels in the video below. For demonstration, I am overarticulating the sounds for you to better see how my lips are shaped.
I would suggest getting a mirror and practicing your pronunciation in front of it. Read my lips, make mental notes, create associations – whatever your personal style is!
It should be a relief that we use the Latin alphabet – not Cyrillic letters or hieroglyphs. 🙂 We write our words as they sound, i.e. phonetically – using the principle to have a letter for each distinct sound. So with a little practice of listening and reading, one should soon be able to pronounce Estonian words rather confidently.
We take pride in the melodic sound of Estonian due to abundant vowels. As a result of phonetic principle, we have variations of a, o, u to represent some distinct phonemes: ä, ö, ü familiar from the German alphabet and the letter õ which also exists in the Russian alphabet. We also have quite a selection of so-called sibilants: besides the regular s we have š, z, ž. The latter are mainly used in loanwords (šokolaad, for example). I have omitted the letters c, q, w, y that only come up with foreign names.
Below you’ll find an audio slideshow with 27 Estonian letters provided with a sample word. The video is slow enough for you to repeat the sounds and practice the words – your first Estonian words. Üks, kaks – läks!
First some commonalities Estonian and English have. Both use the Latin alphabet. Both have the same word categories such as nouns, verbs, pronouns, numerals, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, interjections and conjunctions. Besides some loan words such as hamburger, video, test, sport, etc (to the delight of English speakers, there are plenty of them), other things are quite different and may require some mental adjustment which in a longer run is good for our brain anyway. 😉
Here some basic differences:
Estonian language does not make any distinction of gender (such as with pronouns he or she or adjectives his or her, or special endings known from French or Russian). Instead for he, she or it we just have the same word tema that applies to women and men, people, animals and things alike and also works for adjectives his, her or its. 🙂
When it comes to verbs, we have less tenses than English. We don’t have present continuous (I am watching), past continuous (I was watching) or anything to such effect (I have or had been watching, etc). 🙂
Instead, we keep it simple by having 4 tenses only: simple present (I watch – mavaatan), simple past (I watched – ma vaatasin), present perfect (I have watched – ma olen vaadanud) and past perfect (I had watched – ma olin vaadanud). 🙂
And we don’t have any future forms – we use contextual means to express the idea of something happening in future . In a sense it is simpler but it may take some time to get used to. The benefit of the above last two points is clear – less verb-iage! 🙂
While in English the verbs have only an ending for 3rd singular person in present tense (sings, laughs, etc), Estonian uses distinct endings for each person – singular and plural alike – in simple present and simple past tense. 🙁
While you in English is a blanket term used to address one or one hundred people alike, in Estonian we have sina to address one person and teie to address more than one person. So this may complicate things a bit since teie is used for one person in more formal settings . 🙁
Estonian is an inflective language, meaning that grammatical features such as the number, case, person, mood, or tense are expressed by adding specific endings to the word, as in English adding ‘s’ to have dogs, or by changing the form of a base word, as English spoke derived from speak. This is probably one of the trickiest things about Estonian: the words come in multiple forms and instead of one word you may have to learn dozen of similar words with different endings. But Scrabble players would surely like it, wouldn’t they? 🙁 /:)
In English, relations between words in a phrase or sentence are primarily expressed by the means of prepositions, such as at, by, with, from, etc. Though having a number of prepositions and even more postpositions, Estonian uses mostly grammatical cases for this particular purpose. The grammatical cases are usually evidenced by various endings, such autos (in the car), autota (without a car), autoga (with a car). 🙁
In noun phrases all words have the same grammatical case: ilus naine (pretty woman) – ilusale naisele (to a pretty woman). 🙁
As the smiley and frowny faces indicate, some things are easier while some things are harder in Estonian. Main thing is not to forget good parts when struggling with hard ones.
So keep your chin up or as Estonians would say Ära lase nina norgu!
“Tere, mina olen Airi, meeldiv tutvuda!” (Hello, I am Airi, pleased to meet you!) I said in the video clip above, speaking in my native language – Estonian or eesti keel, as we Estonians say.
Being able to speak Estonian makes me feel like a special person as I am one in a million, well one in 1.1 million people worldwide speaking it. Why not to become special yourself and learn about this a rather rare language?!
Looking at the bigger picture of language groups, Estonian is similar to Finnish spoken in neighbouring Finland. It is believed that these two along with 14 other languages trace back to the Finno-Ugric proto-language spoken in the area of central and northern Russia west to the Ural Mountains. Well of course, it was not Russia then, yet. On arrival of Slavic tribes, peoples speaking Finno-Ugric proto-language were slowly scattered into various corners of Europe.
There are about 24 million people speaking 16 different Finno-Ugric languages, among which, Finnish and Hungarian are the best known. Language families are not as much about a similar vocabulary as much a similar structure and features.
Compared to Indo-European language family – the one of English, German, and French among many others – the Finno-Ugric languages lack the gender, a future tense, articles and the verb have.
As you would learn from Estonian history, our small country has been for centuries subjected to foreign powers. So for a long time being an Estonian didn’t mean statehood, but sticking to our native language and age-old traditions. As true survivors, we have been successful in both preserving our language and achieving our statehood.
Characteristically to a small nation, Estonians are well-versed in other languages, and the visitors speaking either English, Russian, German or Finnish would have hardly any trouble getting by in Estonia. Nevertheless, there is no surer way to the hearts of Estonian people than being able to use some Estonian words or phrases.