Estonian language

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eesti keel
Native toEstonia
Native speakers
1.2 million (2022)[1]
Latin (Estonian alphabet)
Estonian Braille
Official status
Official language in
European Union
Regulated byInstitute of the Estonian Language / Eesti Keele Instituut
Language codes
ISO 639-1et
ISO 639-2est
ISO 639-3est – inclusive code
Individual codes:
ekk – Standard Estonian
vro – Võro
Estonian language[image reference needed]
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Estonian (eesti keel [ˈeːsʲti ˈkeːl] ) is a Uralic language belonging to the Finnic branch of the family and the official language of Estonia. It is written in the Latin script and is the first language of the majority of the country's population; it is also an official language of the European Union. Estonian is spoken natively by about 1.1 million people: 922,000 people in Estonia and 160,000 elsewhere.[2][3]


The Estonian language belongs to the Finnic branch of the Uralic language family. Other Finnic languages include Finnish and some minority languages spoken around the Baltic Sea and in northwestern Russia. Estonian is typically subclassified as a Southern Finnic language, and it is the second-most-spoken language among all the Finnic languages. Alongside Finnish, Hungarian, and Maltese, Estonian is one of the four official languages of the European Union that are not Indo-European languages.[citation needed]

In terms of linguistic morphology, Estonian is a predominantly agglutinative language. 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.[4] 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.[5]

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


The speakers of the two major historical dialect groups of the language, North and South Estonian, are thought by some linguists to have arrived in Estonia in at least two different migration waves over two millennia ago, both groups having spoken considerably different vernaculars.[6] Modern standard Estonian evolved in the 18th and 19th century on the basis of the dialects of northern Estonia.

During the Medieval and Early Modern periods, Estonian accepted many loanwords from Germanic languages, mainly from Middle Low German (Middle Saxon) and, after the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, from the Standard German language.

Estonian grammar by Heinrich Stahl, published in Tallinn (Reval) in 1637
Geographic distribution of the Estonian language in the Russian Empire according to the 1897 census

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[edit]

The earliest extant samples of connected (north) Estonian are the so-called Kullamaa prayers dating from 1524 and 1528.[7] 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.[8] 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 during the period 1810–1820, when the patriotic and philosophical poems by Kristjan Jaak Peterson were published. Peterson, who was the first student to acknowledge his Estonian origin at the then German-language University of Dorpat, 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.[9] 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.[10]

In modern times A. H. Tammsaare, Jaan Kross,[11] and Andrus Kivirähk are Estonia's best-known and most translated writers.

Official language[edit]

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.[12]

When the independent Republic of Estonia was established in 1918, Estonian became the official language of the newly independent country. Immediately after World War II, in 1945, over 97% of the then population of Estonia self-identified as native ethnic Estonians[6] and spoke the language.

When Estonia was invaded and reoccupied by the Soviet army in 1944, the status of the Estonian language effectively changed to one of the two official languages (Russian being the other one).[13] Many immigrants from Russia entered Estonia under Soviet encouragement.[6] In the 1970s, the pressure of bilingualism for Estonians was intensified. Although teaching Estonian to non-Estonians in local schools was formally compulsory, in practice, the teaching and learning of the Estonian language by Russian-speakers was often considered unnecessary by the Soviet authorities.[6] In 1991, with the restoration of Estonia's independence, Estonian went back to being the only official language in Estonia.[14] Starting from 2004, when Estonia joined the European Union, the Estonian language is also one of the (now 24) official languages of the EU.

The return of former Soviet immigrants to their countries of origin at the end of the 20th century has brought the proportion of native Estonian-speakers in Estonia now back above 70%. Large parts of the first and second generation immigrants in Estonia have now adopted the Estonian language (over 50% as of the 2022 census).[6]


North Estonian dialects at the beginning of the 20th century[15][16]
South Estonian dialects at the beginning of the 20th century[15][16]
Road sign in Estonian and Võro
An 1885 ABC-book in Võro written by Johann Hurt: "Wastne Võro keeli ABD raamat"

The Estonian dialects[17][18] 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.[19] Also, Seto and Võro distinguish themselves from each other less by language and more by their culture and their respective Christian confession.[6][20]

Writing system[edit]


Estonian employs the Latin script as the basis for its alphabet. Following the Soviet reoccupation of Estonia in World War II, there were plans to convert the language to Cyrillic like its other territories, but fell through due to the country’s high literacy rate at the time, which was 80%.[citation needed] The script 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. Additionally C, Q, W, X, and Y are used in writing foreign proper names. They do not occur in Estonian words, and are not officially part of the alphabet. Including all the foreign letters, the alphabet consists of the following 32 letters:

Letter IPA Name Notes Letter IPA Name Notes
A a [ɑ] aa [ɑːː] Q q kuu [kuːː] [a]
B b [b] bee [beːː] R r [r] err [erːː] or ärr [ærːː]
C c tsee [tseːː] [a] S s [s] ess [esːː]
D d [d] dee [deːː] Š š [ʃ] or [ʃː] šaa [ʃɑːː] [b]
E e [e] ee [eːː] Z z [s] zett [setːː] [b]
F f [f] or [fː] eff [efːː] [b] Ž ž [ʃ] žee [ʃeːː] [b]
G g [ɡ] gee [ɡeːː] T t [t] or [tː] tee [teːː]
H h [h] haa [hɑːː] or ašš [ɑʃːː] U u [u] uu [uːː]
I i [i] ii [iːː] V v [v] vee [veːː]
J j [j] jott [jotʲːː] W w kaksisvee [kɑk.sisˈveːː] [a]
K k [k] or [kː] kaa [kɑːː] Õ õ [ɤ] õõ [ɤːː]
L l [l] ell [elːː] Ä ä [æ] ää [æːː]
M m [m] emm [emːː] Ö ö [ø] öö [øːː]
N n [n] enn [enːː] Ü ü [y] üü [yːː]
O o [o] oo [oːː] X x iks [iksː] [a]
P p [p] or [pː] pee [peːː] Y y igrek [ˈiɡ.rek] or üpsilon [ˈ] [a]
  1. ^ a b c d e Not officially part of the alphabet; only used in foreign proper names and citations, pronounced according to their source language. Occasionally, w is used instead of v in Estonian surnames (e. g. Wõrk), as a remnant of older spelling.
  2. ^ a b c d Only used in loanwords.


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 replaced by 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.


A sample of Estonian spoken natively


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.

Monophthongs of Estonian[21]
Front Back
unrounded rounded unrounded rounded
Close i y ɤ u
Mid e ø o
Open æ ɑ


Consonant phonemes of Estonian[21]
Labial Alveolar Post-
plain palatalized
Nasal m n
Plosive short p t k
geminated tʲː
Fricative voiced v
voiceless short f s ʃ h
geminated sʲː ʃː
Approximant l j
Trill r

Word-initial b, d, g occur only in loanwords and some old loanwords are spelled with p, t, k instead of etymological b, d, g: pank 'bank'. Word-medially and word-finally, b, d, g represent short plosives /p, t, k/ (may be pronounced as partially voiced consonants), p, t, k represent half-long plosives /pː, tː, kː/, and pp, tt, kk represent overlong plosives /pːː, tːː, kːː/; for example: kabi /kɑpi/ 'hoof' — kapi /kɑpːi/ 'wardrobe [gen sg] — kappi /kɑpːːi/ 'wardrobe [ptv sg]'.

Before and after b, p, d, t, g, k, s, h, f, š, z, ž, the sounds [p], [t], [k] are written as p, t, k, with some exceptions due to morphology or etymology.

Representation of palatalised consonants is inconsistent, and they are not always indicated.

ŋ is an allophone of /n/ before /k/.

While peripheral Estonian dialects are characterized by various degrees of vowel harmony, central dialects have almost completely lost the feature. Since the standard language is based on central dialects, it has no vowel harmony either. In the standard language, the front vowels occur exclusively on the first or stressed syllable, although vowel harmony is still apparent in older texts.[22]


Typologically, Estonian represents a transitional form from an agglutinating language to a fusional language. The canonical word order is SVO (subject–verb–object), although often debated among linguists.[23]

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 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 verbal system has no distinct future tense[24] (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,[5] 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.[25] Prior to the wave of new loanwords from English in the 20th and 21st centuries, historically, Swedish and Russian were also sources of borrowings but to a much lesser extent.[26] In borrowings, often 'b' and '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[edit]

Estonian language planners such as Ado Grenzstein (a journalist active in Estonia from the 1870s to the 1890s) tried to use formation ex nihilo (Urschöpfung);[27] i.e. they created new words out of nothing.

The most well-known reformer of the Estonian language, 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) lists approximately 4000 words. About 40 of the 200 words created by Johannes Aavik allegedly ex nihilo are in common use today. Examples are * ese 'object', * kolp 'skull', * liibuma 'to cling', * naasma 'to return, come back', * nõme 'stupid, dull'.[27][28]

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.[29]

Example text[edit]

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

Kõik inimesed sünnivad vabadena ja võrdsetena oma väärikuselt ja õigustelt. Neile on antud mõistus ja südametunnistus ja nende suhtumist üksteisesse peab kandma vendluse vaim.[30]
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.[31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Estonian at Ethnologue (25th ed., 2022) Closed access icon
    Standard Estonian at Ethnologue (25th ed., 2022) Closed access icon
    Võro at Ethnologue (25th ed., 2022) Closed access icon
  2. ^ "Estonian in a World Context". Estonica. Archived from the original on 27 September 2018. Retrieved 26 September 2018.
  3. ^ "The Estonian Language". Retrieved 15 October 2022.
  4. ^ Ehala, Martin (2009). "Linguistic Strategies and Markedness in Estonian Morphology". STUF – Language Typology and Universals. 62 (1–2): 29–48. doi:10.1524/stuf.2009.0003. S2CID 121233571.
  5. ^ a b Rehm, Georg; Uszkoreit, Hans (2012). "Language Technology Support for Estonian". The Estonian Language in the Digital Age. White Paper Series. Berlin: Springer. pp. 47–64. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-30785-0_9. ISBN 978-3-642-30784-3.
  6. ^ a b c d e f Rannut, Mart (2004). "Language Policy in Estonia". Noves SL.: Revista de sociolingüística (in Spanish) (1–2 (primavera – estiu)): 4.
  7. ^ Kurman, George (1997). The Development of Written Estonian. London: RoutledgeCurzon. ISBN 9780700708901.
  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 0-231-11569-5.
  9. ^ O'Connor, Kevin (2006). Culture and Customs of the Baltic States. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. p. 126. ISBN 0-313-33125-1.
  10. ^ "Translation into Estonian – Ivextrans". Retrieved 2022-11-16.
  11. ^ Jaan Kross 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. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters. p. 207. ISBN 1-85359-362-1.
  14. ^ Leclerc, Jacques. "Estonie". L'aménagement linguistique dans le monde (in French). Archived from the original on 2012-11-11. Retrieved 2014-08-23.
  15. ^ a b Rantanen, Timo; Tolvanen, Harri; Roose, Meeli; Ylikoski, Jussi; Vesakoski, Outi (2022-06-08). "Best practices for spatial language data harmonization, sharing and map creation—A case study of Uralic". PLOS ONE. 17 (6): e0269648. Bibcode:2022PLoSO..1769648R. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0269648. PMC 9176854. PMID 35675367.
  16. ^ a b Rantanen, Timo, Vesakoski, Outi, Ylikoski, Jussi, & Tolvanen, Harri. (2021). Geographical database of the Uralic languages (v1.0) [Data set]. Zenodo.
  17. ^ "[Map of Estonian Dialects]". Archived from the original on 26 August 2014. Retrieved 23 August 2014 – via Tartu University's Estonian Dialect Corpus.
  18. ^ see Tartu University's Estonian Dialect Corpus website
  19. ^ "Culture Tourism in South Estonia and Võru County: Situation Analysis" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 20 February 2012. Retrieved 2 July 2013 – via Siksali.
  20. ^ "Eesti murded / Estonian Dialects". Eesti Keele Instituut (in Estonian). Archived from the original on 2014-08-26. Retrieved 2014-08-23.
  21. ^ a b Asu & Teras (2009:367)
  22. ^ Prillop, Külli et al. 2020. Eesti keele ajalugu. Tartu Ülikooli Kirjastus. p. 133.
  23. ^ Martin, Ehala (March 2006). "The Word Order of Estonian: Implications to Universal Language". Journal of Universal Language. 7: 49–89. doi:10.22425/JUL.2006.7.1.49. S2CID 52222499.
  24. ^ Pérez, Efrén O.; Tavits, Margit (2017). "Language Shapes People's Time Perspective and Support for Future-Oriented Policies". American Journal of Political Science. 61 (3): 715–727. doi:10.1111/ajps.12290.
  25. ^ "Eesti kirjakeele sõnavara ajalugu" [History of Estonian Vocabulary]. FILLU (in Estonian). Archived from the original on 2007-07-21.
  26. ^ "Eesti keele käsiraamat 2007". Eesti Keele Instituut (in Estonian). Retrieved 2020-09-30.
  27. ^ a b Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2003). Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 149. ISBN 978-1-4039-1723-2.
  28. ^ "Eesti entsüklopeedia" [Aavik, Johannes] (in Estonian).
  29. ^ Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2003). Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 150. ISBN 978-1-4039-1723-2.
  30. ^ Estonian Human Rights Institute, Estonia. "Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Estonian (Eesti)". Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Retrieved 13 September 2021.
  31. ^ "Universal Declaration of Human Rights".

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]