Estonian vocabulary

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The Estonian vocabulary, i.e., the vocabulary of the Estonian language, was influenced by many other language groups.

Germanic languages[edit]

The heaviest external contribution, nearly one third of the vocabulary, comes 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.[1][2]

Ex nihilo lexical enrichment[edit]

Estonian language planners such as Ado Grenzstein (a journalist active in Estonia in the 1870s–90s) tried to use formation ex nihilo, Urschöpfung,[3] i.e. they created new words out of nothing. Examples are Ado Grenzstein's coinages kabe ‘draughts, chequers’ and male ‘chess’.[3]

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’, although the word itself, interestingly, is used for a certain kind of parasitic worm, namely the Ascaris lumbricoides), 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’."[3]

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/seriousembama ‘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.[4]

Tables of word origin[edit]

Inherited vocabulary[edit]

Approximate share of root word origins in Estonian.

Inherited vocabulary in Estonian can be classified according to how far off they have cognates among the other Uralic languages.

All these groups correspond to different proposed subgroups of the Uralic languages. However, the historical reality of most groupings is disputed. In principle e.g. a "Finno-Permic" word may be just as old as an "Uralic" word, just one whose descendants have not survived to the modern Samoyedic and Ugric languages.

Proposed origin No. of word roots Examples by semantic area
Nature and the body Cultural concepts Abstract concepts
Uralic 120 Anatomy: keel 'tongue; language', kõrv 'ear', luu 'bone', maks 'liver', põlv 'knee', põsk 'cheek', silm 'eye', muna 'egg', neelama 'to swallow', pala 'piece', sulg 'feather'

States: elama 'to live; to dwell', koolma 'to die, pass away, decease', pelgama 'to be afraid, fear', tundma 'to feel'
Environment: suvi 'summer', päev 'day', kaja 'echo', kuu 'moon, Luna', lumi 'snow', soo 'marsh, bog, swamp', vesi 'water', juga 'jet; falls, waterfall'
Plants: puu 'tree', kuusk 'spruce, fir(-tree)', kõiv 'birch', murakas 'cloudberry'
Animals: kala 'fish', küü 'snake; blindworm', sisalik 'lizard'

Technology: tuli 'fire', süsi 'ember(s), coal', suusk 'ski', nool 'arrow', pura 'auger', sõudma 'to row', punuma 'to knit', vask 'copper', vöö 'belt, girdle'; pada 'pot', leem 'soup, broth, brew'

Society: vägi 'power, vigour, strength, might, force', sala 'secretly', naine 'woman', nimi 'name'

Basic actions: minema 'to go', tulema 'to come', ujuma 'to swim', kaduma 'to disappear', mõskma 'to wash'

Locations: ala 'under, sub', üla 'upper, top', esi 'front', taga 'behind'
Grammatical: m(in)a 'I', s(in)a 'thou', see 'this, it', kes 'who', mis 'what', too 'that', ei 'no'
Numerals: kaks 'two', viis 'five'

Finno-Ugric 270 Anatomy: aju 'brain', üdi 'marrow', hing 'soul', huul 'lip', pea 'head', pii 'tooth', päkk 'ball of the foot', sapp 'gall, bile', vats 'belly, stomach'

Environment: ilm 'weather, air', jää 'ice', koit 'dawn, daybreak, Aurora', talv 'winter', sügis 'autumn', voor 'drumlin'
Plants: paju 'willow', pihl 'rowan', kask 'birch', mari 'berry', pohl 'cowberry'
Animals: kamar 'rind', nugis 'marten', siil 'hedgehog', hiir 'mouse', püü 'grouse', mõtus 'capercaillie', vares 'crow', pääsuke 'swallow', säga 'catfish', säinas 'ide', särg 'roach', täi 'louse', kusilane 'ant', koi 'moth, bug'

Technology: põlema 'burn, blaze', küdema 'burn, heat', või 'butter', väits 'knife', vestma 'carve', sau 'clay; stock for walking'; sõba 'robe'

ise 'self', iga 'age'
Society: küla 'village'; isa 'father', poeg 'son', küdi 'brother-in-law', kond '-hood', nõid 'witch', sepp 'blacksmith'

aru 'sense, reason'

Adjectives: valge 'white', hahk 'gray; eider', süva 'deep-seated, profound', uus 'new'
Numerals: üks 'one', kolm 'three', neli 'four', kuus 'six'

Finno-Permic 50–140 Anatomy: kõht 'stomach', kõri 'throat', säär 'leg, shank'

Environment: koobas 'cave', põrm 'dust, earth'
Plants: peda(jas) 'pine tree', kuslapuu 'honeysuckle', oks 'branch', pähkel 'nut', kiud 'fiber'
Animals: kotkas 'eagle', orav 'squirrel', peni 'dog', sõnnik 'dung'

rehi 'threshing barn', kuduma 'to weave, to knit', amb 'crossbow', mõla 'oar, paddle', õng 'angle', äi 'father-in-law', äike 'thunder' parem 'right, better', vana 'old', lõuna 'south, midday', meel 'mind'
Finno-Volgaic 100–150 Anatomy: selg 'back', koon 'snout', käpp 'paw'

Environment: kevad 'spring', täht 'star', järv 'lake'
Plants: haab 'aspen', saar 'ash tree', tamm 'oak', vaher 'maple', sarapuu 'hazel', õlg 'straw'
Animals: lehm 'cow', siga 'pig', kurg 'crane, stork', kurvits 'sandpiper', parm 'horse fly', sääsk 'midge'

vaim 'spirit', pett 'buttermilk', jahvatama to grind'; keema 'to boil', hiilgama 'to glow, to gleam', käis 'sleeve', piir 'border'; vene 'boat'; lell 'uncle, father's brother', kargama 'to jump', pesema 'to wash', püsima 'to stay, to remain', lüpsma 'to milk' Adjectives: aher 'barren', jahe 'cool', kõva 'hard', süva 'deep'
Finno-Samic 130–150 vihm 'rain', sammal 'moss', org 'valley', vili 'grain, fruit', põõsas 'bush', põud 'draught' veli 'brother', ime 'miracle', luule 'poetry' õnn 'happiness, fortune', taga 'back, behind', tõsi 'truth', nälg 'hunger', küll 'surely'
Finnic 600–800 higi 'sweat', külg 'side'; põder 'elk', oja 'stream', udu 'fog', hobu 'horse', jänes 'hare', konn 'frog', mänd 'pine tree', neem 'cape', saar 'island' aeg 'time', eile 'yesterday'; laps 'child', rahvas 'people', linn 'town'; nuga 'knife', king 'shoe' kõne 'talk, speech', sõna 'word'; julge 'bold'


Proto-Indo-European loans (hypothetical)[citation needed] appr. 50 5000–3000 BC koib 'leg', kõrv 'ear', kube 'groin', liha 'meat', lõug 'chin', nahk 'skin, leather', rind 'breast'; mägi 'hill, mountain', mets 'forest', nõmm 'moor', soo 'bog'; ahven 'perch', koger 'crucian carp', koha 'pike-perch', rääbis 'vendace', siig 'whitefish', vimb 'vimba bream'; helmes 'bead'
Indo-European and Indo-Iranian loans 20–45 3000–1000 BC jumal 'god', koda 'house, hall', mesi 'honey', sool 'salt', osa 'part', sada 'hundred', põrsas 'piglet', rebane 'fox', varss 'calf', sarv 'horn', puhas 'clean', utt 'ewe', vasar 'hammer', vedama 'to pull, draw, drag, carry, drive'
Proto-Baltic and Baltic loans 100–150 1500–500 BC hammas 'tooth', hani 'goose', hein 'hay', hernes 'pea', hõim 'tribe', oinas 'weather', puder 'porridge', põrgu 'hell', ratas 'wheel', seeme 'seed', sein 'wall', mets 'wood', luht 'waterside meadow', sõber 'friend', tuhat 'thousand', vagu 'furrow', regi 'sledge', vill 'wool', veel 'more, still', kael 'neck', kirves 'axe', laisk 'lazy'
Proto-Germanic and Germanic loans 380 2000 BC – 13th century Agriculture: agan, ader 'plough', humal, kana 'hen', kaer 'oats', rukis 'rye', lammas 'sheep', leib 'bread', põld 'field'

Fishing and seafaring: aer 'oar', mõrd 'fish trap', laev 'ship', noot 'seine, sweep net', puri 'sail'
Metals: kuld 'gold', raud 'iron', tina 'tin'
Products: sukk 'stocking', katel 'kettle', küünal 'candle', taigen 'dough'
Society: kuningas 'king', laen 'loan', luna 'ransom, bail', raha 'money', rikas 'rich', vald 'parish, community'
Nature: kalju 'rock', kallas 'shore', rand 'coast'
Other: arbuma 'to magic, charm', tabama 'to catch, seize, capture, hit', armas 'dear', taud 'disease', kaunis 'beautiful', ja 'and'

Old Slavic loans 50–75 10th–13th century aken 'window', haug 'pike', kasukas 'fur coat' sahk 'plough', sirp 'sickle', turg 'market', teng(elpung) 'money'
Religion: pagan 'heathen', papp 'priest', raamat 'book', rist 'cross'
Proto-Latvian loans 40 6th–7th century kanep 'hemp', lääts 'lentil', magun 'poppy', udras 'otter', kõuts 'tomcat', palakas 'sheet', lupard 'rag', harima 'cultivate, educate, clean', kukkel 'bun', vanik 'garland', laabuma 'to thrive', kauss 'bowl', mulk 'inhabitant of Viljandi county', pastel 'leather slipper'
Low Saxon loans 750 12th–16th century kool 'school', neer 'kidney', ribi 'rib'; kruus 'gravel', torm 'storm';

Botany: kõrvits 'pumpkin', peet 'beet', salat 'salad', petersell 'parsley', münt 'coin', köömen 'caraway, cumin', loorber 'laurel', palm 'palm (tree)', tamm 'dam', roos 'rose', ploom 'plum'; hunt 'wolf; hound'
Culinary: köök 'kitchen', kruubid 'groat', kringel 'kringle, type of pastry', pannkook 'pancake', pekk 'lard', prantssai 'type of pastry', sült 'brawn', vorst 'sausage', õli 'oil', tärklis 'starch', pruukost 'breakfast', kruus 'mug', pann 'pan', pütt 'barrel', korv 'basket', lähker 'bota', toober 'tub', tiik 'pond', lamp 'lamp', lühter 'chandelier'
Clothing: käärid 'scissors', teljed 'looms', vokk 'spinning wheel', lõuend 'canvas', samet 'velvet', siid 'silk', vilt 'felt', kuub 'coat', kört 'skirt', loor 'veil', müts 'cap', muda 'mud', mantel 'coat', püksid 'pants, trousers', vammus 'coat', nööp 'button'
Architecture: hoov 'courtyard', häärber 'mansion', kelder 'cellar', kemmerg 'toilet', korsten 'chimney', ruum 'room', saal 'hall', tall 'stables', trepp 'stairs', vall 'wall, ridge', võlv 'vault'
Technology: haamer 'hammer', hing 'hinge', höövel 'planer', kellu 'trowel', kapp 'cupboard', pink 'bench', tool 'stool'; jaht 'hunt', jääger 'hunter, hunt manager, game warden', kants 'stronghold', kütt 'hunter', laager 'camp', lahing 'battle', piir 'border', püss 'gun, rifle', tääk 'bayonet', vaht 'watch'
Religion: altar 'altar', ingel 'angel', jünger 'disciple', psalm 'psalm', prohvet 'prophet', salm 'verse', preester 'priest', troost 'consolation', pihtima 'to confess', vöörmünder 'church warden, beadle', piiskop 'bishop', sant 'beggar, cripple'
People: preili 'miss, maiden', memm 'old woman', mats 'boor, hick', härra 'gentleman', proua 'lady', kelm 'dodger, rascal, cheat', narr 'joker, fool', naaber 'neighbour', kuller 'courrier', laat 'fair, market', selts 'society, club', krahv 'count', saks 'German, nobleman', arst 'doctor', plaaster 'tape, plaster'; hangeldama 'smuggle', küürima 'scour', tingima 'to bargain'
Measures: kortel 'quartern', matt 'a measure', toll 'inch', vaagima 'to weigh', viht 'weight', üür 'rent', paar 'pair', piik 'spike, lance', tosin 'dozen', veerand 'quarter'; näärid 'new year', reede 'Friday', tund 'hour', vastlad 'shrovetide'
Nautical: ankur 'anchor', kiil 'keel', tüür 'steer', praam 'pram, ferry', madrus 'sailor', pootsman 'boatswain', kotermann 'ship gremlin', loots 'pilot', kipper 'skipper'
Arts: kaart 'map, card', kunst 'art', maaler 'painter', maalima 'to paint', paber 'paper', trükkima 'to print', uurima 'to search, study, survey', trumm 'drum', tantsima 'to dance', piip 'pipe', vilepill 'whistle', pasun 'horn, trumpet'; just 'just, namely', topelt 'double', väärt 'valuable'

Swedish loans 140 13th–17th century kratt 'stealing demon', kroonu 'army, government', kuunar 'schooner', pagar 'baker', näkk 'mermaid, nix', plasku 'flask', plika 'girl', tasku 'pocket', räim 'herring', tünder 'barrel', moor 'old woman', puldan, tont 'ghost, demon'
Russian loans 350 14th–20th century kapsas, tatar, puravik, riisikas, sihvka, kiisu, suslik, kulu, prussakas, tarakan, naarits, soobel, uss; noos, moiva, vobla, mutt; kamorka, putka, sara, lobudik, trahter, koiku, nari, pruss, tökat; hõlst, kamass, kirsa, kombinesoon, kott, puhvaika, marli, pintsak, retuusid, trussikud; kiisel, pontšik, rosolje, rupskid, borš, uhhaa, morss, samagon; batoon, kissell, plombiir, povidlo, šašlõkk, uhhaa; plotski, mahorka, pabeross; mannerg, kopsik; nuut, kantsik, piits, tupik, relss, jaam; kabi, knopka; kasakas, kasarmu, karauul, katelok, kiiver, munder, nekrut, pagun, polk, ranits, sinel, tentsik, utsitama, timukas, rajoon, türm, pops, artell; palakas, haltuura, parseldama, parisnik, siva, tolk, tots, pujään, kitt, tuur, ladna, prosta, sutike; kaanima, kostitama, kruttima, kupeldama
(High) German loans 500 16th–20th century larhv, lokk, seitel; kastan, pappel, kirss, jasmiin, jorjen, kartul, tulp, vihk; ahv, auster, kalkun, siisike, miisu, mops, taks, kits, vau, viidikas, nepp, pistrik; klimp, klops, kotlet, kompvek, supp, tort, viiner, soust, vahvel, vürts, vein; jope, kittel, kampsun, kleit, vest, lips, värvel, sall, pluus; kamin, pliit, käär(kamber), sahver, latter, kabel, palat; pult, sohva, leen, kummut, kardin, sahtel; uur, klade, klamber, latern, sihverplaat, silt; opman, oober, tisler, tudeng, velsker, virtin, antvärk, aadlik, kärner, kilter, kutsar, lärm, oksjon, krempel, klatš; krehvtine, hull, liiderlik, napp, noobel, ontlik, plass, tumm, trammis; kleepima, klantsima, mehkeldama, sehkendama, rehkendama, trimpama, pummeldama, praalima, turnima; ahoi, proosit, hurraa, hopp, hallo
Finnish loans 90 19th–20th century aare, sangar, harras, jenka, julm, jäik, sünge, tehas, uljas, vaist, vihjama, säilima, kuvama, haihtuma, anastama
Hebrew loans < 5   jaana(lind) 'ostrich', tohuvabohu 'chaos'
Romani loans <5   manguma 'to beg'


Estonian and unknown appr. 1000 räni 'silicium', roie 'rib', salk 'bunch', videvik 'twilight', jäärak 'gorge, valley', ila 'saliva', aas 'meadow', lubi 'lime', lõhn 'smell', kaan 'leech', kesv 'barley', ürp 'cloak', hiili- 'to sneak', mahe 'sweet, gentle', mõru 'bitter', raip 'carrion', roni- 'to climb' + numerous onomatopoetic-descriptive words
Artificial 50–60 veenma 'to persuade, convince', roim 'crime' (probably derived from the English 'crime'), laip 'dead body, corpse' (probably derived from the German 'Leib'), kolp 'scull', relv 'weapon, arm', ese 'thing', süüme 'conscience; scruple', mõrv 'murder' (probably derived from the German 'Mord'), ulm 'dream', siiras 'sincere, candid', range 'rigorous, stern, severe, austere, strict, inexorable, relentless' (? German 'streng', Swedish 'sträng'), sulnis 'sweet, meek, mild', nõme 'silly', taunima 'to disapprove, deprecate, deplore', naasma 'to return', reetma 'to betray' (probably from the German '(ver)raten'), embama 'to embrace'; eirama 'to ignore', eramu 'private house', etlema 'to perform', kõlar 'loudspeaker', külmik 'refrigerator', meede 'measure', meene 'souvenir', siirdama 'to transplant', teave 'information', teismeline 'teenager', teler 'TV set', üllitis 'publication', ärandama, levima, süva(muusika), taies 'piece of art', rula 'skateboard'


  1. ^ Liin, Helgi 1968. Alamsaksa laensõnadest 16. ja 17. sajandi eesti kirjakeeles. – Emakeele Seltsi aastaraamat 13, 1967. Tallinn: Eesti Raamat, 47–70 (Estonian)
  2. ^ History of Estonian vocabulary (Estonian)
  3. ^ a b c See p. 149 in Zuckermann, Ghil'ad 2003, Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, (Palgrave Studies in Language History and Language Change, Series editor: Charles Jones). ISBN 1-4039-1723-X.
  4. ^ See p. 150 in Zuckermann, Ghil'ad 2003, Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, (Palgrave Studies in Language History and Language Change, Series editor: Charles Jones). ISBN 1-4039-1723-X.