O God
A broken and contrite heart
all obune and hall hobune

The Estonian literary language has used the Latin alphabet and its variants throughout its history. The Estonian alphabet consists of 32 letters:


Some letters -

- only occur in foreign words and foreign proper names that can also contain other Latin-based letters -

Letters with diacritics -

- denote independent phonemes in the Estonian language. The tilde on the grapheme õ does not denote nasalisation as in Portuguese, or palatalisation, as in Spanish; õ marks a separate vowel phoneme.

The history of the Estonian literary language

The first continuous Estonian texts date from the 16th century. The first book containing a text in Estonian was published in 1525, but has not survived. Eleven fragmentary pages were found which originate from the Lutheran catechism published in 1535, written by the German pastor Simon Wanradt and translated by the Estonian cleric Johan Koell. The 17th century already saw the publication of several Estonian language handbooks (in German and Latin), together with German-Estonian dictionaries. The first of the kind appeared in 1637. The author was once again a German pastor - Heinrich Stahl.

Until the mid-18th century, two language versions competed to achieve the status of standard Estonian: the Northern (Tallinn) and the Southern (Tartu) languages. The New Testament was published in the Tartu dialect of South Estonian in 1686. In 1739, the first complete Estonian-language Bible was published. Since this task was completed in the Northern language, this version of Estonian gained a dominant position. Another reason for the decline of the South Estonian language was the burning down of Tartu, the centre of Southern Estonia, and the deportation of people to Russia, in 1708, during the course of the Northern War waged between the Russians and Swedes. By the end of the 19th century, the South Estonian language as a literary language had practically become extinct. The final decade of the 20th century is seeing a revival of the South Estonian literary language, this time based on the Vro dialect.

Until the end of the 17th century, the written Estonian language was greatly influenced by German. German loans were often used unaltered in vocabulary, structure and phraseology, mainly in religious texts written by German clergymen in an Estonian that was very different to what was actually spoken. The spelling was inconsistent and included elements of Latin, Low German and High German spelling. During the Counter-Reformation in the early 17th century, Polish-based spelling was also used in South Estonia.

Johan Hornung and Bengt Gottfried Forselius were mainly responsible for making a start at reforming the Estonian literary language in the late 17th century. Some German constructions were abandoned, and a strict spelling system was adopted which still relied on German orthography.

A new wave of reforms occurred during the first half of the 19th century, in an attempt to popularise the Estonian literary language. In 1818, Otto Wilhelm Masing introduced a separate grapheme 'õ' to denote an intermediate vowel phoneme between 'ö' and 'o'. In mid-century, Eduard Ahrens worked out a new Finnish-style orthography that became widespread during the final decades of the century, and is still used today.

One example:

Psalm 51:17b
(by English numeration):
"(...) a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise."

I (1638)
(...) öhe ahastut nink katkipextut süddame saht sinna Jummal mitte errapölgkma

II (1739)
(...) üht röhhutud ja russuks pekstud süddant ei laida sa mitte, Jummal

III (1997)
(...) murtud ja purukslöödud südant ei põlga Jumal


I - the occurrence of foreign letters katkipextut; compare II, III pekstud, puruks
I, II - the vowel phoneme õ is marked by ö - errapölgkma, röhhutud, compare III põlga
I, II - the short vowel is marked by the doubling of the succeeding consonant süddame, süddant; compare III südant

I, II - the occurrence of the indefinite article öhe (...) süddame, üht (...) süddant; compare III südant
I - the German future form saht (...) (mitte) errapölgkma; compare II, III (ei) laida, (ei) põlga
I - German-style negation using the yes-form and privative particle saht (...) mitte errapölgkma; II - double negative using the privative form ei laida (...) mitte; compare III - ei põlga
I - the wrong object form (genitive pro partitive) öhe (...) süddame; compare II, III - üht (...) süddant, südant.

The pronunciation of the Estonian literary language is relatively simple, i.e. its orthography is largely phonetic. At the same time the spelling does not usually distinguish between the 2nd and 3rd quantity (see Characteristic features of the estonian language), nor is a palatalisation marked.

The Estonian language has also retained some traditionalisms - some written forms are still used, although most speakers pronounce them in a different way. The majority of Estonians drop the initial h-sound, e.g. instead of saying hall hobune 'grey horse', they say all obune.

© Copyright

Estonian Institute: Publications