Estonian used...
Estonian is used in the army... aviation... theatre
A fish is near the tree
Kala on puu juures
'A fish is near the tree'
An angel is in the sun
Ingel on päikese käes
'An angel is in the sun'
Finno-Ugric and Samoyedic languages
Finno-Ugric and Samoyedic languages
First attempts...
First attempts to describe the Estonian language...

The ancestors of the Estonians arrived at the Baltic Sea 13 000 years ago when the mainland glaciers of the last Ice Age had retreated from the area now designated as Estonia. The first settlers who followed the reindeer herds came here from south, from Central Europe. Although the vocabulary and grammar of the language used by people in those days have changed beyond recognition, the mentality of the tundra hunters of thousands of years ago can be still perceived in modern Estonian.

Language and lingering mentality

Even the most ordinary everyday Estonian language contains numerous ancient expressions, possibly going back as far as the Ice Age.

The Estonians say külma käes, vihma, päikese, tuule käes ('in the hand of the cold, rain, sun, wind'), or ta sai koerte käest hammustada (literally 'he was bitten from the hand of dogs' i. e. 'he was bitten by dogs') or ta sai nõgeste käest kõrvetada (literally 'he was stung from the hand of nettles'). Quite obviously, nobody any longer thinks that the wind, rain, dogs or nettles actually have hands. But in ancient times the moving, often personified natural phenomena, to say nothing about animals and plants, were believed to have certain powers. These powers, sometimes exerting control over human beings, were symbolised by a hand. Hence the contemporary Estonian käskima ('to order'; can be translated 'to give orders with one's hand'), käsilane ('handyman').

In all the above Estonian expressions 'hand' occurs in the singular. This is associated with the integral concept of the world of our ancestors. Everything formed a whole, a totality, also the paired parts of body which were used only in the singular. If one wanted to speak about one hand, one had to say pool kätt ('half a hand'). Hence the division of the holistic world into the right and left halves, right and left sides.

Even now, Estonians find their bearings spatially by using parts of the body, mostly without being aware of it themselves. If something is kõrval ('beside', 'next to'), an Estonian speaker does not even notice that what he is actually saying is that something is 'on his ear' (kõrv, kõrva meaning 'ear' and suffix -l corresponding roughly to the English preposition 'on'). The Estonian postposition peal ('on') means literally 'on the head' (pea 'head' + -l); juures (juur, juure + -s which corresponds in modern Estonian to the English 'in' but in earlier times stood for 'near' as well) means that something or somebody is close to the speaker's juur ('root'), i.e. the place where he touches the ground.

The majority of European languages belong to the Indo-European language group (e.g. Spanish, Polish, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Albanian, Romany, Greek or Welsh). Of the ancient European languages, once so widespread throughout the continent, Basque in the Pyrenees, the Finno-Ugric languages in the North and Central Europe, and Caucasian languages (e.g. Georgian) in the southeastern corner of Europe have managed to survive.

The Estonian language belongs to the Finnic branch of Finno-Ugric group of languages. It is not therefore related to the neighbouring Indo-European languages such as Russian, Latvian and Swedish. Finnish, Hungarian and Estonian are the best known of the Finno-Ugric languages; rather less known are the following smaller languages of the same language group: South Estonian, Votic, Livonian, Ingrian, Veps, Karelian, Sami, Erzya, Moksha, Mari, Udmurt and Komi, spoken from Scandinavia to Siberia.

The relations between languages can often be seen from the similarities in numeric systems:

The relations between languages

Estonian differs from its closest large related language, Finnish, at least as much as English differs from Frisian. The difference between Estonian and Hungarian is about as significant as between German and Persian.

Along with Icelandic, Estonian is at present one of the smallest languages in the world that fulfils all the functions necessary for an independent state to 'perform' linguistically. Teaching, at both primary school and university level, is in Estonian; it is also the language of modern science (molecular biology, astronomy, computer science, semiotics, etc.). Estonian is used in the army, in the theatre, aviation, journalism - in all walks of life. Estonian is the only official language in Estonia in local government and state institutions.

Estonian is spoken by approximately 1 100 000 people throughout the world. About 950 000 of them live in Estonia, and more than 150 000 are scattered over Sweden, Canada, USA, Russia, Australia, Finland, Germany and other countries. The first attempts to describe the Estonian language scientifically were undertaken in the early 17th century. In 1803, a lectureship of the Estonian language was established at what was then the German-language University of Tartu, founded in 1632. With the spread of the ideas of Enlightenment, the interest of the Baltic German Estophiles in the local language and culture increased. During the 19th century, the first educated Estonians began publishing scholarly research of their mother tongue. The first doctor of the Finno-Ugric languages of Estonian origin was Mihkel Veske who did research into the history of the Estonian language in the 1870s; the Estonian Writers' Union, established in 1871, undertook the task of standardising the common language.

In 1919, a professorship of the Estonian language was established at the University of Tartu where Estonian became the language of study in the same year. At present, research on the Estonian language-related topics is being carried out at the Institute of the Estonian Language in Tallinn, at the University of Tartu, at the Tallinn Pedagogical University, the Estonian Institute of Humanities, and at various research institutions all over the world.

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Estonian Institute: Publications