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About Estonian Language

Estonian (eesti keel; pronounced [ˈeːsti ˈkeːl] ( listen)) is the official language of Estonia, spoken by about 1.1 million people in Estonia and tens of thousands in various émigré communities. It is an Uralic language and is closely related to Finnish.

One distinctive feature that has caused a great amount of interest in linguists is what is traditionally seen as three degrees of phoneme length: short, long, and "overlong", such that /toto/, /toˑto/ and /toːto/ are distinct. In actuality, the distinction is not purely in the phoneme length, and the underlying phonological mechanism is still disputed.

State Language

The domination of Estonia after the Northern Crusades, from the 13th century to 1918 by Denmark, Germany, Sweden, and Russia resulted in few early written literary works in the Estonian language. 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 the Baltic Germans, 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.

After the Estonian War of Independence, the Estonian language became the state language of the newly independent country. When Estonia was invaded and occupied by the Soviet Union in World War II, the status of the Estonian language changed to the first of two official languages (Russian being the other one). In the second half of the 1970s, the pressure of bilingualism intensified, resulting in widespread knowledge of Russian throughout the country. The Russian language was termed as ‘the language of friendship of nations’ and was taught to Estonian children as early as in kindergarten. Although teaching Estonian to non-Estonians in schools was compulsory, in practice learning the language was often considered unnecessary. During the Perestroika era The Law on the Status of the Estonian Language was adopted in January 1989. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to the restoration of Republic of Estonia's independence. Estonian went back to being the only state language in Estonia.

Estonian literature

The oldest records of written Estonian date from the 13th century. Originates Livoniae in Chronicle of Henry of Livonia contains Estonian place names, words and fragments of sentences. The earliest extant samples of connected Estonian are the so-called Kullamaa prayers dating from 1524 and 1528. 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. For the use of priests an Estonian grammar was printed in German in 1637. The New Testament was translated into southern Estonian in 1686 (northern Estonian, 1715). The two dialects 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 in 1810 to 1820 when the patriotic and philosophical poems by Kristjan Jaak Peterson were published. From 1525 to 1917 14 503 titles were published in Estonia, as opposed to the 23 868 titles which were published between 1918 and 1940.

In modern times Jaan Kross[7] and Jaan Kaplinski[8] remain as two of Estonia's best known and most translated writers.

Classification

Estonian belongs to the Baltic Finnic branch of the Uralic languages. Estonian is thus closely related to Finnish, spoken on the other side of the Gulf of Finland, and is one of the few languages of Europe that is not Indo-European. Despite some overlaps in the vocabulary due to borrowings, in terms of its origin, Estonian is not proven to be related to its nearest neighbours, Swedish, Latvian and Russian, which are all Indo-European languages.

Estonian is distantly related to Hungarian (there is no mutual intelligibility between the two). It has been influenced by Swedish, German (initially Middle Low German, later also standard German), Russian, and Latvian, though it is not related to them genetically.

Like Finnish and Hungarian, Estonian is an agglutinative language, but unlike them, it has lost the vowel harmony of Proto-Uralic, although in older texts the vowel harmony is still to be recognized. Furthermore, the apocope of word-final sounds is extensive and has caused a shift from a purely agglutinative to a fusional language. The basic word order is Subject Verb Object.

Dialects

The Estonian dialects are divided into two groups – the northern and southern dialects, usually associated with the cities of Tallinn in the north and Tartu in the south, in addition to a distinct kirderanniku dialect, that of the northeastern coast of Estonia.

  • The northern group consists of the keskmurre or middle dialect that is also the basis for the standard language, the läänemurre or western dialect, roughly corresponding to Läänemaa and Pärnumaa, the saarte murre (islands') dialect of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa and the idamurre or eastern dialect on the northwestern shore of Lake Peipsi.
  • The southern group consists of the Tartu, Mulgi, Võru (Võro) and Setu (Seto) dialects. These are sometimes considered either variants of a South Estonian language, or separate languages altogether. Also, Seto is not usually considered a dialect of Estonian, but rather a variant of Võro.

Writing system

Like Finnish, Estonian employs the Latin alphabet, in addition to which the Estonian alphabet contains 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 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 has a different sound from the same letter in Portuguese. It is similar to the Kazakh ұ and the Vietnamese ơ, and it is also close to the Turkish ı and the Russian ы).

Orthography

Estonian orthography is almost phonemic where each phoneme of the language is believed to be represented by exactly one grapheme. In fact l, n, t, d, k, p, j etc. mark different allophones, for example k in tiku and rabakana or l in talle and talli. Other exceptions to this derive from historical agreements: for example the initial letter 'h' in words, 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'. Where it is very impractical or impossible to type š and ž, they are substituted with 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.

It should be noted that Estonian words and names quoted in international publications from Soviet sources are often incorrect back-transliterations from the Russian transliteration. Examples are the use of "ya" for "ä" (e.g. Pyarnu instead of the correct Pärnu) and "y" instead of "õ" (e.g., Pylva instead of the correct Põlva). Even in the Encyclopædia Britannica one can find "ostrov Khiuma", where "ostrov" means "island" in Russian and "Khiuma" is back-transliteration from Russian instead of correct "Hiiumaa" (Hiiumaa>Хийума(а)>Khiuma).

Stress

The stress in Estonian is usually on the first syllable. There are some exceptions with the stress on the second syllable: aitäh "thanks", sõbranna "female friend". In loanwords, the original stress can be borrowed as well: ideaal "ideal", professor "professor". The stress is weak, and as length levels already control an aspect of "articulation intensity", most words appear evenly stressed.

Grammar

Typologically, Estonian represents a transitional form from an agglutinating language to a fusional language. Over the course of Estonian history, German has exercised a strong influence on Estonian, both in vocabulary and syntax.

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(s) 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 "a yellow house" (kollane maja) – "into a yellow house" is (kollasesse majja). 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 Pohjanmaa dialect of Finnish maja – majahan.

The direct object of the verb appears either in the accusative (for total objects) or in the partitive (for partial objects). The accusative coincides with the genitive in the singular and with nominative in the plural. Accusative vs. partitive case opposition of object used with transitive verbs creates a telicity contrast, just as in Finnish. This is a rough equivalent of the perfect vs. imperfect aspect opposition.

The verbal system lacks a distinctive future tense (the present tense serves here) and features special forms to express an action performed by an undetermined subject (the "impersonal").

Vocabulary

Although the Estonian and Germanic languages are of completely different origins, one can identify many similar words in Estonian and English, for example. This is primarily due to the fact that 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.

 

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