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Tere tulemast – Welcome

Estonian (Eesti keel) is a member of the Finnic branch of the Uralic language family. It is related to Võro, Vod and Finnish, the latter spoken on the other side of the Gulf of Finland. It is also  distantly to Hungarian spoken in central Europe. Finnish and Estonian share a great deal of their vocabulary. Throughout its history, Estonia was under Danish, Swedish, Teutonic, and Russian rule. In 1721, Estonia became part of the Russian Empire when Russian was declared its official language. mapDuring World War II, Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 and subsequently occupied by the Germans until 1944. Under the Soviet rule Estonia went through another period of russification until its independence in 1990, when Estonian became the national language.


At present, Estonian is spoken by about 1 million people in the Republic of Estonia. In addition it is spoken by another 100,000 people in Australia, Canada, Finland, Latvia, Russia, Sweden, United Kingdom, and USA (Ethnologue). It is the official language of the Republic of Estonia and one of the official languages of the European Union. Standard Estonian is used and accepted at all levels of society. After the dissolution of the USSR, Estonia became an independent republic and although Russian is still widely used as a second language, Estonian is taught in schools, and competency in it is required for citizenship.


Estonian has two major mutually intelligible dialects,

  • Northern Estonian, based on the dialect of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia
  • Southern Estonian, based on the dialect of Tartu, the second-largest city in Estonia.


Sound system

In general, the sound system of Estonian is similar to that of Finnish. The language is rich in vowels and relatively poor in consonants.


Estonian has 9 vowel phonemes all of which can appear in three different lengths: simple, long, and overly long. Simple and long  vowels are distinguished by relative length, whereas the so-called overly long vowels are distinguished by a tonal contour. In writing, long vowels are represented by doubling, but the overly-long vowels are not marked at all. There is a contrast between some rounded and unrounded front and back vowels. In addition, there are 19 diphthongs.

  • /y/ = second vowel in statue
  • /ø/ has no equivalent in English
  • /æ/ = a in cat
  • /ɤ/ has no equivalent in English
  • /ɑ/ = a in father



Estonian has relatively few consonants. A distinguishing feature is the presence of palatalized consonants which were probably acquired from the neighboring Slavic languages. Palatalization is not represented in the writing system. Consonants, like the vowels, can be short, long and overly long. In orthography, long consonants are represented by double letters.

Stops voiceless plain
voiced plain
Fricatives voiceless plain
(f )
voiced plain
Nasals plain
Lateral plain
  • /pʲ/, /bʲ/, /tʲ/, /dʲ/, /kʲ/, /gʲ/, /nʲ/, /lʲ/ represent palatalized consonants pronounced with the blade of the tongue coming in contact with the hard palate.
  • /ʃ/ = sh in shop
  • /ŋ/ = ng in song
  • /j/ = y in yet
  • Consonants in parentheses occur only in loanwords.
  • All consonants can be short or long, e.g., lina ‘linen,’ and linna ‘city.’



Stress usually falls on the first syllable of a word, but loanwords and foreign words usually retain their original stress. Vowel length makes most syllables appear evenly stressed.


Like other Uralic languages, Estonian represents a combination of agglutinative and fusional elements. In an agglutinative language, grammatical suffixes are added to stems in a sequence, with each suffix representing one grammatical function. In a fusional (inflecting) language, several grammatical functions are represented by one suffix.


Estonian nouns are marked for the following grammatical categories.

  • Nouns are not marked for gender.
  • There are no articles.
  • There are two numbers: singular and plural.
  • There are fourteen cases. The general use cases are Nominative, and Genitive. The general locative cases are EssivePartitive, and Translative. The interior locative cases are InessiveElative and Illative. The exterior locative cases are AdessiveAblative and Allative. The restricted use cases are InstructiveComitative and Abessive. Case and number are marked with a single suffix. The addition of a suffix often changes the length of the consonant in the stem. Despite the large number of cases, Estonian lacks the accusative case, common in Indo-European languages for denoting the direct object of a transitive verb. The direct object in Estonian is expressed by the NominativeGenitive or Partitive cases in the singular, and by the Nominative or the Partitive cases in the plural. Using the Genitive case for the object in the singular and the Nominative case in the plural, indicates the completeness of the action. Use of the Partitive case expresses the unfinished nature of the action.



Estonian consist of a stem + tense/mood suffix + person/number suffix.

  • There are two tenses: present and past.
  • There are three moods: indicativeconditional and subjunctive.
  • The person/number suffix represents the person/number of the subject and the person of the object.


Word order

The normal word order in Estonian is Subject-Verb-Object. At the same time, word order in Estonian sentences is determined by topic and comment. Topic is the part of the sentence that is known, while comment is the new information that is being added about the topic. In Estonian sentences, topic comes first.


The basic vocabulary of Estonian reflects its Uralic origin. However, since throughout its modern history, Estonia has been ruled by foreign powers, most notably Germany, Sweden, and Russia, Estonian has a large number of loanwords from these languages. Other borrowings come from FinnishFrench and English. Below are some common Estonian words and phrases.

Yes Jah
No Ei
Good bye
Head aega
Thank you
Tänan, aitäh
Excuse me
Vabanda, vabandage
Man Mees
Woman Naine

Below are Estonian numerals 1-10.



The oldest records of Estonian date from the 8th century AD. The first complete texts in Estonian, the Kullamaa prayers, appeared in the 1520s, followed by other religious texts. The first grammars appeared in the early 17th century during Swedish rule. Folk songs and oral poetry were first recorded in the 18th century. The modern written form of the language began to take shape in the first half of the 19th century. The first Estonian newspapers appeared in the second half of the 19th century. Throughout most of its history, Estonian has used the Roman alphabet. Since I t was first written by German scholars, its spelling was heavily influenced by German until the 1850s when the orthography underwent a reform aimed to bring it closer to the spoken language. The present-day alphabet has seventeen consonants and nine vowels. The Estonian orthography is quite regular, meaning that each phoneme is represented by one letter. There are a few exceptions. Four vowel letters representing sounds specific to Estonian are listed at the end of the alphabet. The alphabet lacks the letters f, c, q, w, x, y which are used only for writing foreign names and loanwords. Additional letters š and ž are used for writing borrowed words.

A a
B b
C c
D d
E e
G g
H h
I i
J j
K k
L l
M m
N n
O o
P p
R r
S s
T t
U u
V v
à ã
Ä ä
Ö ö
Ü ü

Take a look at Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Estonian.

Artikkel 1. Kõik inimesed sünnivad vabadena ja võrdsetena oma väärikuselt ja õigustelt. Neile on antud mõistus ja südametunnistus ja nende suhtumist üksteisesse peab kandma vendluse vaim
Article 1  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.


Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn Estonian? Estonian is considered to be a Category II language in terms of difficulty for speakers of English.

7 Responses to Estonian

  1. Sonja Maria Roosson

    Hello! I’m an Estonian and there are few mistakes in this description of our language. Our capital is Tallinn, not Tallin. “Hello” is “tere” and “tervist”, not “terevist”. “Man” is only “mees”, “inimene” means “human” in Estonian.
    I didn’t read the whole text, so it is possible that there are more wrong information.

    • Irene Thompson

      Thank you for the corrections. We would appreciate it if you read the whole text and pointed out other mistakes.

  2. Katrin Sermat

    I think it is a stretch to call Finnish and Estonian mutually intelligible. Despite their many cognates and grammatical similarities, at best they are could be described as partially mutually intelligible.

    • Irene Thompson

      Thank you for your comment. We will make a note of it.

  3. Juhani Paananen

    I am a Finn and I can somehow understand written estonian (most of the words can be understood quite well by finnish-speaking person) but spoken estonian languge is for me almost impossible to understand. One word from here and one word from there… It is strange because you can easily hear that languages are very near each other but still it is so hard to understand. Karelian and veps languages are more near finnish than estonian language is. I don’t know if an estonian person thinks similarily? =0)

    • Irene Thompson

      You are probably right. As a Russian speaker myself, I can much more readily understand other written Slavic languages than understand them when spoken. It has to do with time for processing. Spoken language is temporal, while written language is atemporal. I will make a note of your comment and rephrase “mutually intelligible”. By the way, there are cases of non-mutual intelligibility, mostly when a prestige language is understood by speakers of a less-prestigious language/dialect but when the reverse is not true.

  4. Jennifer

    The words you have listed above for “please” and “man” are Latvian, not Estonian. “Please” in Estonian is “palun” (not “piedod”) and “man” in Estonian is “mees” (not “vīrietis”).


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