The Estonian language (eesti keel) is spoken by about 1.1 million people, of which the great majority live in the Republic of Estonia.
Estonian belongs to the Finnic branch of the Finno-Ugric languages. Estonian does not have any language-family relationship to its southern neighbor Latvia, Latvian is a Baltic language related to Lithuanian. Estonian is related to Finnish, spoken on the other side of the Gulf of Finland, and more distantly to Hungarian. One of the distinctive features of Estonian is that it has what is traditionally seen as three degrees of phoneme length: short, long, and "overlong", such that IPA , /to:to/ and /to::to/ are distinct, as are /toto/, /tot:o/, and /tot::o/. The distinction between long and overlong is, in practice, as much a matter of syllable stress (involving pitch) as duration. Long and overlong vowels are not distinguished in written Estonian; plosives, however, appear in writing with three "degrees": b,d,g; p,t,k and pp;tt;kk (all unvoiced plosives).
Like Finnish, Estonian employs the Roman script. The alphabet lacks the letters c, q, w, x, y, ("foreign letters"; except for foreign names and quote words and phrases) but contains the letters š, ž, ä, ö, ü, and õ. The last letter denotes a low, back, unrounded vowel (IPA /ɤ/). (It has a different sound from the same letter in Portuguese. It resembles Vietnamese o-horn.)
The Estonian orthography is essentially phonemic with each phoneme of the language represented by exactly one grapheme. Exceptions to this derive from historical agreements - for example the initial letter 'h' in words, preservation of the morpheme in declination of the word (writing b, g, d in places where p, k, t is pronounced) and in the use of 'i' and 'j'.
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 High German orthography. Earlier writing in Estonian had by and large used ad hoc orthography based on Latin and Low German orthography. Some influences of the High German orthography - for example, writing 'W'/'w' instead of 'V'/'v' persisted well into the 1930s.
Typologically, Estonian represents a transitional form from an agglutinating language to an inflected 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. Thus the illative for "a yellow house" (kollane maja) — "into a yellow house" is (kollasesse majja).
The direct object of the verb appears either in the accusative (for total objects) or in the partitive (for partial objects). The case accusative looks exactly like the genitive. Genitive vs. partitive case opposition of object used with transitive verbs creates a telic-atelic 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").
- Karjatades kundikarju,
- Süies musti hooramarju,
- Leidsin eilse Nurmekunna ma.
- Veel ei olnud otsas mõdu,
- Veel ei olnud sündind sõdu,
- Lembitut, kes liitis Maavalla.
- Hingel hakkab veidi valus.
- Kuskil laanes, kuskil talus,
- Kostab vaikselt vilepilli hääl.
- Kuskil nurmel lõhnab mesi.
- Tuul toob kokku inimesi,
- Hõbedased sõled rinna pääl.
- Kostab, justkui löödaks lokku –
- Juuaks karudega kokku.
- Nurmel mängib vaikselt vilepill.
- Karukujud hõbemärgis,
- Tuleb tüdruk valges särgis.
- Juustesse on põimit rukkilill.
- Aga ükskord joodi mõdu,
- Mäletati muistseid sõdu,
- Lembitut, kes liitis Maavalla.
- Hiiekünkal kasvas tamme.
- Kuulsin tuleviku samme –
- Leidsin homse Nurmekunna ma.
- Kõik, mis on ilus, on eilsesse läev.
- Jällegi eilseks saab tänane päev.
- Kõik, mis siin selles ilus on jääv,
- Tagasi homsest toob tänane päev.
Lyrics by Tõnu Trubetsky