Language of the Month: Estonian

As someone who frequently consumes news about languages and language learning, it’s always interesting to see what language will suddenly be put to the forefront of the public conscience, either because of its direct use, such as Kamala Harris casually using Tamil words in campaign speeches, or indirectly by bringing a country or people to the forefront. 

Recently, the game Drops has been making the rounds as a new trend in digital language learning (a review of my first impressions will be coming soon). Although the creator of Drops is Hungarian, the base of operations is out of Estonia. Nestled between Latvia to the south, Finland to the north, and Russia to the east, Estonia is an outlier of many other countries in that most of its language, Estonian, actually has more similarities with Finnish than Russian. 

Estonian is an Uralic language, like Finnish, Sami, and Hungarian, which separates it from other countries in Eastern Europe which share Indo-European origins, including both surrounding Latvian and Russian. Spoken by over 1.1 million people, obviously including the vast majority of Estonians, it can also be found spoken in Russia and to a small degree in Finland, and according to Omniglot also has around 1800 speakers as far away as Australia.

One interesting feature of Estonian is that until the 19th century, there was no official way to write the language; many chose to use a mix of Latin and Germanic alphabets. Since the 19th century, Estonian has been written in Latin script, but due to its Uralic origins, features many diacritics, mostly to represent 18 vowel sounds and 25 diphthongs. 

These different sounds and word pronunciations are mostly standardized officially, but due to the history and geography of Estonia, there are 8 dialects and as many as 117 subdialects of Estonian. Nowadays, the biggest distinction comes between the North and South of the country, but there are also some notable generational differences in the language. Many older Estonians, particularly those who grew up while Estonia was annexed by the former Soviet Union, are still more likely to understand Finnish, and may still have some influence in their daily language. 

To me, it is no coincidence that such a linguistically rich country would be a natural place for a language-learning startup. About half of the population speaks English, and many still speak Finnish and some German and Russian. A diversity of language and linguistic influence lends some natural credence to the people of Estonia understanding how we learn languages and what is needed to actually weave in and out of several different languages a day

Further Reading:
Nine Cool Facts About the Estonian Language
Omniglot on Written Estonian