“With fourteen different cases and an utterly unrecognisable vocabulary, Estonian should test even the most capable linguist! If you’ve studied other European languages in the past, you may find it refreshing to learn one where you effectively have to start entirely from scratch….” So says the encouraging sales plug for an estonian language course…and we get to ‘do life’ in this language! I could think of some easier ways to live!
But what other option do we have? You can’t expect to live in a country, bypass the language aspect, and still expect to be integrated into the society; you have to make some kind of attempt!
So we took the plunge when we moved here ten years ago and started the agonising task of learning estonian, one of the hardest european languages to learn being solely related to Finnish, Hungarian and absolutely nothing else! It has been a huge learning curve and very humbling experience, when you find yourself unable to express your most basic needs…for several years.
If you are not a linguist and wondering what 14 different cases means, let me put it this way, that there are 14 different ways of saying every noun and adjective in the singular…that doubles if you include the plural form. So here is an example; the word for ‘hand’ is ‘käsi’ which can also be käe, kätte, käele, käesse, käega, käeta, käena, käes, käeni, käest, käelt, käel, käeks….and that’s only for one hand, there are another 14 variations for two hands; now that’s a lot of hands!
Then there are the nine vowels, a,e,i,o,u,ä,ü,ö,õ which can be used in all sorts of wonderful combintions. For instance ‘öö’ is the word for ‘night’. If you lengthen or shorten the pronunciation of them you can completely change the meaning of the word. How about this for an interesting combination, ‘Kuuuurijate töööö jäääärel ‘ which translated means ‘a moon researchers work-night next to the ice edge’…addmitedly not a very useful sentence to learn but just sayin’…
In english you can’t play around much with word order; it’s subject-verb-object.
Take the sentence “often stars were seen in the sky”…. You could say this in estonian 24 different ways and still be understood,
Tihti taevas tähti nähti
Tihti taevas nähti tähti
Tihti nähti taevas tähti
Tihti tähti taevas nähti
Nähti tihti taevas tähti etc etc….
There have been times when we have felt totally defeated by the language, have insulted various people without meaning to and embarrased ourselves thoroughly. But you can’t beat the enthusiasm of the estonians when they hear you speak their language, even if it is grammatically incorrect and heavily accented. You score some major points for trying.
So ten years on we find oursleves able to do things that we never thought would be possible , like having a non-english speaking couple round for an evening and not needing a translator present or standing up in church on a Sunday and being able to speak for half an hour with only the odd interjection from the congregation when help is needed. It gives a more interactive feel you know!
So progress has been made and there is certainly more to come. Our latest undertaking is teaching english to estonians. It is nice having the tables turned and suddenly we discover how complicated our own language is to learn ( and teach) when,
The market garden was designed to produce produce.
The city tip was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
In the boat, a row erupted amongst the oarsmen about how to row.
The nurse wound the crepe bandage around the wound.
Dessie decided to desert his dessert in the desert.
Chloe was too close to the door to close it.
What more can I say!!
If you want to hear some estonian, here is a little poem about the smart bug…
And here is a song…it is a beautiful language to sing in