Friday, December 18, 2009

Origins of the Estonian Language Part 1

...go back in time five or ten years and tell the then-me that I'd have been posting items with headers like this and see a very perplexed man..
The Uralic languages, which Estonian forms an albeit-small part of, are a language "family" of about 39 languages spoken by approximately 20 million people. In this Estonian differs from the languages of the other two baltic states, which belong to, and in fact are the only extant examples of, the baltic sub-group of the vast Indo-European family.
For historical reasons there are Hungarian speakers in neighbouring countries including Romania and the Ukraine.
As the name suggests, it has been postulated that these languages emerged somewhere in or near the Urals, a range of apparently unprepossessing mountains (though I've not been - yet) which have been lifted from relative obscurity as marking the delineation of Europe and Asia. This has however been disputed and some have placed the original homeland of the Uralic languages either to the South or West.
You may see Estonian listed as a "Finno-Urgic" language, in fact this is the more common classification for the layman or woman at least. I find this designation a little cumbersome; it hyphenates Finnish and Hungarian (or "ugric") which, as anyone who's seen or heard both will struggle to comprehend since they bear no resemlance to one another at all. Furthmore it leaves Estonian out of the equation along with a large range of languages spoken across, for the most part, North-Western Russia, but also including the various languages of the Sami people (formerly known as "Lapps"). Conversely there is nothing more in the "ugric" part of that designation bar something called "Ob Ugric"; whereas there are zillions of Finnic languages. Estonian and Finnish have a whole lot more in common, a similar inflectional system (though Finnish has 2 cases more and slightly longer case endings) and a lot of vocabulary, often concerning things like geographical features which have been around forever, seemingly either the same (e.g. kala (fish), maa (country/land)) or very similar (Ranta (Fin.)/Rand (Est.)=beach; Saari (F.) / Saar (E.) = island, Joensuu (F.) / Jõesuu (E.) = both towns meaning "mouth of a river" etc.).
Aside from all their differences, the Uralic languages have such features in common as the large set of cases noted above, no verb to have (you simply say "on/by/at etc. me there is..." a bit like in Russian, no grammatical gender (thank God), and the stress always falling on the first syllable (much easier than Russian or Lithuanian then).
A simplified breakdown of classifications is:
Hungarian (Magyar)
Ob Ugric (Ob Ugrian)
Finno-Permic (Permian-Finnic)
Permic (Permian)
Sami languages
South Estonian (including Mulgi and Tartu)
Võro (Voro, Võru, Voru; including Seto or Setu)
Finnish (and variants)
Ingrian (Izhorian) — Nearly extinct
Livonian, Vepsian, Votic, all nearly extinct, incidentally Livonian is/was confined to one small region of the Kurzeme peninsular in Latvia.
Source, if you're interested: Wikipedia, of course!

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