Saturday, December 19, 2009

Origins of the Estonian Language Part 2

..see yesterday's post for the preamble..
As noted, old woman who swallowed a fly style, Estonian falls in the Baltic-Finnic sub-group of the Finno-Lappic sub-group of the Finno-Volgaic sub-group of the Finno-Permic sub-grop of the Finno-Ugric sub-group of the Uralic group of languages!
It's spoken in, er, Estonia, with emigre communities in the kind of places you'd expect to find them, by a bit more than a million people, and as a second language by a good couple of hundred thousand people from the "Russian" community in Estonia, plus, in tiny numbers, attempts at speaking it as a second (or third or fourth) language by those from other parts of the world mad enough to live here.
The language was standardised towards the end of the nineteenth century, with the South Estonian dialect (centred on the University town of Tartu) losing out to the Northern dialect (centred on the capital, Tallinn). Apparently there's still a strong difference today but I haven't spent enough time in South Estonia to catch it. There are also apparently strong dialects in the islands, notably Saaremaa. More than that, there are at least a couple of distinct, but closely-related languages, spoken largely or wholly within the confines of the Estonian border (both in the South East of the country in fact) namely Võru and Setu. I have no idea about these two.
As I have said, Estonian is quite closely related to Finnish, though the two aren't mutually intelligle. That many people in Tallinn can speak Finnish is largely down to tourism and the fact that Finnish TV could be received, presumably illegally, in the latter decades of the Soviet occupation, Helsinki being only 80km across the sea.
It shares the large number of inflectional cases as well, and the endings are similar, but not the same.
For much of its history, Finland was a province of Sweden, being ceded to Russia after the Napoleonic wars as a semi-autonomous grand Duchy, whereas Estonia came under the German orbit. Thus, German influenced Estonian (but not Finnish) profoundly, and Swedish much less (though there was some influence, especially in the islands where Swedish speakers resided until WW2. German lexis, paricularly concerning matters of governance, bureaucracy and the church, flooded the Estonian language and we still have many of them today (a few examples: "kirik" (church), "kraad" (degree, as in temperature), "plats" (town square)..).
The standardisation of the alphabet must have come a bit later than that of grammar; on visiting the bank of Estonia museum (more promising than it sounds) I noticed that on some of the early bank notes from the first period of independence (after WW1), twenty (viiskümmend in modern Estonian) was written wiiskümmend, i.e. using the German 'w' as a 'v' sound, and I'm told that the German double 's' letter was also used.
The unique letter 'õ' in Estonian, which causes problems for foreign learners, is something that sums up the language in general. Very difficult to reproduce accurately or even to distinguish from the more familiar "ö" sound. For instance, the Puumaja being located on Õle street, I'm constantly having to say "yeah that's what I just said" in response to corrections at my attempt to pronounce the street name. Apparently even some Estonians have a problem with it, most notably from Saaremaa where people, presumably due to the Swedish influence noted above, tend to default to the "ö" letter, much to the amusement of the rest of the country. This was lampooned in the film "Malev". In terms of its sound, the spoken language is, to the uninitiated ear, quite lilting and scandanviany sounding, though not as much as Finnish, and also has a certain breathy quality due to the high incidence of aspirated 'h' sounds (which I assume Russians have as much difficulty with as I do with pronouncing their 'kh' (as in 'ya khachoo') sound.
Despite the old stereotype of Estonians being slow, most people speak quite quickly, although sounds aren't run together as much as they usually are in English or Russian.
In general it's a very hard language to learn, exacerbated by the fact that people here speak such good English, though any efforts will usually be well received, and presumably something of a novelty, though the disappointing tendency, as in the other two baltic states, to be used as a pawn in the "these Russians who can't speak Estonian/Latvian/Lithuanian who've been living here since .." gripe.
Now on to actually learn the language rather than pontificating about it...

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