« back


Estonian is spoken by 1.100.000 people. The vast majority of the speakers live in Estonia. Minorities are reported in Finland, Russia, Latvia, Sweden, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the USA.

Estonian belongs to the Baltic-Finnic or Fennic subgroup of the Finno-Ugric sub-branch of the Uralic languages. It is closely related to Finnish.

Estonian is subdivided into five major dialect groups: North Estonian, East Estonian, Northeast Estonian, Coast Estonian and South Estonian. South Estonian, especially its Võru dialect, is linguistically quite different from the rest of Estonian.

Estonian is the national language of the Republic of Estonia.

Since the late 19th century the speakers call themselves eesti and their language eesti keel ('Estonian language'). Before that the self-designation of the speakers was maarahvas ('country people') and the name of the language was maakeel ('country language').

The first extensive Estonian texts were created in the 16th century. The first grammar of Estonian was published in 1637. Initially there were two literary languages: South Estonian and North Estonian. South Estonian got out of use in the second half of the nineteenth century. The present-day literary language is based on North Estonian. The first steps in the coverage and the study of the Estonian language were taken mainly by German scholars, but from the nineteenth century on more and more Estonians participated in the development of the literary language.

The North Estonian dialects and the standard language do not feature vowel harmony. The Voro dialect of South Estonian, however, exhibits vowel harmony.

Stressed words usually have the stress on the first syllable.

There are 18 vowel phonemes in first syllables (nine short and nine long vowels). In non-first syllables, however, occur only four vowels. Simple vowels can be combined to up to 36 diphtongs.

Standard Estonian has 18 consonant phonemes including four palatalised consonants. Consonant length is distinctive in Estonian.

Estonian features consonant gradation, i.e. lenition or deletion of consonants in morphological paradigms. Both nouns and verbs are affected by consonant gradation.

Estonian morphology is drifting from agglutinative structure towards fusional structure, viz grammatical morphemes are merging due to morphonological processes.

Noun and verb have two numbers: singular and plural.

Estonian has no grammatical gender.

Estonian has 14 cases: nominative, genitive, partitive, inessive, elative, illative, adessive, ablative, allative, translative, terminative, abessive, the comitative and essive. Estonian lacks the accusative case, by which the direct object is usually marked in the Indo-European languages and the Uralic languages as well. In Estonian the direct object is marked by the nominative, partitive and genitive, respectively, in the singular, and by the nominative and partitive in the plural.

Adjectives agree with their head nouns in case and number.

The Estonian verb has five moods: indicative, imperative, conditional, quotative and jussive. Jussive and quotative are not marked for person and number. There are two voices: active and passive.

There are two synthetic tenses in verb inflection: present and imperfect. Perfect, pluperfect and future are compound tenses.

Verb inflection is split up into affirmative and negative forms.

The unmarked order of constituents in simple transitive sentences is SVO. However, a lot of other orders are possible, mainly for pragmatical purposes.

Estonian mainly uses postpositions. However, also prepositions are used due to the influence of neighbouring languages (i.e. German, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Slavic languages). Postpositions govern nouns in the nominative, whereas nouns governed by prepositions are in the genitive.

In the Estonian word stock there are loan word of German, Swedish, Russian, Latvian, and Finnish origin. German was the major source of lexical borrowing from the 13th century until the Second World War.

Bernhard Scheucher

« back