Why Estonian?

When I say I’m learning Estonian, people (even Estonians) often ask why. I have a number of answers at the ready, depending on who’s asking and whether I think they really want to know. My shortest response is: why not? If they are looking at me as though I’m mad, I might add that I’ve always liked a challenge. If they pursue the point, or start to suggest (mansplain?) several other languages that I should learn instead, then I might tell them the real answer, which goes something like this.

First, I am a linguist. Before this summer, I would probably have said “I used to be a linguist”, but doing an Estonian course in Tartu showed me that the linguist may have been buried beneath 27 years of tax but she’s still there. So I don’t need a reason to learn a language: the real question is where to start.

I toyed with the idea of Polish. I visited Poland a couple of times a few years ago, bought some teach-yourself books, and got to the stage of being able to say a few words in shops and hotels but unable to understand the response. I can just about decipher some of Jakub Krupa’s Polish tweets with the help of a dictionary. But its similarity to Russian gets in the way for me. First, I have a tendency to launch into Russian when I try to speak Polish, saying da rather than tak (“yes), spasibo rather than dziękuję (”thanks”) – which can be embarrassing. Second, my background as a historical linguist distracts me into trying to reconstruct proto-Slavonic (which would connect Polish and Russian but isn’t conducive to learning much). And finally, Polish feels a bit too familiar to satisfy my urge for novelty. So I may come back to it at some point, but it’s not the language for me right now.

I decided it had to be a non-Indo-European language. For any non-linguists who may read this blog, Indo-European is a language family encompassing nearly all European languages, some of the languages of India, Iran and neighbouring countries, and the ancient languages Latin, Greek and Sanskrit. Alongside the languages I learnt as a student, I’d dabbled in Old Irish and Sanskrit on the side, so I wanted the challenge of something different (“a new kind of wine”). Like a hiker wanting to venture beyond the Munros …

But it had to be European – that is, a language of the EU. Psychology is an important factor in language learning – witness the multilingual Romanian Uber driver who told me she was unable to learn Russian – and for me, at this point of historic craziness in the UK, learning a new language has almost become a form of political protest, to show solidarity with our neighbours.

That narrowed down the choice to the handful of non-Indo-European languages in Europe: Hungarian, Finnish, Estonian, Basque, Maltese. And the rest is down to serendipity.

I decided on a whim, exactly two years ago, to learn Finnish. Indeed, I set myself the goal of learning Finnish before we left the EU. I bought grammar books, teach-yourself books, and text-books on Finnish, but ended up reading about the language rather more than actually learning it. I was busy, with music, knitting, continuing links to the tax world. Motivating myself to absorb an entirely new vocabulary on my own, at home, was a struggle.

So, with a year to go before my Brexit deadline, I started to investigate summer courses … and found only business courses designed for those wanting to work in Finland. There may well be wonderful summer courses that I missed, but after a couple of hours of frustration I changed tack: why not try Estonian? It’s closely related to Finnish, I’d recently bought a fascinating book on Estonian knitting, Tallinn is supposed to be a beautiful city …

I quickly found exactly the kind of courses I was after, in both Tallinn and Tartu, and decided on Tartu because the timing fitted better with my choir’s summer concert. I couldn’t have made a better choice.

I’ve already blogged about the beauty of Tartu, and about my experience of the course. But I also think it was the right decision because Estonian is the kind of language that appeals to me.

One of its unexpected delights (at least, for me) is morphology. I’ve been interested in morphology – the way words change in different grammatical contexts – for almost as long as I can remember. I was the weird 12-year-old who enjoyed learning Latin irregular verbs, and I spent nearly half of my twenties writing a PhD on changes in verb stems in Low German and Dutch dialects.

Estonian is known for having 14 different noun cases, so I was expecting there to be lots of endings to learn. But the sheer complexity of its morphology came as a surprise. It’s often categorised, with Finnish, as an “agglutinative” language – one where words can be formed by adding strings of endings. That’s true, up to a point, but it may be more true of Finnish than it is of Estonian.

4AEA99F2-1B24-4334-86A5-42E894C9E2DEIn Estonian, changes within the stem of a word (e.g. as in English man vs men) are as important as the endings, and some of the endings also change in ways that aren’t obviously predictable. Grammar books variously categorise nouns into 7 big classes or 26 smaller ones – while the Estonian-English dictionary I’ve just bought second-hand (Paul Saagpakk’s massive tome) shows over 400 different patterns. Getting my head around all of that looks like a great way to distract myself from the impending chaos of Brexit.

There are other echoes of my earlier linguistic preoccupations too. Estonian has an unusually high proportion of loan words, acquired over many centuries – for example, õlu “beer”, probably from the same origin as English ale. Source languages include Swedish, Russian, German, the Baltic languages: Estonia’s geographical neighbours and historical over-lords. But, according to Urmas Sutrop’s wonderfully quirky description of the language, the largest number of loans come not from standard/High German but from the Low (i.e. Northern) German dialect. That uncanny connection back into my linguistic past even had me digging out the tedious PhD thesis when I got home.

Will I go back to my original aim of learning Finnish? Possibly. Eventually. It has vowel harmony, which standard Estonian has been careless enough to lose (my only disappointment so far). And it has a very different sound from Estonian. I came across a fair number of Finns during my stay: from day-trippers from Helsinki in Tallinn, to the artists exhibiting at the Finnish cultural centre that was my home in Tartu. Finnish sounds calm, monotonic (even monotonous?), dead-pan, oceans of sang froid, whereas Estonian sounds lively, energetic and crisp. So it would certainly be interesting to learn both and compare them more closely – and even be diverted into the byways of proto-Finnic.

But certainly not by next year.

8AD6A17A-98F3-4C53-82AF-0FE8AEDCE0A0
The garden at Tampere Maja – Finnish cultural centre and guest house in Tartu

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