Neighbours but Not Relatives: Translating Between Estonian and Latvian

In May last year, the first comprehensive Estonian-Latvian and Latvian-Estonian dictionaries to be produced in 50 years were presented to the presidents of Estonia and Latvia in Riga. 

Some unfamiliar with the region might be surprised to hear that these two languages are not closely related, but in fact despite an almost identical history over the last few hundred years, Estonians and Latvians speak very different languages. Estonian is Finno-Ugric, and thus unrelated to the vast majority of the languages spoken in Europe, which are Indo-European; the exceptions being closely related Finnish and much more distantly related Hungarian. While Latvian is an Indo-European language, it’s part of the small and idiosyncratic Baltic family of languages (Lithuanian, which is not mutually intelligible with Latvian, being the only other living Baltic tongue).

But Estonians and Latvians are linked, not only by history but also by the almost-extinct Finno-Ugric Livonian language; grammatically close to Estonian, it’s now spoken only by around 250 people, mostly concentrated in fishing villages on Latvia’s remote western coast, but it was the language of an ethnic group who once inhabited much of present-day Latvia and which had a great influence on Latvian vocabulary and intonation.

Deep Baltic editor Will Mawhood recently caught up with the editor of the project, Valts Ernštreits, a Latvian who is currently based at the University of Tartu in the south of Estonia for a discussion about the challenges of making the dictionary, and the similarities and contrasts between the two languages and cultures. 


How did you first become interested in Estonia?

Well, I actually have Livonian ancestry. After I graduated from school, I wanted to be an architect, but then this huge independence thing came along and so national issues came into focus – and the same was true with Livonian. And I switched to studying the Livonian language more deeply, and my closest option was actually Tartu in Estonia. That was how I got there. When I started to study in Tartu I was supposed to study Estonian for a year and then continue with my studies.  But it just so happened that the guys decided that people from Latvia they learn pretty well and pretty fast, so they made me start my studies in Livonian in the first semester along with the Estonians.


So you were learning in Estonian?

Yes, and knowing no Estonian at all at that time. At first I was told that I would have one year, and then suddenly I came to Tartu and realised that in four months I have my first exams in Estonian. So it was quite a challenge. And it was also a bit problematic because I didn’t speak English at the time, and Estonians generally don’t speak Russian very well, because during the Soviet times they had much fewer Russians.

Tartu University  [Image: Creative Commons]
They’re still around 25% of the population, aren’t they, in Estonia?

But the Russians in Estonia are more concentrated in a few areas [than in Latvia], and that’s the main reason. So in Estonia people speaking Russian on a normal basis are usually in Tallinn – or, of course, the older generation, especially men, who passed through the Soviet army. The younger generation didn’t speak then and doesn’t speak very much now. In Latvia we used to say quite a lot in the Soviet times that the Estonians refused to use Russian when they went to the shops, but the reason behind that is pretty simple: they simply didn’t know the language. In my first semester at Tartu I went also to Russian class, and I realised that I had nothing to do with [the Estonians there] – I speak Russian, and they were learning at university “what is this? This is a dog.” – that kind of level.

Our school systems were surprisingly different within the Soviet time. We had in Latvia at school two or three Russian language lessons and two or three Russian literature lessons per week, and Estonians had roughly two lectures per week on all of that – and they were not very serious.

So it was difficult for me to find someone to communicate with. If you don’t have a language in common, it’s pretty difficult to learn. But I found one guy who did speak quite good Russian, so we started to hang out. Talking to him and being forced to do this basic Estonian course in four months – this is how I actually learnt Estonian.


How long did it take you to become fluent?

A couple of years. But the first day was the most terrible. Because when I came, I didn’t understand even when they asked for my name – so it was from scratch entirely.

So for me, translating as a business was a side-effect of studying Livonian in Tartu. Knowing Latvian, knowing Estonian gave me a practical opportunity as a student to earn some money – that’s how I started. I started to work as a freelance translator, alongside the university. And it became a real job – translating and interpreting from Estonian. So that was the beginning, and this dictionary is essentially the end of my translation career (laughs).


Were you building on the previous dictionary or was it an entirely separate project?

No, we built it from scratch. But being an interpreter, I was pretty familiar with that dictionary.

Together with my professor in Livonian Studies I had made this Livonian-Estonian-Latvian dictionary, which was published in 2012, which was a good starting point. It was 12,000 words – not that small. So for me it was a good lesson in how to make dictionaries, and I learnt all the problematic things – the pros and cons; you learn where the problem will be and what it will look like. There were 40,000 head words and a certain amount of days. So you have to calculate how many head word articles you have to write per day. So the average was 35, which a huge number for one person. One integration, you put one word and then you have a head word article to do. You don’t give a definition, but you give all the examples and translations and different versions.


So that was one about every fifteen minutes?

Yeah, something like that. And when you start to think “OK, I’m not working today”, that means the number grows. So we ended up at 70-100. At the end of it, the speed was enormous.


What kind of words did you find you were adding that weren’t in the previous dictionary?

We were actually acting entirely separately. So our approach was that we took certain things as a kind of backbone of the dictionary. So we took the 5,000 most commonly used words in Estonian; then the list of 10,000, which was taken from the Estonian frequency dictionary, which was 10,000 words; then there was corpus data, which I asked my colleague from the University of Tartu to send – which was a list of the 40,000 most popular words, divided by 5,000. So we had 5, 10, 15 and so on, and so on. The task was to cover all the necessary bases – it was sort of like double-checking; these 5,000 words worked in parallel with the corpus data; we made sure that all the necessary words were in, which is extremely important for a dictionary, to have the most basic words. If the word is not in the dictionary, then it’s not in the top 40,000 words in Estonian.

The first thing was that we were trying to be sort of objective. And this was why we based it on this list – this 40,000 list. Estonians publish an orthography dictionary, which is about 100,000 words. Sometimes we found quite important words that were not in this 40,000 words – like African. This Estonian orthographical dictionary was published in 2013, so it’s pretty up-to-date. We have a lot of new words, like smartphones and all this terminology that is used today. This dictionary is not only important for Estonian, but also for Latvian – because it’s the first dictionary in which a lot of these new Latvian words have been, for example smartphone (viedtālrunis in Latvian).


I wanted to ask a bit about the historical relationship between the two languages. Because they’re different linguistic families, Finno-Ugric and Baltic – I think technically Latvian is closer to English than it is to Estonian – but the people lived together, particularly in Livonia, for a very long time. It does seem that there are some words– “house”, for example (“maja” in Estonian; “māja” in Latvian) – that are very close. Is that just a coincidence?

No, it’s because of this Livonian influence in Latvian. Livonian is also in the Finno-Ugric family, so you have a lot of Livonian language influence in Latvian. And that is one of the reasons why it is so different from Lithuanian. But still the languages are quite different – as are the cultures.

The Finno-Ugric languages [Image: American Languages]

What would be an example?

There are very few words from Estonian in Latvian. The similarities come from Livonian words in the Latvian language – or Old Baltic loanwords in Baltic-Finnic languages, like Estonian, Finnish and Livonian. So this is why you’ll find certain similarities between them. But this is mainly because of this Livonian bridge – because Livonians used to cover a large part of Latvia.

The Latvian language puts the stress on the first syllable, which comes from Livonian.



This is different from Lithuanian again, isn’t it? The stress is variable in Lithuanian. 

Yes, but in Estonian and Livonian it’s also only on the first syllable.

It’s a subject that is not very widely researched – we’ve only scratching the surface actually. But there are quite a lot of similarities – especially making the dictionary, we could see that. It’s actually best seen in the Estonian-Latvian-Livonian dictionary – because there you can see that sometimes the Livonian word follows the Estonian pattern and Latvian is different; sometimes it follows the Latvian pattern and Estonian is different, and sometimes all three act entirely the same.


What would be an example of a word that would be common or very similar across all three languages?

Again, “maja” which is the same in all three languages.


Was that a Finno-Ugric word or a Baltic word?

No, it’s Finno-Ugric. Finno-Ugric to Baltic. In Latgalian [the dialect spoken in south-eastern Latvia, where there was very little Livonian influence] it’s “sāta”. And of course “või“ (“or“ in Estonian). In Latvian “vai” is or. The Latvian word “vajag” (to need) also has this Finno-Ugric origin.

So there are quite a lot of these things. It’s very easy to notice on the word level, but there are much deeper connections under it.


I’ve lived in both countries – I spent a year in Tallinn – and I’ve noticed that while there is generally quite a bit of interest in Estonia in Latvia, the reverse isn’t really true – or at least to a much lesser extent. Do you think that’s the case, as someone who has also lived in both countries and, if so, why ?

One reason, is that northern Estonia and Tallinn has pretty close connections to Finland. In Estonia, you can still see the border between north and south [divided under Russian rule between the Estonian governorate in the north, and the Livonian governorate in the south]. And the north is really much more connected to Finland – because even in the Soviet times, they could watch Finnish TV. And this is why Estonia got to Eurovision many years before Latvia – in ’92 or something like that. Because they had been watching it for years on Finnish television. Latvia first came with Prāta Vētra – ’97 or ’98.

So they have been quite north-orientated, because of that. And they have a bit of a desire not to share the same cultural space with the Baltic countries, by saying “we are not Baltic, we are northern”.

A map showing the geographical division under the Russian Empire between the Governorate of Estonia (to the north) and Livonia (to the south)


But you think that’s only true in Tallinn and the north?

That’s where it comes from quite a lot, trying to position themselves as a Nordic country. In Tartu, Pärnu it’s quite different. For people in Pärnu, there is no difference to go to Riga or to Tallinn. And for people in southern Estonia, Riga is the nearest big city, not Tallinn. Tallinn is too far.


Do you think people feel closer to Latvia in southern Estonia, in terms of culture and so on?

Yes, there are historical links; the temperament is also a little bit different. Also Tartu has always been very international; it was not only home to Estonian educated people. Because it used to be one area – you can even see churches with the same weather-cocks on the top in southern Estonia and northern Latvia, which is also an indicator of the area. Lots of Latvians at that time [the late 19th century] also studied in Tartu, like Valdemārs and Veidenbaums, because that was the university of the place [the Livonian Governorate]. So there were much more connections then. Of course, after a while, it was – like with most neighbours.

But I think that recently, you can see a huge change, especially with the Estonian President having a very nice Latvian lady [Ieva Kupče, who married Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves earlier this year]. That actually has led to more interest in each other.

CEstonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and his Latvian wife Ieva [Image: CC 4.0]

Some people might say that a dictionary between two small European languages shouldn’t be a priority, given that most people in both countries can speak either English or Russian and thus can communicate with each other. Why would you disagree?

This goes for languages generally – why do people need languages at all? The world would be a very boring place without them. Otherwise, the only option is that there is one language that can win everything – and that’s the most popular language in the world, whcih is bad English (laughs). So that’s the alternative. Because you will never be able to communicate as well as you would like to if you don’t also still speak your own language.

I look at this subject with a certain future perspective, especially seeing as I work with so strange a subject as the Livonian language, which is much smaller than either Estonian or Latvian. So if you look from this perspective, I think that the development of something like Babelfish is not too far off. Technologies are being developed so that one day you could speak your language to everyone in the world. That’s the whole point of it.

Because language is pretty much connected with who people are. It’s also about how we express ourselves. Otherwise, English would be the same English everywhere. And Scottish English or London English or Hawaiian English would not exist. They are different things, and this is because there are different people speaking it. And that’s what makes the world an interesting place. Because otherwise if everyone spoke the same language, ate the same food, watched the same news, that would be pretty boring. But about the future, it’s possible that the technology will develop. It’s like Google Translate – so, ten years ago there was this AltaVista Babel project, which was the first of that kind. And at that time, it was so funny to look how they translated from English to Spanish or German – these big, widely-used languages. And now, ten years later, they’re actually doing pretty well for these bigger languages.


Although for Latvian it’s still pretty terrible…

But again, remember ten years ago, it used to be the same for the big languages. But in order to make these things work, not only for big customers but also for every customer, it needs quite a lot of effort, of research, a lot of text corpora, which is what the Estonian-Latvian dictionary actually offers. We have these texts already, how to translate things to things, and you can use it for developing future technology that will one day exist. And I think that it’s very important for those languages to exist. Because if the language is small, it certainly becomes a part of the identity.

I realised it pretty clearly in Estonia recently. I was talking to one guy, who, when he got to know that I was Latvian, first tried to tell me everything he knew about Latvia. And then he said about the new wife of their president, who is Latvian – “wow, she is so nice. Imagine, she went to a school and she was speaking Estonian.” And he was so glad about it.

I realised that it’s so easy to become accepted by people in Latvia, in Estonia, in all these countries, by simply showing that you are willing to learn the language. Because at the same time as doing that you’re saying “I’m interested in your culture”; I’m not ignorant. Nothing more. Just show this, and it rolls on from there.



You mentioned that interest in Latvia has been growing recently in Estonia. So, two things: what is it that Estonians find interesting in Latvia? And what can Estonia learn from Latvia?

Latvia is pretty different – in terms of nature, in terms of people. For Estonia also, Riga – compared to Tallinn – is really a city.

I don’t really like Tallinn, because it’s hard for me to define. Because it’s not a city, but it’s not a village anymore. It’s not even a small town anymore, but it’s not a city yet. They have this very beautiful old town; they have a little bit around that, but it doesn’t… there’s somehow something missing. It’s medieval, and then Soviet, with a very thin layer between them. Whereas in Riga, you have all the parts, and you can see how the city has grown.

We handle food differently. Estonians love Latvian food. In Estonia – in my personal opinion – it’s very good if you go for top-quality for top price, but beyond that it’s very hard. So especially for me, I’m used to stopping at the roadside and eating well – and in Estonia it’s almost impossible; you have to know places, and mostly good food comes for a high price.

Latvian beer is better, although now there is this huge trend in Estonia for micro-breweries, but again it comes for a high price.


We were saying before that most of Latvia has closer historical ties to Estonia than Lithuania – at least over the last few hundred years. I think that Latvia’s experience of the Soviet Union was also closer to Estonia than to Lithuania, especially regarding the language – in that there was a much higher level of Russification in Estonia and Latvia than in Lithuania. In Latvia, in particular, it did seem that the language was genuinely threatened. Do you think there is still a danger to Estonian and Latvian – perhaps now more from English than from Russian influence?

Nowadays, there is one huge change, which is mostly passing unnoticed in the whole approach towards language. Let’s say in the ‘20s and ‘30s, and during the Soviet time and even in the early ‘90s, language protection and language usage and language survival pretty much depended on institutionalised solutions. So there had to be a law or a commission or some group of people making orthographies or stuff like that. Having three TV channels and four radio stations, your possibilities were quite small.

Nowadays, it can be seen as a future opportunity for all the smaller languages in that now it’s much more at a personal level. To read something in whatever language, you can just go on the internet and you will find everything. If you were back in the ‘80s, if you went as a Latvian to Australia to live in some village, you would probably be the only Latvian in that village; and it could be possible that you wouldn’t hear Latvian for decades, because no Latvians come around.

Now, no matter where you live, we’re so interconnected that it’s almost impossible to exist without speaking and using your language. And you can also as a person – even not being part of a commission or anything like that – you can contribute to saving the language, to helping it to develop, to publishing material in that language for other. Creating language content by making videos, by making webpages, by simply writing comments. So technically the situation is entirely different from what it used to be, and for all the small languages actually this modern world has become a very good instrument for future development.

It’s the same thing with Livonian. In the ‘20s and ‘30s there was just one book published over I don’t know how many years. Now if you want, you don’t even need to publish a book; you just write the text and it’s published. Expenses are so small for doing something like that.

Bilingual sign (in Latvian and Livonian) near Kolka, western Latvia [Image: Will Mawhood]

When we speak about language or these minority problems in general; it is about being equal. It is not a question of the groups of people and their representation; it is a question about individual comfort. How far can I go – for example, how many Facebook friends can I have who speak the same language as me? For Livonian, it’s an absolutely different situation. No Latvian can match the English-speaking or Russian-speaking community; so from that perspective, it’s very funny that Russian is said to be in danger. People say that Russians are endangered in Latvia, language-wise. If there is a minority, the minority is actually the weakest, not the strongest. Technically, how much content can we create as Livonians or as Latvians or as Estonians, and how much content can be created in the Russian language? You have everything. Being a linguist and dealing with small languages, it’s kind of funny to me; OK, I understand in the ‘20s and ‘30s if you were living in a village and there was no Russian paper coming, then it was a problem. But the world today is pretty different.

And this is the same thing that goes for Estonians and Latvians. That this is a much more open world – there is one physical Estonia and physical Latvia, which means inside our borders, but the country itself comes with our people all over the world. So there is this virtual space, which is in the Latvian language or in the Estonian language, which is a Latvian cultural space or Estonian cultural space, which is much wider.

So although people think that it’s getting worse, it’s actually getting better. Because we have more people than we would technically have without all these modern instruments.


You’re thinking about the diaspora here?

Yeah, because they can still be abroad and be connected. So you can talk to them via Skype, person-to-person, using your language. So language-wise, the opportunities have grown enormously.


What do you think would be lost if the Estonian and Latvian languages had stopped being the main language of this region – as could have happened, many times?

The identity and language comes together. The language influences the way we think, and also vice versa; the way we live influences how we talk, how we understand things, how we see things. So it is a pretty strong point of identity. Thinking about the Livonian experience, because Livonians and Latvians have this certain relationship: Latvians being formed partially from Livonians – because the people are the same, just the language has changed. Because when people ask what the difference between Livonians and Latvians is, I say: on one hand, everything is different – the people are different; the culture is different. On the other hand, nothing is different. Because many Latvians have Livonian roots, and living such a long time together, of course you become very similar.

Talking about language, I asked this old lady Grizelda in Canada [Grizelda Kristiņa, the oldest surviving native speaker of Livonian, who died in 2013] about her husband, whether he was Livonian. And she said “no, he is Latvian. His mother was Livonian and his father was Livonian.” And I was like – how? But for them, it’s just you speak the language, you are Livonian; if you don’t, you’re not. And no one’s even thought about it, it’s just so obvious [to them].


Grizelda Kristiņa, the last surviving speaker of Livonian [Image:]

It’s been about a year since the publication of the dictionary now. What kind of reactions have you had from people? Have you seen an increase in interest from either side?

Yes, people are studying it much more, they are using it much more. I myself use it, because I can’t remember all the words, but now if I can’t remember I just open it and look something up. Sometimes before you could spend hours looking for what is the precise thing. There are some words that are very hard to translate. There are some specific situations that I only found the proper words for while making the dictionary.

And there are also ongoing projects: just today, I spoke with some translators from Tallinn, that we are going to meet at the beginning of June and discuss how we are going to develop further, especially document standardisation between Estonia and Latvia.

That’s one of the problems that we were trying to solve with the dictionary. We don’t have very many standards, because there is not that much interaction from one language to the other. For example, how do you translate the names of certain institutions, which don’t have matches in Estonian?  For example, the administrative structures in Latvia – for example, what is novads (district/region)? How to say that in Estonian – because there are like seven different possible ways to say it. Just to make an agreement among ourselves that this will be the word, because it’s important if you translate something – especially if it comes to something like a birth certificate. Especially for people in Estonia who are not familiar with Latvia and what goes on here. So it needs a certain standardisation.

But we don’t have enough people who are capable of doing that [translating], and to get these people we need to offer them opportunities. The dictionary is one of their opportunities for achieving proper knowledge of the Latvian language, because there are a lot of terrible translators.


I wanted to ask about the tattoo on your hand. Because I can see Estonian and Latvian letters – is there Livonian as well? That “o”?

Yes, that’s a Livonian letter [ȭ]


When did you have that done?

It was after the dictionary – it’s a reminder of the dictionary. These are my working instruments – the letters of all the languages I use. If I lose the ability to speak, I can just show that.

Image: Valts Ernštreits


The Estonian-Latvian and Latvian-Estonian dictionaries are available to buy online

© Deep Baltic 2016. All rights reserved.


Add yours →

  1. Great interview and great progress on an important issue! My only quibble is that the deep historical connections between Estonian and Latvians are underestimated. After all, we are really talking about people living side by side and interacting with each other for something like 4,000 thousand years. The Baltic Sea world has been a site of trade, interconnection, and battle since before the Vikings. The idea that there is a pristine border between Latvia and Estonia and little crossed over is widespread. I attribute that at least partially to the preference for genetic theories of languages, i.e. that Latvian is an Indo-European language and hence has nothing to do with the Balto-Finnic languages. Indo-Europeanism was a very popular concept in the 19th century which dominated thinking broadly for a long time. It also had its negative unsavoury aspects. I am deeply grateful to one of my Celtic studies professors, Harry Roe, who long ago pointed out the flaws in this type of thinking. Roe said it was an Ariadne’s thread type of argument. He meant that if one follows the kind of threads that one wants to, one finds what one wants to. In Europe, that meant seeing peoples speaking what identified as Indo-European languages as more European and better than those who did not. In reality, this was an instrument of exclusion. In the Latvian context, this means there is a great fondness for pointing out the links to Sanskrit, while the Balto-Finns seek affinities with groups speaking other Finno-Ugric languages far away. In all of this, though, the totality of the reality of people living on the land and on this sea is often overlooked. It has had significant political repercussions in modern times as well as peoples on the east coast of the Baltic Sea continue to attend to differences rather than commonalities. In reality, our interactions with our neighbours has shaped us. Valdis Zeps was an American-Latvian linguist who studied Finnic-Latvian linguistic convergences. He found at least 5000 such convergences. Thomas Scholtz book _Sprachbund im Baltikum?_ also points to an alternative model of language development in the Baltic. I think it is time to move past dated theories and ideas about separateness and look for ways to form connections. This dictionary project was a tremendous step forward in this direction!

  2. Good interview! The dictionaries are also available online ( The Estonian – Latvian one has great examples. For example:

    Feels stupid to borrow money. – Loll tunne on minna raha laenama. – Stulba sajūta iet aizņemties naudu.
    That’s a lousy defamation! – See on alatu laim! – Tas ir zemisks apmelojums!
    You are soon going to drown in shit! – Te upute varsti sita sisse ära! – Jūs drīz noslīksiet sūdos!
    That’s not a real pâté but some goo! – See pole õige pasteet, vaid mingi möga! – Tā nav īsta pastēte, bet gan kaut kāda ķēpa!

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