“Did You Eat the WHOLE Cake?” On Learning Estonian

by Judith Knott, TARTU

In 2018 I made my first trip to Estonia, to take a beginners’ summer course in the Estonian language at the University of Tartu. I was so enthralled that I kept up my studies at home and went back for more this year.

Estonian is popularly known as a difficult language to learn. Much of its vocabulary is unfamiliar, as the only other national languages it’s related to are Finnish1 and, more distantly, Hungarian. It’s even been described as the most difficult Latin-alphabet language for a native English speaker, and some of its features have assumed an almost mythical status. From my experience so far, I would agree that it’s challenging, but one of the coping strategies is to focus on one’s own reality as a learner (which will be different for each individual) and not be daunted by the myths.  

Linguistic map of the Uralic (Finno-Ugric) languages, the non-Indo-European group of which Estonian is a member [Image: By User:Nug derived from a german version created by User:Chumwa – German language version, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28408682. Used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 Licence]

The sound world

The only individual sound that’s unusual for speakers of most European languages is the vowel denoted by õ. This is a wide, highish back vowel (International Phonetic Alphabet ɤ), not too far away from Russian ы. It occurs very commonly in Estonian words, so learners have to become familiar with it from the start.

Estonian is also known for having three lengths of vowel and consonant: short, long (usually spelt as a double letter) and overlong. This has provoked a lot of interest and debate among linguists2, but isn’t something that beginner courses dwell on. Estonian orthography generally distinguishes only two lengths, short and long, and learners don’t need to be unduly concerned about the third length, at least at the outset.

Pronouncing Estonian vowels, including the unusual sound “õ”

Nouns: 14 cases, over 400 patterns

It’s with the nouns that the myths often begin: Estonian has at least fourteen different case forms, each in singular and plural, for each noun. That’s a total of 28 forms, and with some nouns having alternative forms for the same case, sometimes with a slightly different nuance, there can even be as many as 30 different forms.

While I would agree that the noun forms are the greatest source of complexity for the beginner, for me the difficulty wasn’t so much in the sheer number of case forms as the irregularity of around four or five of them. Not all cases are born equal.

Most of Estonian’s fourteen cases are formed in an absolutely regular way, using case endings which are identical in the singular and plural. These are added to either the genitive singular or plural form respectively, for example: kohviku­­s “in the café”, kohviku‑te‑s “in the cafés”.

There are a total of 6 cases expressing location: in and on, each in three varieties (static location, motion towards and motion away from). The real difficulty is in knowing which case to use – for example, that it is teatr‑isse “to the theatre” (lit “into”) but kontserdi‑le “to the concert” (lit. “onto”). But this kind of difficulty is very similar to the challenge of learning which preposition to use when, which is encountered in many other European languages.  

In Tallinn Old Town

Beyond the cases expressing location, some examples will give a flavour of the more exotic cases:

Essive case: ‑na “as a”             

Ma töötasin ettekandjana – “I was working as a waitress”

Translative case: ‑ks “becoming, turning into”

Ma sain ettekandja‑ks – “I became a waitress”

Comitative case: ‑ga “with”

Ma rääkisin ettekandja‑ga – “I talked to/with the waitress”

(NB This case is one for vegetarians to be aware of – if you see anything in a café described as peekoniga, it will contain bits of bacon.)

Abessive case: ‑ta “without”

Riik on ilma juhi‑ta – “The country is without a leader”

Raekoja Plats in the centre of Tartu

But in my experience, the most difficult aspect of the case system for learners is the most basic: how to form the nominative, genitive and partitive cases. These are the three “grammatical” cases, which underpin Estonian grammar. The partitive case may be an unfamiliar concept that needs a little explanation. Its basic meaning is an unspecified quantity – “some”. It’s also one of the cases used to denote the direct object, rather like an accusative case, and I’ll return to it in that context.

Before getting into such intricacies of usage, however, the learner has to get to grips with the forms themselves. Many nouns don’t have anything that could be described as a case ending for any of these three fundamental forms. Instead they use a combination of different stem forms – and the consonants can change, or even disappear, between the forms (so-called consonant gradation, also found in Finnish).

A couple of examples may help to illustrate the point. Take the two nouns linn “town” (as in Tallinn) and lind “bird”. Their nominative, genitive and partitive singular forms are:

linn, linna, linna3

lind, linnu, lindu         

(note consonant gradation: nd ~ nn)

There is no way of knowing, from the nominative, whether the genitive and partitive will end in ‑a like linn or ‑u like lind (or alternatively in many other cases ‑e or ‑i). The stem vowel must simply be learnt, though for most nouns of this type the genitive and partitive singular do at least end in the same vowel.

Layered on top of these complexities is the partitive plural. This is a topic that seems to be endowed with a certain mystique in Estonian language-learning. Beginners are introduced to it relatively late, with early lessons carefully avoiding any contexts where it might crop up, and when the day finally arrives it’s treated almost as an initiation rite.

Is the mystique justified? Up to a point, yes. To get a feel for the difficulties, we need look no further than the partitive plural forms of the two nouns we’ve already met:

linn, linna, linna “town”         part. plural linnu

lind, linnu, lindu “bird”           part. plural linde

These nouns use yet another stem form for the partitive plural, with a different stem vowel (‑u/‑e) at the end. There are rules predicting the partitive plural stem vowel from the singular forms, but they aren’t intuitive and there are of course exceptions.

And this is just one small corner of the overall picture: the complexity of the whole can seem like a morass.4 But one rather prosaic way of demystifying the partitive plural is to start learning it by heart as a fourth basic form of every noun you meet, along with the three basic singular forms. The patterns gradually start to take shape and settle in the mind, and they make the “rules” easier to learn later on.

Some of the vowel-heavy constructions possible in Estonian

According to Saagpakk’s monumental Estonian-English dictionary, there are in total over 400 different types of noun pattern. The Dictionary of Standard Estonian (Eesti Õigekeelsussõnaraamat or ÕS) narrows this down to 26 types in its current edition, but at the expense of many exceptions, and some nouns seem to float between different types, with alternative forms for the same case.

The extent of irregularity came as a shock. I had always believed that the Finno-Ugric family of languages, to which Estonian belongs, was “agglutinative” – that is, with words being formed by adding strings of endings in a regular way. Estonian has far more irregularity than this would suggest: consonant gradation can make forms difficult to recognise, and every putative rule seems to have exceptions. (This was brought home to me on my very first morning in Tallinn, where meega appeared on the café menu and I had trouble even working out which word to look up (mesi > genitive mee > comitative mee‑ga “with honey”.)

But there are some compensations. One of the few easy things about Estonian is that adjectives have similar declension patterns to nouns, and broadly agree in case and number – but there is no gender! Even pronouns do not show gender – there’s a single form tema or ta “he or she”, which takes some getting used to but in practice seems to cause less confusion than one might expect.

The mud baths in the Estonian seaside city of Pärnu

Verbs: not enough tenses?

By comparison with nouns, Estonian verbs seem more straightforward. There is irregularity in the different conjugation patterns, mainly due to consonants changing or disappearing between different forms of the verb (consonant gradation again). But to me the verbs seem more systematic than the nouns, and the irregularity isn’t on the same scale as in the noun declensions. Saagpakk identifies (only!) 149 different types of verb, and the current Dictionary of Standard Estonian rationalises them into just 12 types.

There’s a highly regular system of personal endings, and only two basic tenses, past and present. Compound tenses such as the perfect are formed in a fairly straightforward way with participles.

The absence of a future tense5 might be regarded as an advantage, reducing the number of forms to be learnt, but I find it rather disorienting. There are of course ways to express future meaning, for example by simply using the present tense:

Ma sõidan (homme) Tartusse “I will go to Tartu (tomorrow)”

Even without the adverb homme “tomorrow”, it will generally be obvious from the context that this sentence has a future meaning6. The difficulty for me isn’t so much in understanding the future sense (after all, English will often use a present tense in this context: “I am going to Tartu tomorrow”). It’s more in the fact that, when I want to express future meaning, I feel like I’m groping in the dark for a way of doing so, in the absence of a specific grammatical hook to hang it on. I expect familiarity will make me more comfortable with it, as the difficulty may be more psychological than real.

If Estonian is parsimonious in its tenses, the same can’t be said of moods. It has a conditional, which is introduced to learners early on as it’s relatively straightforward to form and use. It also has a “jussive”: a kind of third person imperative I’ve only encountered on Independence Day (24th February) or Restoration of Independence Day (20th August), when Estonian Twitter is full of greetings such as Elagu Eesti! (“Long live Estonia!”). And then there’s the “quotative” mood, where the speaker doesn’t fully commit to the accuracy of what’s being said – something I’ve yet to explore, and which may prove useful for discussions about politics …

One feature that cuts across the tenses and moods, and which can seem strange to a beginner, is the difference between positive and negative sentences. While the negative forms are fairly straightforward to learn, they’re much more difficult to remember to use properly when speaking. Negative sentences include ei plus a generic, endingless form of the verb:

Ma ole‑n inglane – “I am English”

Ma ei ole sakslane – “I am not German”

It was only when I tried to explain this “oddity” to an English speaker that I realised it’s not so very different from the system in English …  

Ta räägi‑b inglise keelt – “She speak‑s English”

Ta ei räägi saksa keelt – “She doesn’t speak German”

St. Olav’s Church in Tallinn in the morning mist

Forming a sentence: did you eat the whole cake?

Equipped with some nouns and verbs, the learner may be eager to start forming sentences. Those with intransitive verbs can be tackled quite safely: “I am coming”, “I go to school” etc. But sentences with a transitive verb, requiring a direct object, are a minefield for the unwary.

The first transitive verbs that learners encounter tend (due to careful design of course material) to be ones such as “see”, “watch”, “love” expressing senses and emotions. These always take an object in the partitive case and are sometimes called “partitive verbs”. Negative sentences are also “safe” for learners, as the object always appears in the partitive, regardless of the verb.

But beyond these constraints, forming even a basic sentence with a direct object becomes much more complex. A choice needs to be made between three different cases – nominative, genitive or partitive – and the wrong choice could vary the meaning, sound a bit weird, or simply be incorrect.

One of the basic concepts is a distinction between “total object” and “partial object”, which is unfamiliar to speakers of most other European languages except Finnish. If the object is a specific, whole entity, and the verb expresses a complete action, then the object is “total” and will be in the nominative or genitive case. If the object is an unspecified quantity, or the verb action is not complete (for example, if it’s generic or continuous), then the object is “partial” and will be in the partitive case.

For example, the different cases of the object (in this case, cake) can give different nuances of meaning:

Ta sõi kooki (part) – “She was eating cake”7.

Ta sõi koogi (gen) – “She ate the cake”8.

Interestingly, if these sentences were in the present rather than the past tense, the second one (with a total object) might tend to be used with a future meaning – “she will eat the cake”.

But if the difference between total and partial object can convey complex nuances of meaning, the rules for choosing between the nominative and genitive case for the total object, on the other hand, are much more mechanical. Here the choice is either right or wrong – and the rules are tricky, based on a variety of apparently unrelated factors such as whether the noun is plural, and what mood the verb is in.

I would rate this whole topic – choosing the object case – as by far the most difficult I’ve encountered in learning Estonian, and it’s one that I’m only just starting to get to grips with. No amount of rote learning will help in assimilating it, yet it’s required in virtually every sentence. (The one avoidance technique I can come up with is to produce only negative sentences, which require the object to be in the partitive!)

When I asked our teacher how children learn which case to use, her rather wonderful reply was that “it comes with mother’s milk”. Not having had that advantage, I’m sure it will be one of the great challenges to look forward to as I continue my studies.

The University of Tartu

Resources

There are some excellent resources for Estonian learners – and, Estonia being E‑stonia, many of them available free online. That said, it can be awkward to find the right dictionaries etc because most Estonian-English material, for example, is aimed at Estonians learning English. This can mean they’re full of English grammar, but don’t include the Estonian grammatical forms that are vital for learning a language with so much irregularity. The resources listed below are the ones I’ve found useful, but I’m sure there are plenty of others that I’ve missed.

Courses

I would highly recommend the two-week intensive summer course at University of Tartu, which has a number of different levels (from absolute beginner) depending on previous knowledge. Tartu is a delightful place to spend two weeks: Estonia’s second city, with the feel of a university town and full of green spaces.

There’s also a three-week summer course at Tallinn University, which I’ve heard recommended but have no personal experience of.

There are two free online courses: Keeleklikk for beginners and a continuation Keeletee at intermediate level. Both come with a dedicated teacher (free to the student), who is available to mark work.

Books

Juhan Tuldava’s Estonian Textbook (1994) is excellent if a bit old-fashioned (lots of vocabulary about smoking!). The comprehensive coverage of grammar is a good counterpoint to the more informal treatment in the Keeleklikk course.

If you know German, it’s worth looking at Berthold Forssman’s books. He’s recently published a set of two text-books, Tervist! Teil 1/2 together witha Grundwortschatz (all 2018). The latter is an excellent pocket-sized dictionary, Estonian-German and vice versa, including Estonian grammatical forms.

Paul F Saagpakk’s Estonian-English Dictionary (1982/1992) is long out of print but I managed to obtain a second-hand copy.

Mati Erelt’s Estonian Language (2003) is an excellent, readable academic description of Estonian, its dialects and evolution – free pdf version available from University of Tartu website.

Urmas Sutrop’s booklet Estonian Language (2015) is a more light-hearted and quirky, but still informative, gallop through the Estonian language and its history – free pdf version available from Estonian Institute.

Websites

Keeleveeb.ee – portal (available in English) for a large number of free online dictionaries, including English-Estonian and Estonian-English.

Eki.ee (Estonian Language Institute) – portal (available in English) to a range of sites, from highly technical material in Estonian through to resources that are helpful to the learner. It includes a free online version of Basic Estonian Dictionary (Eesti Keele Põhisõnavara Sõnastik), which is searchable and navigable via English-language features and Google-translate. 


1. Estonian also contains a large number of loan words, from the languages of its neighbours, rulers and invaders over the centuries: High German, Low German, Swedish, Russian, the Baltic languages (Latvian, Lithuanian and their predecessors) and early loans from older Indo-European languages. Urmas Sutrop (2015) estimates that the largest number of loans – around 800 stems – come from Low (i.e. northern) German. But the loan words aren’t particularly helpful as a prop to the learner because they’ve often been thoroughly assimilated into Estonian, shedding consonants on the way: eg kool (“school”) from Low German schōle, raamat (“book”) from Russian грамота/gramota.

2. Mati Erelt in his Estonian Language (2007) describes the overlong feature as a property of the syllable as a whole, rather than of individual vowels and consonants.

3. The genitive and partitive have the same spelling, linna, but are distinguished in speech as the partitive has an overlong -nn-. But some nouns/adjectives don’t have any such distinction, with the same form in each of the nominative, genitive and partitive: ema (“mother”), vana (“old”). And others mark the partitive singular with a t ending: pere, pere, pere-t (“family”).

4. Other types of noun form the partitive plural by adding an ending such as –sid or –id to the singular stem (e.g. ema emasid, pere peresid). And some even have alternative forms, with either a stem-vowel change or an ending (e.g. vana vanu/vanasid).

5. There’s also debate about whether English has something that can properly be regarded as a future tense. Linguists such as Huddleston and Pullum, in their Cambridge Grammar of English (2002), don’t recognise the future tense as a grammatical category of English, and argue that “will” is an auxiliary of mood. But regardless of its grammatical status, English “will” is a clear and reliable indicator of future meaning, whereas such a marker seems to be absent from Estonian.

6. A more complex example of how the present tense can convey future meaning is discussed later

7. As the translations suggest, the differences in meaning between these two sentences bear some similarity to the grammatical category of verbal aspect (which pervades the Russian verb system, for example, and also distinguishes the French imperfect and perfect tenses). But in Estonian the difference is marked on the object noun rather than on the verb itself.

8. I’ve kept the sentences as simple as possible here, but one of my teachers has pointed out that “Ta sõi koogi ära” (“She ate the cake (up)”) would be more idiomatic, with the particle ära emphasising that the action is complete.


Judith Knott started out as a linguist, studying French, German and Russian and completing a PhD in Historical Linguistics. She then changed direction and worked for 27 years as a civil servant specialising in tax. Since retiring she has resumed her interest in languages, and last year started to learn Estonian. (She has previously written on her own blog about her initial exposure to Estonian last year and about her reasons for learning the language.)

All images credit Judith Knott unless otherwise specified

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