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Number of Speakers: Approximately 1.5 million

Key Dialects: North Estonian (Tallinn), South Estonian (Tartu)

Geographical Center: Estonia

Estonian is the official language of the Republic of Estonia. It is spoken by 1.5 million in Estonia (95 percent of the population) and 60,000 in various expatriate communities, including 20,000 in the United States and 14,500 in Canada. There are also speakers in parts of Latvia, Russia (St. Petersburg), Finland, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Australia (Grimes 1992).

Estonian belongs to the Baltic Finnic group of languages that, together with the Ugric group to which Hungarian belongs, make up a major branch of the Uralic language family. Samoyedic is the other branch. Estonian is closely related to Finnish; the two are mutually intelligible and share an estimated 83.5 percent of their respective vocabularies. Others closely affiliated are Baltic Finnic languages including Karelian (spoken by fewer than 10,000 in northwestern Russia west of Lake Onega) and other nearly extinct languages (Ingrian, Livonian, and Votic). The Baltic Finnic languages are mutually intelligible, and some experts consider them to be dialects of the same language.

Two major dialect groups are generally identified, North Estonian (Tallinn) and South Estonian (Tartu). Some scholars consider them to be separate languages. A number of variants exist within the two major dialect groups. In South Estonian, for example, there are two additional divisions: the Mulgi dialects in the southwest, and the Voru Setu dialects in the southeast. North Estonian covers a larger area and can be broken down into several groups, including: the Insular dialect (spoken on the islands of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa); a northeastern coastal dialect (which shares a number of characteristics with Finnish); the Kodavere dialect (spoken in Kodavere and Maarja Magdaleena); and a western mainland dialect (spoken in Laanemaa, northern Parnumaa, and western Harjumaa). Despite the many divisions, all dialects and variants are mutually intelligible.

The present literary standard is based on North Estonian. However, South Estonian (or Tartu) has its own tradition of oral folk poetry that dates back at least 350 years.

Throughout most of its history, Estonian has used a Roman alphabet. It was first written by foreign, primarily German scholars and, as a result, its spelling was heavily influenced by German until the middle of the nineteenth century. The standard written form of the language began to develop around 1850, at which time the orthography was reformed, and spelling conventions came to be based more closely on native (rather than foreign) pronunciation of Estonian. The alphabet now used has seventeen consonants and nine vowels.

Estonian has a small number of consonants, but the stops (/p, t, k/) can appear in three lengths: short, long, or overlong; for example, lina (linen), linna (city), and lin:na (into the city). Vowels, like the consonants, show a three-way distinction in length. The first syllable of a word is stressed, although loan words and foreign place names often retain their original stress.

There is no grammatical gender. There are fourteen nominal cases, seven of which refer to location. Case and number are marked on the noun with a single suffix. Suffixes mark tense and subject agreement on the verb. The addition of these suffixes affects the consonants in the stem, resulting in an alternation in the length of the consonants. Word order is subject-verb-object.

Standard Estonian is now the language used and accepted at all levels of society. Under Soviet rule, however, Russian was declared the official language, and systematic attempts were made to suppress the Estonian language and culture. These efforts were primarily superficial and not entirely successful, as Estonian continued to be spoken and learned throughout the Republic. Even children of Russian/Estonian marriages tended to grow up speaking Estonian. Following independence, the Estonian government established the National Language Board in 1990 to protect and encourage the use of Estonian. While Russian is still an unofficial second language, Estonian is taught and used in the school system, and competency in it is a requirement of Estonian citizenship. In the northeastern part of the country, where the bulk of the Russian population is located, Russian schools still exist but are not mandatory.

Estonian expatriate speech -- the Estonian spoken by WWII-era emigres in the United States and other countries -- differs somewhat from today's native standard. This change is mostly due to the natural development of the language, and no difficulties in comprehension have arisen. However, materials developed using the earlier form of the language do not always reflect modern use.

Experts are still debating when the Baltic Finnic tongues might have separated from the proto-language. Germanic-Finnic contacts probably began in the first century, followed by Slavic Finnic contacts in seventh century. The first complete texts in Estonian, the Kullamaa prayers, did not appear until the 1520s. Other religious texts, primarily Roman Catholic and Lutheran catechisms, appeared later in the century, but were often written by non Estonian scholars. The first grammars appeared in the early seventeenth century during a peaceful but brief period of Swedish rule. A vibrant oral tradition of folk songs and poetry, mostly in the south, preceded the modern literature but was not recorded until the eighteenth century.

The modern written form of the language began to take shape in the early to mid nineteenth century during a period of relative prosperity and emerging nationalism. The Estonian Learned Society, established in 1838, celebrated the language in a number of publications, among them the "Kalevipoeg," (1857-1861), a collection of narrative folk songs. The first Estonian newspapers appeared at about the same time, including the "Perno Postimees" (1857-1863) and the "Tartu Postimees" (1864 1880).

Perhaps as a reaction to these events, Russia (which ruled Estonia at the time) declared Russian the official language of instruction. But a second national awakening nevertheless occurred at the turn of the century, when a group of young writers -- known as the Noor Eesti, or the Young Estonia group -- continued efforts to develop and enhance the nascent literary language. Russian and German influences were discouraged in favor of native Estonian talent, and Estonia looked increasingly to Finland and Western Europe for inspiration. These writers, especially Johannes Aavik, revolutionized the lexicon of the language by popularizing forms from native dialects, borrowing from Finnish, and inventing new root words. The language endured another period of Russification from 1940 until independence in 1990 when Estonian was made the national language.

Throughout its modern history, Estonia has been ruled by and therefore lexically influenced by a number of foreign powers, most notably German, Swedish, and Russian. More recent and quite numerous borrowings are from French and English. Modern Finnish has also contributed a stock of words, but these are difficult to distinguish from the inherited proto-Finnic vocabulary.

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