A popular, but rather comprehensive account

NOTE: To test your comprehension, you will find a short quiz at the very end!

Estonian has a rather straightforward pronunciation – particularly when you have had contact with some languages with reasonably similar phonetics, e.g. Italian, Finnish, Hungarian, Turkish or German. Both the vowels and the consonants are pronounced in a distinct and “un-blurred” fashion. The spelling is regular and consistent. It is usually held that the the stress in Estonian words is always on the first syllable. This may be true, but in actuality you will find that the first-syllable stress is so weak, that most words appear to be rather evenly stressed.

Straightforward, yes, but there are still three idiosyncratic difficulties – (1) you have to contend with three different sound lengths, (2) you will be baffled by the sound Õ (o with a tilde), which is pretty much unpronounceable to most non-Estonians (Õ is unpronounceable even to some Estonians –- on the Estonian island Saaremaa Õ is approximated by an Ö), and (3) you will have to come to grips with the special Estonian form of palatalization. These particular problems will be treated more fully below. This presentation will be popular, i.e. no phonetic expertise is required, nor displayed.

Reverse Estonian pronunciation

To give you a hands-on impression of how Estonian pronunciation and spelling works, you will get it characterized (at the very end of this writeup) in an “upside-down”, reversed way. Instead of presenting odd-looking Estonian words for you to pronounce, you will be presented with approximations of the sounds of familiar English names and words, spelt as an Estonian would phonetically spell them. You will see an incomprehensible-looking word, and -– after trying to pronounce it according to Estonian rules -– suddenly hear yourself say something quite familiar.

Spelling and the alphabet

Estonian is spelled with the Latin alphabet, augmented by a few letters with diacritical marks (“umlauts” –- note that Estonian “umlaut” letters are treated as proper letters, with their own allotted place in the alphabet):

A (aa), B (bee), C (tsee), D (dee), E (ee), F (eff), G (gee), H (haa), I (ii),
J (jott), K (kaa), L (ell), M (emm), N (enn), O (oo), P (pee),
Q (kuu), R (ärr), S (ess), Š (šš), Z (tsett), Ž (žž), T (tee), U (uu), V (vee),
W (kaksikvee), Õ (õõ), Ä (ää), Ö (öö), Ü (üü), X (iks), Y (igrek).

The letters C, F, Q, W, X, Y and Z are only used in foreign loan-words and foreign names – native Estonian words have no use for them. Note that all the sibilants – S, Š, Z, and Ž – are gathered in one group (led by S) in the alphabet, so that Z (pronounced as a voiced “s”, like in Eng “has”) is surprisingly not the last letter in the Estonian alphabet. The alternative spellings Sh for Š and Zh for Ž are accepted in typed and printed text.

To denote a long sound, the corresponding letter is doubled –- the English word “far (away)”, with a long “a”, would be spelled “faar” according to Estonian rules. Similarly, the English word “back”, with a long k-sound, would be spelled “bäkk” in Estonian. Making a sound long does not change its sound value.

Estonian spelling is consistent, i.e. the same letter always stands for the same sound. One exception is platalization, which is not denoted by any letters or symbols –- you have to know when to palatalate. A second exception is long sound length –- there are no symbols for distinguishing between length 2 and length 3 – both are spelt with double letters, and again - you have to know (= conclude from the context) which is which.

Vowels

Estonian vowels are plentiful (Estonian is one of the most vowel-rich languages in Europe) and distinct. Diphthongs are not blurred together, but pronounced as a quick series of individual vowels. Long vowels are spelt by doubling the letters (e.g. “sa” (= you) and “saa” (= get)), but the sound value of the vowel remains unchanged.

  • A –--- like a in Eng “far”
  • E –--- like e in Eng “enter” or “café
  • I –---- like i in Eng “idiot” or ee in Eng “see
  • O –--- like o in Eng “origin” or Eng “fore”
  • U –--- like o in Eng “to” or oo in Eng “tool”
  • Õ –--- this is the pièce de résistance among Estonian vowels, considered unpronounceable by many non-Estonians. However, the sound as such is actually not all that unique to Estonian. Very similar sounds exist in the following languages, but spelt with different letter-symbols:

    Albanian –--- ë (e with a trema / diaresis)
    Romanian –- î (i with a circumflex)
    Turkish –----- ı (= undotted i)

    (Russian also has a sound somewhat resembling the Estonian Õ, but as even remote similarities with anything Russian are scarcely appreciated by Estonians, we will pass this one by).

    A partial Õ in English? A sound reasonably similar to Õ is actually heard as a part of certain English words, as they are pronounced in The King's English (Received Pronunciation). For example, the sounds of the English word “own” would be spelt “õun” in Estonian, with the first part of the “o”-sound corresponding to something that resembles the Estonian õ. Similarly, the English negation “no” would approximately come out as “nõu” in Estonian.

  • Ä –--- like in Eng fair (or sad, happy)
  • Ö –--- a bit like ”ea” in Eng ”earn”, same as ”ö” in German, Finnish, Hungarian, Turkish.
  • Ü –--- no equivalent in Eng, but like ”ü” in German and “y” in Finnish.
  • Y ---- like “y” in Eng “you”, occurs only in foreign words or names.

Consonants

Estonian consonants are for the most part pronounced similarly to their counterparts in the major European languages. An exception is the consonant-trio “b”, “d”, “g”, which, in contrast to these consonants in e.g. German and Swedish, are unvoiced, i.e. they can actually be seen as very short or “soft” versions of the consonants “p”, “t”, “k”.

  • B ---- like "b" in Eng. "best", but unvoiced
  • C ---- as “ts”, or “k”, depending on the foreign original, occurs only in foreign words
  • D ---- like "d" in German, but unvoiced (not quite like the Eng “thick” “d”)
  • F ---- like in English, occurs only in foreign words
  • G ---- like “g” in Eng “go”, but unvoiced
  • H ---- like "h" in Eng. "ham"
  • J ---- like "y" in Eng. "yes" (NEVER as in "jam")
  • K ---- like “k” in Eng “kiss” or "keep"
  • L ---- as in English (almost)
  • M ---- as in English
  • N ---- as in English
  • P ---- as in English
  • Q ---- occurs only in foreign names, pronounced like in the original
  • R ---- "rolled" like in Spanish, but not quite as forcefully
  • S ---- like "s" in Eng. "summer"
  • Š ---- like “sh” in Eng “shot”
  • Z ---- like the voiced “s” in Eng "has"
  • Ž ---- like “j” in French “journal”, similar to the s in Eng "measure" and "leisure" (thanks, ascorbic!)
  • T ---- like in German or Italian (not quite like the “thick” English “t”)
  • V ---- as in English
  • X ---- most often pronounced “ks”, occurs only in foreign names.

Estonian palatalization -- making cute sounds

Palatalization is a modification of a consonant, often accomplished by pressing the upper part of the tongue against the palate, a method that has given the phenomenon its name. However, the term is loosely used even for other types of consonant modifications, which don’t necessarily involve clear-cut tongue-pressing against the palate. The French “mouillé” is a different word for expressing essentially the same thing. The essence is that a consonant, for example an N, sounds distinctly different when palatalized, while still being recognizable as an N. The Russian and Finnish “thick” L-sounds are an example of palatalization, as is the Spanish Ñ (n with a tilde) in e.g. “mañana”.

Estonian palatalization is a bit akin to the Spanish one, in the sense that the consonant is modified in a more high-pitched direction, making it more “cute” or “childish-sounding”. The consonants that are palatalized in certain cases are L, S, N and T. Non-Estonian listeners sometimes mistakenly think that the palatalization effect is achieved by somehow producing an i-sound (see above how an Estonian “i” is pronounced) before or after the consonant. In the case of continuant palatalized consonants it is easy to see that this is not the case and that no vowel-sound is added –- a speaker can sound off a palatalized S or for as long as he/she pleases, without engaging the vocal chords.

Try out your powers at Estonian palatalization -- make a hideous grin

You can produce a sound akin to a palatalized Estonian S if you follow the following recipe: (1) Start by pronouncing a continuant S. (2) While keeping the S continuously hissing, draw back the corners of your mouth, as far as they will go, and then some! You will immediately notice that the S-sound “sharpens”, the hissing becomes more high-pitched. Beginners can produce all palatalized Estonian consonants by this method. Fluent Estonian-speakers don’t have to make such hideous grins like you just had to make, but some drawing back of the corners of the mouth is still involved when making Estonian palatalized sounds.

Palatalization in Estonian has a semantically discriminating function – “kas” (un-palatalized s) is an interrogative phrase, corresponding to the French “est-ce que”, while “kass” (palatalized ss) means “cat”. There are unfortunately no rules for how to see which words are palatalized and which are not, nor is there any spelling device for denoting palatalization.

No Eiffel Tower, but sounds with 3 length levels

Most languages have short and long sounds –- “bakery” has a short “k”-sound, while the “k”-sound in “back” is long. Similarly, “to” has a short “o”-sound, while “too” has a long “o”-sound. The French have their Eiffel Tower and the British pride themselves on their age-old model of parliamentary democracy. Estonia’s highest mountain, the Great Egg Mountain, stands 2 meters lower than the Eiffel Tower and its parliament hasn’t been bickering for much longer than a decade or two. Estonian, however, also has something unique: it has 3 levels of sound length -- no other language has so many. Here is an example:

1st length level of “n” ------- lina (= bed sheet)
2nd length level of “n” ------ linna (= the city’s)
3rd length level of “n” ------- linna (= to the city)

The problem here is that level 2 and level 3 look exactly the same, spelling-wise. True, but they certainly don’t sound the same. No other language has this difference, so it’s difficult to demonstrate on paper. But you may get a pretty good idea with the help of a little cheating. Regard these two English words:

Anno --------- long n-sound, corresponding to length level 2 in Estonian
Unnamed -- when pronounced slowly, word-part by word-part, then the two n-sounds together approximate the Estonian n-sound of length level 3.

NOTE: The credit for finding this clever example goes to Gritchka)

It's of course unfortunate, particularly for the beginner student of Estonian, that the 2nd and 3rd length levels are spelt identically. You have to find out from the context which one is which. But such problems abound in all languages. Why should Estonian be any different?

QUIZ: Using Estonian to understand English

Here’s a list of English names and words, spelt according to Estonian rules. Try to pronounce them and then try to find out what they might look like in the original (correct answers are given at the bottom, in small print):

(1) Šeikspiir or Šeikspiö
(2) Ueilz
(3) Dikenz
(4) Njuukaasl
(5) Tšöötšill
(6) Kuiinzländ
(7) džöönal
(8) Naitsbridž
(9) Liidz
(10) Bakingäm

ANSWERS: (1) Shakespeare, (2) Wales, (3) Dickens, (4) Newcastle, (5) Churchill, (6) Queensland, (7) journal, (8) Knightsbridge, (9) Leeds, (10) Buckingham.

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