Finnish/Estonian: mutual understandability

Discussion in 'Suomi (Finnish)' started by jonquiliser, Mar 17, 2007.

  1. jonquiliser

    jonquiliser Senior Member

    Svediż tal-Finlandja
    Hello everyone

    I was a little intrigued by some posts around here, on Estonian. Speaking Finnish, though not a native speaker, I recognise many Estonian words and sometimes can understand some simple things. Generally, though, my understanding of Estonian doesn't go further than that. Attempts to communicate in Finnish/Estonian with Estonians have proven utterly futile ;) Some (native) Finnish-speaking people have said that they can understand some Estonian, or that at any rate, learning the language is fairly easy for them. But how is it the other way around? Do Estonians understand Finnish? Written and/or oral? In one topic the Estonian national anthem was mentioned, and apparantly some words like tääl/tael and pääl/pael (?) are archaic; in Finnish täällä (here) and päällä (on) are normal, fluent language. Does Finnish seem archaic to Estonian ears?

    I hope you'll satiate my curiosity :D
  2. Etcetera

    Etcetera Senior Member

    St Petersburg, Russia
    Russian, Russia (St Petersburg)
    I'm learning Finnish, and I can understand quite a number of Estonian words and even whole phrases.:)
    As for the question about to what extent Estonians can understand Finnish, I'll ask my Estonian friends and tell you.:)
  3. Etcetera

    Etcetera Senior Member

    St Petersburg, Russia
    Russian, Russia (St Petersburg)
    OK, I asked two friends of mine.
    One said that Estonians should understand written Finnish, although there are some words which are totally different (linn/kaupunki, for example).
    The other adds that she knows from her own experience that an Estonian can talk with a Finn, and they'll understand each other. Grammars are very similar, and if an Estonian word doesn't sounds like its Finnish counterpart, it's always possible to find a synonym which would be more easy to understand.
  4. jonquiliser

    jonquiliser Senior Member

    Svediż tal-Finlandja
    Interesting! And thanks for the info :) (And pretty good for a Finnish learner to already get some Estonian! :thumbsup: )

    Many times, once I know what a word means, I see the link - like with "linn" and "kaupunki". In Finnish, "linna" is aprox. "castle" or "fortress", so it's not hard to see the link with the Estonian town "linn". But only reading a text, I can't say I understand it fluently, not by a long shot. I pick up the meaning if lucky.

    There also seem to be some typical differences, like Finnish 'p' often having 'b', if I'm not mistaken (as in vapaa-vaba (?)). I guess once you are aware of that, understanding is easier. Interesting, anyhow :cool:
  5. DrWatson

    DrWatson Senior Member

    I myself as a native Finn have noticed that Estonians use many words that in Finnish are native words (or derivations of those) but the Estonian counterpart is a loanword. For example, "calculator":

    Finnish: laskin (derived from "laskea", to count)
    Estonian: kalkulaator

    Another one, "spice"
    Finnish: mauste (from "maustaa", to flavour)
    Estonian: würts (German: Würze)

    And I just found this, "excavator"
    Finnish: kaivinkone (from "kaivaa" to dig, and "kone" machine = digging machine)
    Estonian: ekskavaator

    I'm sure there are also words that work the other way round. And about the linn/kaupunki type words, there's also the word "book". In Finnish it's kirja, in Estonian it's raamat. In Finnish raamattu means The Bible. :)
  6. Pando

    Pando Member

    Finland: Swedish, Finnish, English
    In the past I've worked with quite many Estonians, I've also spent some time in Tallinn and have a good Estonian online friend. The thing that has surprised me the most is how many of them seem to actually speak Finnish. The Finns I've encountered whom speak fluent Finnish are very few indeed but it seems like every other Estonian speaks Finnish at some level, especially in Tallinn. For a Finn to understand written Estonian and vice versa is in my opinion quite similar to the relation between written Danish and Swedish. You might not understand every word, but if you concentrate you understand the context most of the times. If Estonian or Finns are talking among their own countrymen it can be hard for the other nationality to hang along, you might pick up a few words here and there - but if they communicate with each other, and focus on speaking clearly etc. they generally get understood.

    As mentioned one problem is shared words that have different meanings, one that comes to mind; Piimä, which means milk in Estonian and sour milk in Finnish.
  7. It is true that Estonian is much more into borrowings and also there is a tendency for words to end in a consonant whereas a similar words in Finnish would add on a vowel.
  8. Dzanta New Member

    Tallinn, Estonia
    Russian, Estonia
    And "kirja" in Estonian is second form of "kiri" - letter.
    I live in Estonia, but know Estonian not very good, and newertheless when I read simple Finnish texts, sometimes I can understand the main meaning of it.
  9. Hakro

    Hakro Senior Member

    Helsinki, Finland
    Finnish - Finland
    I have noticed that if I speak with an Estonian person who is about forty or older, I can use Finnish and I get answers in fluent Finnish. But if the person is in his/her twenties or younger I get the answer in English: "Sorry, I don't speak Finnish."

    With the people between these ages we often use a mixed language, half Finnish, half Estonian, searching for understandable synonyms, as Etcetera said.

    The reason is that the older generation lived in the Soviet time when most of the Estonians were watching the Finnish TV and they learned our language quickly.
  10. Etcetera

    Etcetera Senior Member

    St Petersburg, Russia
    Russian, Russia (St Petersburg)
    Jonquiliser, here's another Estonian's opinion.:)
    She says that her Estonian isn't that good now (she has been living in Turin, Italy for the last seven years or so), but she used to understand Finnish texts quite easily. And she adds that to Estonians Finnish sounds a bit "funny": more mildly, even childishly.
  11. jonquiliser

    jonquiliser Senior Member

    Svediż tal-Finlandja
    Hey Etcetera,

    that's so funny to hear, that Estonians might think Finnish sounds more mild!! To me it seems just the opposite, like Estonian is more soft, mild, and as if they cut the words at the end (many words end in a consonant, where in Finnish there would be a vowel following that consonant). It's funny this with how people hear other languages, like to me, Dutch sounds so funny, bouncing/singing, sort of - and Dutch/Belgian people say the same of Swedish! :D

    Thanks, Etcetera, to you and your friends! :)
  12. Etcetera

    Etcetera Senior Member

    St Petersburg, Russia
    Russian, Russia (St Petersburg)
    You're always welcome, Jonquiliser.:)
  13. Spectre scolaire Senior Member

    Moving around, p.t. Turkey
    Maltese and Russian

    This seems to be a good example of centre vs. periphery in language studies – only that both languages in question are national languages. This concept is mostly used for describing a prestigeous norm of a language vs. (perceived!) dialects of the same. And yet, its applicability to Finnish vs. Estonian is - at least diachronically – a challenging question.

    During Soviet rule, Finnish was well understood in Estonia, but the Finns had no particular interest in watching Estonian television. When Finns and Estonians talked together, the Estonians would presumably make more concessions to the Finns than vice versa. Indeed, how could the Finns make any substantial concessions at all when Estonian was only impressionistically known. We are not talking about Arabs who speak two different Arabic dialects and try to accommodate to each other by speaking a hybrid of Classical Arabic, the so-called Modern Standard Arabic. There is no common classical language to resort to between Finns and Estonians.

    Some knowledge as to how they spoke across the bay must have seeped into Finland already during the twenties and the thirties when quite a number of Finns went to Estonia to learn – not Estonian, but German! German was one of the four official languages of Estonia during the short-lived interwar Estonian independence, and it was obviously more convenient for a young son or daughter to stay for the summer vacation with a German family in Estonia than travel to Germany. I would not be surprised if the German language in Estonia, during this period, had an objective prestige which was higher than that of Estonian. Such a view would leave Estonian in a potentially dangerous “underdog position” which in turn would influence the way Estonians themselves would be looking at their own language.

    Later, many Estonians came to Finland as refugees, but most of them must have assimilated pretty quickly. Estonians, and especially the Veps and the Ingrians, have a long history of assimilating to Russian, leaving little of their origins to future generations. Many of the more or less extinct languages around St. Petersburg never developed into written form; they were considered to be dialects of either Finnish or Estonian – along the belt of a linguistic continuum which was first broken by Peter the Great and his city. On the Finnish side of St. Petersburg – remember that the distance between the Finnish border and the city of Leningrad was negligeable before the Winter War – we find Karelian which was actually developed as a written language by the Soviets. Many would say, even today, that Karelian is a Finnish dialect. The parallel between Bulgarian and Macedonian as a centre vs periphery case is striking. Tito created Macedonian as a written language different from Bulgarian. Also Estonian went through a pretty tough language policy period in order to distinguish itself, in order to be a language in its own right. As far as I know, they did this very successfully – not unlike their remote relatives, the Hungarians, who also had a German spectre to fight against. The Estonians, paradoxically, also had the Finns to “fight against”; new words were not to be created too much according to Finnish models - as DrWatson clearly indicates.

    After Soviet Union collapsed, the centre/periphery situation changed. Estonians did not feel any need to be objectively informed through other sources than their own radio and television. Loads of Finns would go to Estonia as tourists and no less number of Estonians would go to Finland. This va et vient of tourists and business people had not existed before; in fact, Estonia had been more or less closed to foreigners - not Russians!... - for decades. The “periphery status” of Estonian simply vanished together with the newly gained independence. One could perhaps say - mutatis mutandis – that the epic poem Kalevala, which had made Finnish a cultural language to be proud of, has its counterpart in the epic struggle of the Estonians to cultivate independently their own cultural and linguistic heritage. Otherwise they would continue to hobble along as a peripheral language.

    The new situation (i.e. since independence) may result in less mutual intelligibility, but as the two languages develop, and Estonian (presumably) also becomes a prestigious language, perhaps the Finns will make more concessions to the Estonians than the Estonians necessarily made formerly to the Finns. And isn’t this precisely what Hakro means when he says:

    This can only be done if Finns have a better knowledge of Estonian – much better than during the time when a concept of centre vs. periphery would apply.:)

    As an outsider I am curious to get some feedback on my understanding of the whole picture.

    By the way --

    -- this reminds me of all the jokes between Czech and Polish. It is not the language which is “funny”, it is the perception of the neighboring language using words in a “wrong way” – as if the speakers are children who haven’t yet learned how to speak properly. In fact, they have “only” learned their own (national!) language!:D

    Apparently, Estonian has preserved some archaic features which are unknown in Finnish. This is also a characteristic of a peripheral language; it is more "original" (to whichever Finnic source we might talk about).
  14. Spectre scolaire Senior Member

    Moving around, p.t. Turkey
    Maltese and Russian
    Oops, I just discovered it now! I am sorry, Hakro, for having fouled up your pseudonym in my first quotation.:eek:
  15. Hakro

    Hakro Senior Member

    Helsinki, Finland
    Finnish - Finland
    No problem.
  16. Frank06

    Frank06 Senior Member

    Nederlands / Dutch (Belgium)
    It might be very anecdotal, but at this moment I have a Finnish and an Estonian student in my class. They speak English with each other throughout.
    When I asked them, they came up with loads of (near-)similarities between Finnish and Estonian, which they discussed among themselves in English :).
    Which makes me think that whatever the similarities between the two languages, the differences are too big to have a fluent and a clear conversation in F/E.


  17. Ilmo

    Ilmo Member Emeritus

    Thank you, Spectre, for a really interesting post, showing great expertise.
  18. jonquiliser

    jonquiliser Senior Member

    Svediż tal-Finlandja
    Oh, yes, thank you Spectre, for your informative post; I think a lot of what you say makes a lot of sense and is worth thinking about! And thanks to everyone else, too, for your input, I take great interest in reading your experiences! :)

  19. Kassikakk Member

    Estonia, Estonian
    Some thoughts from an Estonian's perspective.

    It is certainly true that, being related languages, there is a remarkable similarity between Estonian and Finnish and many words coincide at least at the synonym level. However, I wouldn't be too optimistic about the mutual understandability when it comes to totally unprepared persons (i.e. those who have not learned or been otherwise actively exposed to the other language). Learning is certainly easier due to similarity (as the similarity also concerns the points that are classically considered difficult when learning either of the languages, such as word stem changes on declination, etc.) but on the other hand one has to be careful about it - besides the coinciding words there are words that are similar but have either shifted or completely different meanings. Some examples were already given on the former case ( like 'kiri' (est.'letter')/'kirja' (fin. 'book') let's add e.g. 'hoone' (est. 'building') / 'huone' (fin. 'room'), maybe also 'katsuma' (est. 'to touch, feel') / 'katsoa' (fin. 'to look')), but the latter case is especially awkward (e.g. 'ruumid' (est. 'rooms') / 'ruumit' (fin. 'corpses, dead bodies'), 'konn' (est. 'frog') / 'konna' (fin. 'bastard'), and one can find some even more drastic examples). The list is endless, in fact there exists an entire dictionary on such misinterpretations.
    Another question is how many such 'unexposed' persons are there for example in Estonia these days. I think there may still be quite a lot. As to watching Finnish TV channels during the Soviet time, note that it was only possible in the Northern Estonia, basically just along the northern coast (which includes Tallinn, though). Naturally, in this area all kinds of influences of Finland and Finnish language have always been stronger than elsewhere, and one can find many people that speak Finnish there. And even though probably most people in Estonia have had some sort of connection with Finland or Finnish people by now, they often lack the motivation to do any language learning (especially having found out that it's not as easy as it may seem at first glance) and resort to English or some other language if needed.

    How does the Finnish sound to Estonians? Well, it's a matter of taste, but I wouldn't call it 'mild' or 'childish'. Rather it sounds a bit glumsy and unevenly, due to generally longer words and the missing so-called 'second quantity' (middle-duration pronounciation of the stressed syllable) so all the words are either short or 'overlong'. There is less (if at all) palatalization in Finnish, which makes me even more puzzled about the 'mildness' someone could hear. I wouldn't say it's archaic either, although the words that are similar in both languages probably largely do represent the older part of the languages.

    Some more remarks on the earlier postings:

    'Kalkulaator' is not very widely used, we tend to call everything that does some computing 'arvuti' (from 'arvutama', to calculate, compute), be it a desktop computer or a pocket calculator. You can say 'taskuarvuti' if you want to stress "pocketness" ('tasku'='pocket').

    Does 'mauste' have to be spicy? I think the corresponding word in Estonian is 'maitseaine' ('maitse'='flavour', 'aine'='substance') which is just any kind of seasoning. The correspondence 'spice'='vürts' is probably correct, but to think about it, lately I've seen this word used more in various figurative contexts than talking about cooking.

    That's right. Colloquially it's often called 'kopp', which actually means just the bucket (or the scoop, which may be where it's come from).

    I'm not at all trying to prove here that the Estonian language is not into borrowing words. It certainly is, much more than Finnish that is one of the few languages having even a native word for 'sports' ('urheilu').
  20. jonquiliser

    jonquiliser Senior Member

    Svediż tal-Finlandja
    Thanks for another interesting post! - and good to have another Estonian view expressed here :)
  21. suslik

    suslik Senior Member

    USA, Atlanta
    Estonia, estonian
    I'm pure estonian and in my opinion finnish sounds so so many vocals. And when I had to communicate with couple of finnish people then I couldn't understand, we still spoke in english...But when we started to compare words, we discovered that so many words are same, or in finnish there is only 1 vocal added to the end of word. But when I'm listening finnish, then I don't understand, maybe only some words, cause I've never learn finnish.
    And it's all true what Kassikakk wrote here:)
    And if anybody wants to know more about estonian language you can always ask.

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