Learning Estonian — Beginning of a Journal

Well now, I’ve decided to take up Estonian.  My doing that is not as random as it might first appear if you know that certain of my friends are Estonian,  of Estonian descent, or have participated in the descendency of the descendents conjugally with the Estonian.  The descendents and the non-descendent parent have undertaken the quest of learning the language, and I thought how fun it would be to all learn it together.

So here I am — a few non-contiguous days into it, and it occurred to me to keep a journal, and that in spite of the broadcast commitment I would be making to the world.  Similar to the gal who decided to blog about doing all the Julia Childs recipes.

This, then, is the first installment of the journal.  I’m not going to be recording everything I learn, such as listing each and every case ending and permutation; but rather I’ll be logging my process, observations, and progress in coding an Estonian subroutine in my brain.

How I Start

One of the things I do when getting a new device is quickly read through the user guide.  Not to learn it, but rather to prime myself with the breadth and depth of new things to learn.  So I start with the science: the linguistics of Estonian.

Enter Wikipedia.  The page on the Estonia Language is rich with information and, especially, links.  I’ll read a paragraph or two, and then Ctrl+click several links (to open the linked page in a new browser tab) for exposition on concepts that I need to refresh or need to learn.  In one of my previous blog entries — actually, the last one — I learned about apocope: how sounds drop off the end of a word for various reasons.

From Wikipedia, I learned that Estonian is a language in transition from one where discrete semantic units are glued (agglutination) together to form words to one where the gluing becomes a mashing of the units so that they’re not so discrete anymore and can be twisted in sometimes unpredictable ways to arrive at a “fusional language.”  But it has not arrived there.  In fact, it appears that the language has only just begun that pendulum swing having been affected by Russian and German. (In fact, Wikipedia claims the language gets fully 1/3 of its vocabulary from German!)  In any case, from that I understand that once you learn the morphemes used to compose words, you won’t have to worry too much about a lot of irregularities as you find in fully fusional (inflectional) languages.

That’s really a huge relief.

But as I had been warned, Estonian has a shit-ton of cases — 14 to be exact.  Now, that might otherwise have worried me except that I learned the cases really are very little different from our (English) use of prepositions.  So, instead of saying “I live in Estonia,” you come out saying “I live Estoniain.”  I can do that.

I was getting a lot of information from Wikipedia, but not enough to be able to see how the pieces fit into a pattern.  Starting from Wikipedia, I then cherry-picked my way to several-degrees-away-linked pages until I had a selection of sites I have evaluated to help me begin my studies in meaningful ways.

Main Objective

My main objective in evaluating these sites to reach my real objective to be able to see patterns in case-ending formation as well as nail down the semantics of all the cases.  I’m absolutely sure that what I’m encountering now will not supply me with the nuance that an intermediate speaker would begin learning, but it’s enough to get me started and be primed for the nuance.

By primed I mean here that, if I take the time to comprehend the edges around the semantics of a case, compare them to slots in my brain I have already carved with other languages, I can later extrapolate to the nuance.

So, to accomplish my main objective,  I need to see a chart that I can dissect and annotate. What I annotate on that chart includes:

  • The Latin base of the case labels.  For instance, where does the word Ablative come from.  This helps me remember the case label with the case semantics. If I forget the semantics, I can refer to the etymology of the label as a type of mnemonic.
  • Case semantics and examples.  Oddly enough, when I begin making notations on this, I begin learn by osmosis what the case endings are.
  • Then there are the case endings.  My objective is first to identify them, learn a little bit about how they’re glued onto words, and then feel them.

Yes, “feeling the semantics” sounds a lot like “feeling the groove,” and it is.  Here’s an example. The inessive case (from Latin ‘to be in’) is an -s (glued onto the gentive form of a word…but that’s later) to signify ‘in’.  So, to fuse the semantics with the physical (speaking part), I say a few words and physically feel “in” with the -s at the end of the word.  Luckily there appears to be some historic logic to Estonia: with -s being ‘in’, I can then extend ‘in’ to ‘into’ with illative case ending -sse — the ‘s’ sound is longer (literally), which feels like a “logical” extension of an ‘in’ that is stretched and more removed from me.  It’s ‘inside’ something.

Side Trips

In my linguistic priming survey, I’ve also run across the pronouns and some prepositions and some verb formations.  But the cases for me are the most important because I suspect that most everything else — whether verbs, nouns, pronouns, prepositions — are all going to be tied to the cases somehow.  So, I will finish off assimilating the case endings, and then I’ll move into the pronouns (which will be faster) and some verb formations.  I’ll also start keeping a list of vocabulary.

Now that, to me, is the real challenge.  Getting enough words under my belt so that I can at least make it to the Tarzan level of what could be loosely termed as facility.  The other part about vocabulary is that you need a wide enough array to be able to attach what you’ve learned grammatically to them to form phrases.  They become prototype bricks in a mnemonic foundation.  Problem with Estonian — and I don’t care how many words are borrowed from German and Russian — these words find no cousins in my mind’s dictionary.  Gotta learn them without etymological help!  In that case, I’ll begin pasting stickies all around the house with words on them.

So far, what I have been able to do has taken about 8 hours, and that included the linguistic survey, and several of those hours have been inhibited by being under the unpleasant part of the residual effects of too much red wine.  But my Estonian friend gave me my first test with regard to case endings:

Oluline küll – kas õpid keelt pohmelusega või pohmeluseta!

I do not recognize a single word, but I do recognize the case indicators at the end of pohmelus-.  With the help of translate.google.com, I got the first part of the sentence, but it didn’t translate the pohmelus- words.  So, I whacked off what I knew were case endings: -ga and -ta.  I know that case endings are, for the most part, all glued onto the genitive case ending (which varies by root), so I took off the next letter (-e-), and what was left was the root, which Google knew. If Google  hadn’t know, I could have gone to an online Estonian dictionary with something useful.

It [studying case endings] is important though – if you study a language, with or without a hangover.

‘With’ and ‘without’ are the case endings I just learned!  So those pohmelus- words are literally translated ‘with a hangover’ and ‘without a hangover’.  Or to agglutinize English: hangoverwith and hangoverwithout.

Thanks Harry!

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3 Responses

  1. Ron, I am so delighted that you are embarking on this journey!

  2. Ron! Now I am learning more estonian because of you too!!

    pohmelus is probably a good one to learn.
    I believe there’s a reason when with the -sega too?

    -ga and -ta are my first 2 that i learned too.

    there’s a bar in tallinn called nimeta – the bar with no name 🙂
    and back in the days there was a nimega ….

  3. Ron, your foray into Estonian was so ‘investigative’ – for me it was in self defense. I started by going to a book store in Tallinn, purchasing a Learning Estonian book and cd, making a daily appointment with myself – and becoming overwhelmed! You inspire me to go back to this challenge!

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