The quirky side of the Estonian language (51)
You might have heard the joke “Estonian has no sex and no future” before, referring of course to the fact that there are no genders and no future tense in the Estonian language, but did you know that it doesn’t have a longest word either?
To mark the Mother Tongue Day, ERR News put together a little guide to the weirdest, most wonderful words in the Estonian language.
Let’s get the most obvious ones out of the way first. After our new, no doubt highly motivated students have mastered öö(night; pronounced like i in girl), they can practice with öötöö (night job). Now say töö-öö (working night). In that vein you might also want to try jää-äär (edge of the ice; ä is pronounced like a in man) and kuu-uurija (moon explorer, lunar researcher; u pronounced like o in moon). And to put them in a sentence: Kuu-uurijad töö-ööl jää-äärel – lunar researchers at work on the edge of the ice during the night.
Another exceptional word that every Estonian is proud to present is kirstuvõti (key of the coffin), remarkable for including six letters – r, s, t, u, v, õ – in the alphabetical order.
You might find them a little less eager to say Terviseks! out loud in international company. Don’t mind if your friendly enquiry about how to say cheers in Estonian is answered by an inaudiable mumble and a blush.
Then there are the usual tongue-twisters: veoauto(juht) (lorry driver), habemeajaja (barber), jaamaülem (station manager), jõululaululaulja (Christmas carol singer).
But you might like the ones that also look cool, better: jalalaba (sole of the foot), asjaajaja (clerk, secretary), or the sentence anna õlu üle Ülo õe õla (hand the beer over Ülo’s sister’s shoulder).
Or the seemingly simple ones like süüa or püüa (tip: they’re not pronounced phonetically), or even õu (yard; pronounced a bit like oh!). Louis Zezeran of Comedy Estonia will give a clue on how to pronounce that weird o with a wiggly thing on top.
One of the most fascinating things about Estonian is the fact that it’s possible to form endless compounds by converting the first word into the next word’s genitive. Takeisaspaabulinnusabakattesulesilmamunavärvivabrikukuldväravaauvahtkonnaülemapühapäevajakirinnataskusisevoodrivahe, for example, or the more reasonable uusaastaöövastuvõtuhommikuidüll, which an eager Wikipedia contributor has even managed to use in a sentence.
But our favorite is kuulilennuteetunneliluuk (the hatch a bullet flies out of when exiting a tunnel), not because of its impressive 24-letter length, but for the fact that it’s a palindrome – it can be read from both ends and it looks exactly the same. Estonia loses out to Finnish though, which has two 25-letter palindromes in its arsenal, and Dutch, with a whopping 33-letter monster.
Then there are words which would be lost in translation (so we won’t even try), like untsantsakas.
And those that just sound cool: nipet-näpet, tohuvabohu, mürakaru.
Last, but not least, are English-looking words that have a very different meaning in Estonian. Those who have visited Tallinn might have enjoyed a pint or two at the popular Hell Hunt pub in the Old Town. Any educated guess as to it being on the rough side is deeply mistaken, quite the opposite really, hell hunt means a gentle wolf in Estonian.
Let us know your favorites in the comment section.
Here are some of the finds pointed out by our readers: the vowel-only äiaõeoaaiaoaõieau (bean-flower honour in father-in-law’s sisters’ beangarden), which follows the endless compounds rule, and vanapaganatagavara (the Devil’s stockpile).