I began my studies in Semiotics MA here in Tartu Ülikool this Autumn. I did my Bachelor’s degree on Ethnology in the University of Jyväskylä in Finland, but the beauty of Tartu stole me away. Semiotics is the study of meaning-making and sign processes. While it is a study historically interested in language and linguistics, today it is a full fledged philosophical science concerned with human and non-human understanding. But today I want to tell you that I am also studying the Estonian language.
As a Finnish international student in Estonia I hear this statement quite often:”So I heard that the Finnish and Estonian languages are very similar, you can actually understand the language already, right?” And my answer is ”yes… and no”.
Finnish and Estonian belong to the Baltic Finnic language group, which is itself a subgroup or a branch of Uralic languages. Grammatically and phonetically the languages are very close to each other, for example both have a crazy amount of noun cases (14 in Estonian, 15 in Finnish) and those cases are expressed through similar sounding inflections and suffixes. Also lexically speaking a huge amount of words between the languages look and sound almost exactly the same, but that’s where the trouble arises: not all of the some sounding words actually mean the same thing.
The two languages are closely related, and it’s hard to say when in history they might have separated from some sort of a ”Proto-Finnic” language, but their separate histories go back at least as far as the Iron Age. The cultural separation of the language groups intensified around medieval times when Estonians were more strongly bound to Baltic-German hegemony and Finns were on the other hand tied to Swedish rule. (Fun fact: the old Swedish name for Finland was ”Österland”, meaning Eastland. One probable etymology of the name Estonia is also ”a land in east”.)
What results is a lot of shared synonymous words falling into obscurity in one language while staying in use in another language and a lot of words borrowed from different languages but assuming a similar sounding pronunciation between languages.
For my language studies and communication skills this poses a problem: how will I ever know if something I just said was actually about ordering a fried egg or taking rocks from the pavement? While I kind of understand the language, I am just as bound to my dictionary wordbook as you are. On the other hand, as a student of Semiotics, I feel so lucky to be studying the philosophical theories concerning designation, signification and communication in such a rich environment of language and meaning-making.
Some people say that learning a language such as Estonian is hard, but I want to encourage you all to take it not as a chore but an experience. When you have the chance, take a trip through meaning. For I believe that that is what it really means to learn a new language: to set upon a leisurely trip, on a road paved with various meanings and expressions. For a student studying two or more Finnic languages, every day in Tartu is an opportunity to stumble upon a word and get lost in it.
And hey, you can always just pick up a Finnish-Estonian Dictionary from the library and break the ice with your new Estonian friends by asking them to explain what the Finnish words sound like to them.