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.


  1. Pingback: A FINN’S INTRODUCTION TO ESTONIAN ”HISTORICAL” CINEMA – ANTTI (FINLAND) | International Student Ambassadors - University of Tartu·

  2. So you study semiotics, yet choose a picture of a city with castle-like features and a book that looks like a bible to illustrate a distinction from a castle and a bible, respectively. Good luck with you goals, whatever they may be.

    • “A mold (US) or mould (UK / NZ / AU / ZA / CA) is a fungus that grows in the form of multicellular filaments called hyphae.”

      Kannatti nipottaa, eikös? 😉

  3. sulhanen (fin) – a bridegroom
    sulane (est) – a servant, farmhand

    hukata (fin) – to lose
    hukkama (est) – to execute (as in behead)

    koristaa (fin) – to decorate
    koristama (est) – to clean

    etelä (fin) – south
    edel (est) – southeast

    lounas (fin) – southwest
    lõuna (est) – south

    halpa (fin) – cheap
    halb (est) – bad

    puhua (fin) – to speak
    puhuma (est) – to blow

    katsoa (fin) – to look
    katsuma (est) – to touch

    ylpeä (fin) – proud
    ülbe (est) – arrogant

    vaimo (fin) – a wife
    vaim (est) – a ghost, spirit

    kassi (fin) – a bag
    kass (est) – a cat

    paras (fin) – best
    paras (est) – fitting

    halata (fin) – to hug
    halama (est) – to lament

    lahja (fin) – gift, present
    lahja (est) – weak, thin

    hella (fin) – a stove
    hell (est) – gentle

    makea (fin) – sweet
    mage (est) – bland

    erämaa (fin) – a desert
    eramaa (est) – a private land

    kavallus (fin) – a betrayal
    kavalus (est) – sly

    tuore (fin) – wet
    toores (est) – raw

    ämmä (fin) – an old lady
    ämm (est) – a mother-in-law

    hiljaa (fin) – quietly
    hilja (est) – too late

    karistaa (fin) – to shake
    karistama (est) – to punish

    karu (fin) – barren
    karu (est) – a bear
    karhu (fin) – a bear

    rinnakas (fin) – parallel
    rinnakas (est) – chesty

    kopsu (fin) – a drink
    kops (est) – a lung

    kitsas (fin) – close-fisted
    kitsas (est) – narrow

    • puhua (fin) – to speak
      puhuma (est) – to blow
      puhuri (fin) – wind blowing

      lahja (fin) – gift, present
      lahja (est) – weak, thin
      laiha (fin) – weak, thin

      hella (fin) – a stove
      hell (est) – gentle
      hellä (fin) – gentle

      kavallus (fin) – a betrayal
      kavalus (est) – sly
      kavala (fin) – sly
      kavalus (fin) – a person who is sly

      tuore (fin) – wet
      toores (est) – raw
      Nope, tuore is fresh. Märkä is wet.

      hiljaa (fin) – quietly
      hilja (est) – too late
      Hiljaa can also mean slowly.

      rinnakas (fin) – parallel
      rinnakas (est) – chesty
      Nope again, rinnakas is chesty. Rinnakkainen means parallel.

      Otherwise well done.

  4. Funny about the viiner/viineri. Most places they call a Danish pastry a Danish. In Denmark they call it a Wienerbrod – literally, bread from Vienna. Similar to Wieners not being called Wieners in Vienna, and Frankfurters not being called Frankfurters in Frankfurt, and Berliners… well, you get my drift.


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