Thanks to Estonia’s situation along the boundary of Eastern and Western Europe, the Estonian language and Estonian culture have undergone unique developments. With Russia to the east and Sweden to the west, the Estonian language and people have come under a wide variety of outside influences throughout history.
Classification and Early History of the Estonian Language
Estonian is classified as a member of the Finno-Ugric subfamily of the Uralic family of languages. It is closely related to the Finnish, Livonian, Votic, Ingrian, Karelian and Veps languages.
The first mention of the Estonian peoples is found in the papers of Tacitus, a Roman historian who lived during the 1st century AD.
Throughout the 9th century, Estonia faced invasion by the Vikings who frequently passed through the land on journeys of conquest. In the 11th and 12th centuries, both the Danes and the Swedes made attempts to bring Christianity to Estonia but largely failed in their missionary efforts. Russia also made numerous attempts to take control of Estonia during this time, but its efforts proved unsuccessful and Estonia remained independent.
German Conquest in Estonia
A Teutonic presence in Estonia first began with missionary actions in the 13th century. Eventually most of southern Estonia and Latvia came under Teutonic power. Northern Estonia remained in the hands of the Danish crown until 1346 when it sold its power to the Teutonic Order.
From this point on, the Germans ruled over the majority of Estonian land and consequently came to dominate Estonian government, commerce and religion. Any sense of a unique Estonian national identity was effectively suppressed as the native Estonian population was subjugated to serfdom.
German domination lasted for almost five centuries, and evidence of this past can be seen in the Estonian language today. A significant number of modern Estonian words are borrowed from the Middle German.
Written Estonian Language
The Kullamaa prayers, which date from the 1520s, are the first notable example of the Estonian language in written form. The first printed Estonian language book, the Wanradt-Koell Catechism, emerged in 1535. As the written Estonian language evolved, two distinct literary cultural centers emerged: the cities of Tallinn in the north and Tartu in the south.
Modern Estonian is written using a Latin-language alphabet with diacritic marks added to produce certain sounds a standard Latin alphabet cannot easily produce. Modern written Estonian is based on a revised orthography created in the second half of the 19th century.
Russian Conquest in Estonia: A Period of Russification
After a period of Swedish rule, Estonia came into Russian hands at the end of the Second Northern War. Russian Tsar Peter I took power of Estonia after defeating Sweden at the Battle of Poltava, and a period of severe Russian rule followed.
A program of intense Russification was later instituted under Tsar Alexander III. A Russian municipal constitution was established in 1882, replacing Baltic criminal and civil codes with Russian law. In 1887 German and Estonian were abolished as languages of education in Estonia and replaced by Russian.
“The Kalevipoeg”: An Awakening of Estonian National Consciousness
In the late 19th century, Estonia experienced a surge of national consciousness. A number of factors contributed to this development, among them the publication of Estonian author F. Reinhold Kreutzwald’s epic “Kalevipoeg” (“Son of Kalevi”).
Appearing as a series of songs from 1857 to 1861, Kreutzwald’s national epic helped to spark interest in the revitalization of an Estonian national literature and identity. The work gained immense popularity throughout all of Estonia, helping to fuse north and south by inspiring a vision of a single unified Estonia.
Nationalist Revival in the 19th Century
A significant gap between northern and southern Estonia existed for many centuries, making it difficult for Estonians to develop a standard language and culture. This changed significantly in the 19th century, thanks to a nationalist revival which emphasized a common Estonian identity and helped fuse together the north and south.
The establishment of the radical newspaper Konstantin Pats in 1901 marked the start of Estonian revolutionary actions. By 1905, revolutionary movement in Russia had spread to Estonia. With the foundation of the Estonian National Liberal Party, Estonians began to make demands for political autonomy.
Estonian revolutionary actions eventually inspired the Russian government to declare a state of martial law. Many revolutionary Estonians were executed by the Russian government in the repressive period that followed.
Independence for Estonia
In 1917 Estonia declared independence from Russian rule. One year later German forces entered the country and sovereignty over Estonia was transferred to the Germans. This period of German rule lasted almost a year; by 1919, all of Estonia’s land was once again freed from foreign control.
Estonian Persecution During the Soviet Era
Estonia’s independence was threatened once again by the events of World War II. In 1940 Estonia was incorporated into the USSR, resulting in a period of repression and Russification that threatened the Estonian people and their culture.
The population of ethnic Estonians suffered immensely as many native Estonians were deported and large waves of non-Estonians from Russia and other USSR republics migrated to the country. Before World War II, the Estonian population consisted of almost 90 percent ethnic Estonians, but by 1990 this number had shrunk to approximately 60 percent. In 1991, Estonian independence was formally declared.
Estonian Language Today
Estonian includes two primary dialects, southern and northern (also known as Tallinn). The northern dialect serves as the basis for written literary Estonian.
The Estonian language is found primarily in Estonia, where it serves as the official language. Approximately two-thirds of the Estonian population claim Estonian as a first language, while an estimated one-quarter speak Russian as their primary language.
Estonian can also be found in scattered communities in the regions surrounding Estonia, including Russia and Sweden. There are more than 1 million speakers of the Estonian language worldwide.
Estonian Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Eesti, Viro
Language Family: Uralic, Finnic
Official Language of: Estonia
Spoken by Approximately 1,075,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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