Sunday, October 30, 2011

Southern Estonian features

I decided to write this post to share with fellow learners some interesting points I came across whilst reading Jaan Kaplinski's children's collection of short stories Põhjatuul ja lõunatuul. The first little tale is called Siga taevatamme all (Pig under the sky-oak) which tells the tale of a pig who escapes from his pen and goes wandering in the countryside and I want to reproduce some of the lines here and discuss them a little.

As a learner of Estonian I am quite certain you very familiar with the demonstrative pronoun see and all its forms: selle, seda, sellese, ses/selles etc. However, I wonder if you have come across too. While this pronoun is perfectly acceptable in standard Estonian its usage is far less common and gives the piece a more distinctive southern Estonian feel.

The second 'southern feature' I would like to draw your attention to is the use of a double ä versus the standard ae diphthong. It's archaic Estonian and as such is not a feature of the modern standard language but, again, is quite common amongst southern Estonians speaking the state language (riigikeel). Also, in running through the few shortish sentences I will point out other features that are of general interest and not stereotypically southern.  

Misuke suur õun sääl puu otsas kasvab (Missugune suur õun seal puu otsas kasvab.)
'What a big apple grows in that tree over there'.  

Misuke is colloquial for missugune. Notice that seal is rendered as sääl, a distinctly southern form. Puu otsas means 'in a tree, up a tree.' There is an Estonian expression that incorporates this phrase: Mina olin puu otsas kui pauk käis! 'I was up the tree when the bomb went off', i.e. 'I haven't the foggist what happened/ I wasn't involved.'  

Peaks uurima, kus tolle tamme tüvi on. '
(I) must investigate where this oak's trunk is.'

Remember that the -ma form of a verb is used after peama (see here and here for a discussion). Tolle is the genitive singular of too just like selle is the genitive singular of see. The word tüvi can mean 'trunk' as in 'tree trunk' but it can also mean 'the root of a word' as in: Sõna töölt tüvi on töö 'The root of töölt "at work" is töö'.  

Siga oleks tahtnud toda tõru üles otsida, aga kust sa ikka otsid.
'The pig would have wanted to search for this acorn but where would you look?' Toda is the partitive singular form.  

Taevas ei olnud ühtegi tõru, ainult üks suur ümmargune tuline õun paistis säält [sealt].
'There wasn't any acorn in the sky at all, only one big round firey apple shining from there'. Here sealt is rendered as säält.

Peaks ikka sulgu tagasi minema: sääl ei ole küll õuna ja tõrusid ülevalt alla kukkumas...
'I must indeed return to the pen: there isn't of course any apples nor acorns falling from above'.

Here again seal is rendered as sääl. Notice the use of the inessive case marker -s at the end of the verb alla kukkuma 'to fall down' to make alla kukkumas 'in the act of falling down'. Estonian verb infinitives can take the inessive ending to state what action is currently happening.  

Lapsed on laulmas 'The children are engaged in singing'
Mul on kõik olemas 'I have everything'.

...aga kindlasti küna juba ootamas, hääd rokka ja kartuleid täis
'but for certain the trough is waiting full of good feed and potatoes.'

Here head, partitive singular (or nominative plural) of hea is rendered as hääd. For southerns it is common also to say pää rather than pea 'head' as in the town Otepää 'Bear's Head' (the symbol of the town is a bear's head).

I hope that you learned something from today's post and that the end one will come shortly (after after half a year's wait!).

Nägemiseni! Until the next time!


  1. Too/tolle/toda actually translate to Estonian "that" (as opposed to "this"), i.e., for referring to something farther away. So it's similar to "see," which can of course be used to mean "that," but is most often used when there is a need to distinguish.

    Another fun Southern Estonian dialect thing is that, in Tartu at least, they say "kuna" instead of "millal" to mean "when" (in addition to using "kuna" with the normal Estonian meaning of "because"). For example, a Tartlane might ask "Kuna te tulete?" to find out when you're coming.

  2. I didn't know that 'kuna' was a southern Estonian feature, but it makes sense, since I learned it from my niece in Tartu. I use it all the time. To my ear the 'ää' in 'sääl' sounds more natural, while enunciating 'ea' in 'seal' sounds sort of forced, as if I was reading from a script on television or something.