Essentials for your Estonian accent - a not-so scientific approach to linguistics
Dear Estonians, please do not feel like I am making fun of you with this. I love you, I love your language and I love your accent. I have noticed that when I have a longer conversation with you in English, I fall into a similar accent. And the scientist that I am, with two semesters of linguistics on my CV, I am now simply analyzing what makes this unique accent.
Of course, there are great generational differences. Younger people tend to have a lighter accent and struggle less with the different sentence structure and grammar. But if you listen closely, you can still hear it…
Dear Germans, I’m sorry that this isn’t available in your language – but you gotta understand that that would make no sense.
So, here are some basic rules that will make you sound Estonian when you speak English:
a) The randomized distribution of articles. As Estonian doesn’t have articles, it’s sometimes hard to tell when to use them and when not. So you will drop sentences like „Could you give me cup please?“, „This is an issue for the society“ and „I’m meeting with the Maria.“
b) Overpronounciation of vowels, especially, but not only, in the first syllable, and, for some reason I haven’t figured out yet, the „i“ in „is“, turning it into „ees“
c) There is something about the combination of the letters e and a. In Estonian, they are pronounced individually when they follow each other, maybe that is the root of this one… Anyway, “her” and “hear” can sound the same, also “beer” and “bear”. And then there is this thing with the “really”. It’s hard to describe, but all Estonians say it in a similar way. Reeelly.
d) Occasional mix-up of he and she. Estonian uses „tema“ for both males and females. So just say something like „my sister brought his boyfriend“, and „my grandfather showed me her old photos“ every once in a while.
e) Don’t forget to use „noh“ at any time (in a way that Americans use “like” maybe).
f) The hard and the soft consonants... Somehow, „pear“ and „bear“ can sound extremely similar. Of course, it doesn’t have to be so extreme. But Estonians still say “bring it back” a bit differently than Americans, Brits, or Germans (but that is another story)
g) Palatalization of consonants, especially „L“. This one is for the advanced only, and I can’t really pin it down, but sometimes it happens.
h) Say things like „He is watching his phone“, when you mean „looking at“. Or even better: „He is watching her phone“, see d).
i) Also „We need to look the files.“ Never mind those prepositions! On the other hand you can add some where they are not needed, for example „calling to Anne on the phone“.
j) „Can you listen me? Can you listen anything at all?“ Umm... yes, we can hear you... There is a difference between „ma kuulan“ and „ma kuulen“, but somehow, it gets lost in translation…
k) Forget everything you know about future tenses. Who needs those anyway? Tomorrow I go to the store and next week I visit my parents. See, everyone know what I mean.
l) Make those negative sentences a bit more exciting! As Estonian doesn’t differentiate between the persons when it comes to the negating form of a verb, it is completely normal to mix them up: „I hasn’t seen the movie and he don’t know how to ski.“
m) „We’ll see each other in next weekend.“ I don’t actually know why this is, as in Estonian you also say „on“ a day, but in English, make sure it’s always „in Monday“ and “in November third.” .
n) The issue with two people doing something together. „We went to the movies with Karoliina.“ Who, we? Me and Karoliina. „We talked with Tauri.“ Yup, that was also a conversation between only two people. This of course also has its background in the Estonian grammar (Me rääkisime Tauriga).
o) If you wanna turn it up a notch, pronounce every letter that appears in the written word and keep rolling your Rs. There is also the possibility to pronounce „a“ like in „father“ in any word. These are just optional.
p) Another wonderful mix-up: If you are polite, you are sending people home. Wait, what? We mean of course accompanying them, but the Estonian “viin sind koju” basically means “”I’ll send you home” even if it is meant in a “I’ll walk you home” kind of way.
When I first started listening to people in Estonia, I couldn’t tell Estonian and Finnish apart (well, during my first week). Now it seems extremely easy to tell the mother tongues apart even when they are speaking English. But mostly, it’s hard to pin down how exactly we identify the mother tongue. So this is my attempt of an analysis. Let me know if you agree, disagree, or want to add something!