Alphabet fun & games

For our edification, I am posting the standard Estonian ABD alphabet. You must have been panting with excitement to see it.

Here is how I learned it as a small child in my aabits (alphabet book).

A, B, D, E, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, R, S, T, U, V, Õ, Ä, Ö, Ü

The official modern-day Estonian alphabet consists of:

A, B, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, R, S, Š, Z, Ž, T, U, V, Õ, Ä, Ö, Ü.

F,  Š, Z and Ž are considered foreign letters that only appear in words borrowed from other languages. The  Š is pronounced sh, and the Ž is zh, as in BreŽnev.

This alphabet does not include our English letters, C, Q, W, X and Y, which are only used in foreign words and proper names.

There will be a test on this in 15 minutes.

I neglected to mention in my previous post that the letter Ö is pronounced like the U in purse, symbolized phonetically by the linguistically educated as ø.

The Ä sounds like the a in cat or hat,  for which the phonetic symbol is æ. We would write The Cät in the Hät. Except that we wouldn’t. We would instead write Mütsis KassMüts means hat, and kass means cat, and the extra is at the end of the first word means “in the”.  Checking the internet, I find that the Estonian title of the famous children’s’ book by Dr. Seuss is Kübaraga Kass. Kübar is a fancy-schmantsy Estonian word for hat, and the -aga suffix means with the, not in the.  No doubt they chose the word kübar to go with kass because there are few things Estonians love more than alliteration. (This does not count beer, sauerkraut, singing and many other things Estonians adore, such as sour cream…dill…pickled herring.)  More on alliteration in another post.

If you think our letter Õ is weird-looking, its phonetic symbol is even odder: ɤ. Bunny ears! It sounds like the u in duh (think Homer Simpson) if the speaker gets punched in the gut while saying the word. You get used to the pain after a while.

Trying to explain the pronunciation of  Ü gives me a headache.  Its phonetic symbol, unhelpfully,  is y, and sometimes modern Estonians like confusing people by replacing their ü’s with y’s when writing.  The letter is pronounced like the similar-looking umlauted  Ü  in German, but if you don’t know German, you’re out of luck. It sounds something like the “ew” in eww, but first you have to purse your lips as if you’re going to whistle.

We double our fun, and drive non-Estonians doubly crazy, by doubling, sometimes tripling or even quadrupling our vowels.  The i in the word kits (goat) rhymes with it’s.  A word like piim (milk) is pronounced peem. The word tass (cup) has an a like car,  but the a sound  is extended in klaas (glass).

We double  consonants too, like  in lipp (flag) to give the p sound a perky extra emphasis.

Confused yet?  At least we don’t go overboard like our wacky northern cousins, the Finns, who seem to double most of their letters for the sheer hell of it.  Maybe they see double after frequent weekend ferry trips to Tallinn swilling bargain-priced (to them) Estonian booze.

Here’s your typical Finnish word: hyppyyttää. It means ” to make someone jump repeatedly”, which is something those fun-loving arctic pranksters have been doing since their Viking days, even in 8 feet of snow.

Estonian is a piece of cake if you learn it from babyhood and get a few grammar lessons as a kid.  But it is a bitch to learn if you’re over the age of 7. It has more cases (14) than Latin, and my eyes tend to glaze over at the mere mention of words like case. My Estonian, like my English, is instinctive, but if I sit down and try to analyze each part of speech, my head starts to swim like a herring in the Baltic Sea.  Trying to diagram English sentences in 5th grade had the same shattering  effect. I know how to use the parts of speech correctly, but I can’t tell a pronoun from a participle. My brain just doesn’t function that way.

I had to pick up English fast, partly as self-defense  so I could figure out what the other kids were yelling  on the playground. I was also curious about what we were chanting when the teacher made us stand and place our right hands on our hearts while looking at a colorful red, white and blue piece of cloth at the front of the classroom.  I simply had no frame of reference for this strange activity.

Sudden immersion into English worked well — I couldn’t help but learn it. I don’t have a trace of  foreign accent, unless you count the New Jersey accent that hasn’t quite ceased, even after 21 years in Maryland.

As my mother, who learned Estonian, German and Russian from the cradle, used to say, they should begin teaching foreign languages in first grade, no later.   She and my father learned to speak English with a British accent because that’s the way it was taught in Estonia before World War 2. I think they learned some Latin when they were in law school, and my father mastered  Esperanto, the artificial language that was created in 1887 to be the new international lingua franca.

I think once you learn a few languages, you learn how to learn additional ones. My parents picked up bits and pieces of Finnish, Swedish, Polish, Latvian and other European tongues during their years in a post-war refugee camp. Of course the most important thing they learned was  how to curse in multiple languages. I can’t remember exactly how many, maybe 16. My brother and I were suitably impressed.

When I was in grade school, my mother studied French from educational  television programs.  We were taught French by volunteer mothers at our rather unique elementary school, but I never quite got the hang of it, nor could I get past the grammar in three years of high school German. I don’t possess  the gift of learning languages; the only reason I’m bilingual is because I learned Estonian as a baby, and English by immersion at age 5.

If only I’d inherited the linguistic skills of my great-grandfather, who was a Russian Orthodox priest and professor of theology at the University of Tartu, the oldest and most venerated institution of higher education in Estonia (founded in 1632). He managed to master 17 languages including Hebrew and Aramaic. My mother held him up as an example to me when I struggled with German. His name was Arseni Zarewsky, the last name spelled Tsarefski  in Estonian and heaven knows what in the Cyrillic alphabet of the Russians.

My mother tried to teach me Cyrillic, too, but all I can remember is that h stands for n, and a backwards r stands for b, or something like that. Why they have to be so stubborn about using Cyrillic,  I don’t know.  Maybe that’s really at the bottom of our differences with the Russians: they cling to an archaic alphabet instead of getting with the program and using the Roman one like much of the rest of the world. And they’re bitter about it.

With a great-grandfather named Arseni Zarewsky, it’s obvious that I’m not a full-blooded Estonian. My Estonian grandmother, my mother’s mother, married Arseni’s son Boris, who got his law degree from Tartu University but decided he preferred hunting and fishing and living in the woods. Boris became a forest warden, and my grandmother learned how to cook swan and other fauna that he confiscated from poachers, so as not to waste anything.

My grandmother likely wasn’t a pure-blooded Estonian either; I don’t know if a pure-blooded Estonian exists today. My mother hinted that there was some Dutch way back on her mother’s side of the family tree.  After fruitlessly searching the internet about my great-grandmother’s maiden name, Püsnik, and finding nothing whatsoever  in Estonia, but discovering veritable hordes of Pusniks in Slovenia, I began to wonder.  Could she have had a Slovenian ancestor?  Or perhaps one of her Estonian ancestors was a serf on the manor estate of someone from Slovenia back in German Times.

Soon: Conquering Estonia for Fun and Profit.


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