Susi synad

I’m a Susi, which means wolf in the old literary language, as well as in the Võrõ language of Estonia.  The standard Estonian word is hunt. Heaven knows why some southeastern Estonian ancestor of mine chose Susi as a surname,  likely around the time Estonians started taking surnames in the 16-1700s.

Maybe a susi / wolf bit him in the pants. Maybe he spotted a susi near his herd. Maybe he liked to howl at the full moon. Maybe he was a werewolf  (libahunt). Estonia has a vast number of werewolf tales in its vast treasury of folklore.  Why didn’t they teach me important facts like this in Estonian Saturday school?

I don’t feel particularly wolfish, even though my brother and I are the last of this particular Susi clan, and there won’t be any more of us.  He’s not having kids, our Susi uncle didn’t have any, and my two daughters bear my husband’s last name. Although one never knows if they plan to change their last names for marriage or aliases.

An old Hungarian neighbor back in New Jersey spoke the truth when he told me what I was: a lone wolf.  I don’t travel with a human or wolf pack, and I love being solitary most of the time. Alone with my books, my words, my flowers, my weird interests, the internet.  And my pack of dogs, Penny and Bailey. Penny and I still struggle over which of us is alpha. But this does not make me a wolf.

Now for the second word of this post’s title, synad. Sõna means word in Estonian, but in the  Võrõ language or dialect, they spell it syna. Just to be irritating, I suspect. Synad is the plural, words. The spelling seems peculiar to me, since the  Võrõ (in standard Estonian, Võru) language is simply peppered with the letter õ, sometimes twice or even  three times in a single word.  As in õukõlõma, which is not the Võrõ word for Oklahoma, trust me. From what I can ascertain in the cryptic  Võrõ-eesti synaraamat (the Võru-Estonian dictionary) at, it appears to mean oohing and aahing over something.

And just what is this letter o with the squiggle over it, the õ? I don’t know what Estonians call the squiggle, though Spanish speakers use the squiggle over their letter n sometimes to make a nyuh-sound, as in mañana. — maNYAna.  They call their squiggle the tilde.

The Estonian squiggle-o-letter is pronounced to rhyme with duh (duh!).  Like all good respectable Estonian alphabet letters, It is always pronounced the exact same way. It doesn’t sneak out and reappear as an oh, an ooh, or rhyming with the o in pot, like  the letters in our crazy wonderful  English language.  Man, did I have trouble with English when I first started learning to read it. I’d spoken only Estonian from infancy, and learned to read it around age 3.

My first encounter with the English language was in kindergarten (my parents spoke fluent English but theorized that I would master it quickly in grade school). I started picking up spoken English fast.

Then we got hit with sappy Dick and Jane.  See Dick run. Run, run, run.  See Spot run. Run, run, run. No problem.  But here in our reader came pesky little Miss Jane, and if I hadn’t heard the teacher pronounce the name, I might have tried to say the word Estonian-style —  something like YA-neh.

A few days or weeks later I froze in horror on encountering the word laugh in the Dick and Jane reader. Laugh, Dick, laugh. Yeah, go ahead and laugh. The arrangement of letters made no sense whatsoever to my Estonian brain, but I gamely sounded it out: la-OO-geh.  The teacher asked me to read it again.  La-OO-geh.  She explained that some letters in some words didn’t get pronounced, like the silent gh. So was it la-oo? No, it was read aloud as LAFF. Where in the world did that stupid FF sound come from, I wondered. It made no sense. Crazy Americans.

La-OO-geh is what Tarzan’s ape buddies hollered when they spotted some tasty bananas.

If I were transcribing laugh with an Estonian spelling, I would write it as LÄFF or  more correctly, LÄHV, since F is seldom used in Estonian.  Same with the letter B. The letters C, Q, W, X, Y and Z are excluded from our alphabet entirely .  I don’t know why Võrõ words contain  y’s and q’s. Maybe the Võrõlased (Võrõ people) stole them from the Estonians back in the misty past and hid them in their threshing-barns until needed.

And so their word for “word”, written as sõna in standard Estonian, is syna in Võrõ.  My father’s forebears came from Võrumaa, Võru county.

But don’t pity the Estonians for having a skimpy abbreviated alphabet. They boast an ä, our old friend õ, ö and ü. The characters š and ž were added in recent decades to cope with the foreign diphthongs sh and zh.

The ä is pronounced like the a in the word hat, and does not change its pronunciation for any reason, even in dire cases when it must appear four times in a row in a single word, jääääres. This chock-full-of- ääs word has three syllables and is pronounced yää-ÄÄ- res.

It means “at the edge of the ice.”

Notice the breathtaking simplicity. There is no “at”, no” the”, no “of”.  Just jääääres. If we want to say “ice edge”, we say  jäääär. By adding the suffix  es at the edge, the meaning changes to “at ice edge” or more accurately “ice edge at”. Being thrifty folk, the Estonians manage in this way to save 10 characters, at the of the, by replacing them with a simple es, for a total savings of 8 characters.

Estonian does not use articles, words like the or an or a. We just spit out our nouns willy-nilly with none of this frilly extra wordage.  Estonians are people of few words, or at least we like to think of ourselves that way. Slow, strong, patient, silent.

None of those four words describes me very well, but I’m an Americanized Estonian. Or perhaps an Estonianized American.  I can talk the hind leg off a donkey when the mood takes me.  I talk to my dog Penny a lot. Sometimes I talk to the trees and the vegetables and the flowers.  My mother strongly believed in talking to the flowers in her garden. She even spoke French to her red climbing rose, Madame Bouchard, although I do not know whether Madame replied.

Still, I do like being alone, and I do enjoy silence.  Except on those nights when the light of a full moon stirs something in my Estonian Võrõ blood, and I lift up my face and howl it greetings.

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