Want to Learn Finnish? Come to Estonia! Wait, What?
That’s right, come to Estonia to learn Finnish!
We promise: this statement has not been brought to you by us indulging in a little kalsarikännit—an excellent Finnish word that means the feeling when you are going to get drunk home alone in your underwear with no intention of going out. But if you’ve ever been to Tallinn, then you may too have noticed that there is a presence of Finnish everywhere: where else, for example, would you expect to find shop signs saying we speak Finnish outside of Finland?!
Join us in a little Finno-Estonian adventure.
We are family
Well, at least, Finnish and Estonian are both members of the Uralic language family, occupying its Finnic branch. There are more cognates between these two languages than we have time to list, with 46% of both languages sharing common words. There is mutual intelligibility to a point and depending on who you ask, but you can see how similar Finnish and Estonian are, without having to understand either:
Finnish — yksi, kaksi, kolme, neljä, viisi
Estonian — üks, kaks, kolm, neli, viis
(numbers, one through five)
And since we’ve bracketed these two languages as family, it’s probably best to think of Finnish as Estonia’s slightly darker-minded, more tainted-by-life cousin, when it comes to false friends: the Estonian expression ma lähen linna pappi raiskama means something like I’m going into the city to spend some money, whereas the Finnish: lähden linnaan pappia raiskaamaan, translates as, approximately, I’m going to the castle to violate a priest.
A booze-fuelled route
It’s true; part of the reason that Finnish is as widely spoken as it is in Estonia’s capital Tallinn, is, quite simply, the difference in the price of alcohol. Finland can be an exceptionally expensive country, which is why many a Finn preparing for celebrations, kalsarikännit, or just some quality time in a sauna, will often hop on a ferry over to Tallinn to stock up.
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There is a €13 billion project proposal for an undersea railway tunnel between Helsinki and Tallinn, and though it’s for more than picking up cheap liquor, we are sure this route will be used for that too. This vital connection between these two cities is long overdue, and the proposed date planned for this link opening—between 2030 and 2035—seems too far away on the horizon. But it will give healthy competition for the ferry companies, who currently provide the most convenient method of transport across the Baltic Sea between the two countries, and will hopefully reduce the cost of travelling for all—tourists and vodka-seekers alike!
A home away from home
For any Finn missing their homeland during their trip overseas, there are plenty of reminders of home to hopefully keep their homesickness at bay. There is Stockmanns, which is Finland’s answer to Marks & Spencers (UK) and Sears (USA), there’s Hesberger, Finland’s equivalent of Burger King, and a wealth of Finnish-based products, from microbreweries to fashion, and everything you can imagine in between. You will even find the occasional street vendor with some excellent karjalanpiirakka (Karelian pie) or mustikkapiirakka (blueberry pie)!
A special relationship
There is a special relationship that exists between Estonia and Finland, which may be a little more profound, or at least more trustworthy—and more friendly—than those between other countries in the ‘West’. This summer, Finland 100, a celebration of Finland’s centenary of independence, filled the streets of Tallinn with traditional foods and an outdoor concert, that was televised live in both countries. And during this period, transport in Tallinn, which is already ‘free’ for its citizens, became a free service for visiting Finns as well. A beautiful relationship we think.
But back to the languages
There are around 1.1 million native speakers of Estonian, compared with around 5.4 million Finnish. Both use the Latin alphabet, yet have separate systems for Braille as well as sign language—though for Estonian Sign Language, there is a heavy influence of Finnish and Russian as well.
Finland has two official languages—Finnish and Swedish, and Finnish is recognised as a ‘minority’ language in Russia, Sweden and Norway. Estonian is Estonia’s only official language, though as we’ve demonstrated above, if you’re Finnish, you can get away with a word or two, without having to try too hard!
So there you have it—you really can pick up a little Finnish if you find yourself in Tallinn. And the same is likely true of Estonian if you happen to be in Helsinki—though you’ll be pleased to know the word for expensive is exactly the same in both languages—kallis: a word you’ll need in Helsinki, if you’re more used to the prices in Tallinn!