Estonian (eesti keel)

Estonian is a Southern Finnic language spoken mainly in Estonia. There are also Estonian speakers in Finland and Australia. In 2012 there were 1.05 million speakers of Estonia in Estonia, and in 2016 there were 49,200 Estonian speakers in Finland, mainly in the south, and about 1,840 Estonian speakers in Australia.

Estonian at a glance

  • Native name: eesti keel [ˈeːsti ˈkeːl]
  • Language family: Uralic, Finnic
  • Number of speakers: c. 1.1 million
  • Spoken in: Estonia, Finland, Australia
  • First written: c. 13th century
  • Writing system: Latin script
  • Status: Official language in Estonia

Estonian has two groups of dialects: northern and southern. The northern dialects are associated with the city of Tallinn, and the southern ones with Tartu. Standard Estonian is based on the northern dialects. The southern dialects are sometimes considered separate languages.

Status of Estonian

Estonian was the state language of Estonia from 1919 to 1945. During the Soviet period Estonian was one of the official languages, along with Russian, and most Estonians became bilingual in Estonian and Russian. Non-Estonians had to learn Estonian in school, however many considered learning the language unnecessary. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Estonian became the state language once more, and Russian was discouraged. Estonian is currently an official language in Estonia and the EU.

Relationship to other languages

Estonian belongs to the Finnic branch of the Uralic language family. It is classified as belonging to the Southern Finnic group of languages, along with Livonian and Votic. Estonian and Finnish are related, and there is some mutually intelligiblity betwen them. Many older Estonians, particularly those who grew up during the Soviet period, can understand Finnish as they have studied it, and/or listen to Finnish radio and television [source].

Written Estonian

The oldest examples of written Estonian are names, words, and phrases found in early 13th century chronicles. The earliest surviving longer text dates from the 16th century. An Estonian textbook first appeared in 1637. Ferdinand Johann Wiedemann published the comprehensive Estonian-German dictionary in 1869, and a grammar describing the Estonian language in 1875. Most Estonian literature has been produced since the early 19th century, and particularly in the early 20th century.

When Estonian was first written there was no standard alphabet. People used an ad hoc spelling system based on Latin and Middle Low German. In the 17th century Bengt Gottfried Forselius and Johann Hornung created a way of writing Estonian based on German. That was replaced by a Finnish-based orthography, known as the Newer Orthography, created by Eduard Ahrens in the second half of the 19th century. This was the basis for the current orthography.

Estonian alphabet (eesti keele tähestik)

Estonian alphabet

Hear the Estonian alphabet

Estonian pronunciation

Estonian pronunciation


Information about the Estonian alphabet and pronunciation compiled by Wolfram Siegel, with corrections by Allan Kiisk, and some details from:

Sample text in Estonian

Kõik inimesed sünnivad vabadena ja võrdsetena oma väärikuselt ja õigustelt. Neile on antud mõistus ja südametunnistus ja nende suhtumist üksteisesse peab kandma vendluse vaim.

A recording of this text by Ülle Hahndorf


All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

Sample videos in Estonian

Information about Estonian | Phrases | Numbers | Time | Family words | Proverbs | Tongue twisters | Tower of Babel | Learning materials


Information about the Estonian language

Online Estonian lessons

Learn Estonian with Glossika

Estonian phrases

Online Estonian dictionaries

Online Estonian radio

Online Estonian news

Finnic languages

Estonian, Finnish, Karelian, Kven, Livvi-Karelian, Livonian, Ludic, Meänkieli, Seto, Veps, Võro, Votic

Languages written with the Latin alphabet

Page last modified: 14.04.24


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