Now that you have learned how to pronounce Estonian letters we will continue with pronouncing the words. Fortunately, it is quite easy because Estonian is straightforward - we pronounce most of the words the same way that they are written. There is one big exception though which can be confusing at first - the vowel length.
There are 9 vowels in Estonian: A, E, I, O, U, Õ, Ä, Ö, Ü.
The duration of vowel sounds can be short, long or overlong. A short vowel is always written with one single letter; long and overlong both consist of two identical letters. It is easy to differentiate short from long/overlong, but there is no written distinction between long and overlong vowels. Overlong vowels often change the pitch or stress of the syllable as well as the duration and this can give a completely new meaning to the word.
|Sada (hundred)||Saada (send!)||`Saada (to get)|
In phonetic transcription the overlong sound is indicated with a ` before the syllable. However, this is not used in ordinary written language.
Consonants can also have three different lengths. Short are written with one letter, long and overlong with double letters.
|Lina (linen)||Linna (the town's)||`Linna (to town)|
|Kala (fish)||Kalla (Calla)||`Kalla (pour!)|
However, stop consonants (plosives) act differently:
- Short length: g, b, d
- Long length: k, p, t
- Overlong length: kk, pp, tt
|Lugu (story)||Luku (lock's)||Lukku (to lock)|
|Kabi (hoof)||Kapi (closet's)||Kappi (to the closet)|
In some words, the consonants l n s t are softened or palatalized with a slight i- or j- (English y) type sound before the consonant. It is also not indicated in the written language but with the wrong pronunciation the meaning of the word may be affected.
- Palk (with a normal unsoftened l) - wage
- Pal'k (with a softened l) - log
H at the beginning of a word is very weak; almost silent.
In front of consonants and at the end of words it is quite strong. (like the German ch in 'Nacht')
Estonian has a lot of diphthongs (sequence of two vowels that belong to one syllable). These include ae ai ao au ea ei eo iu oa oe oi õe äe and so on. Each of the two vowels is pronounced clearly, but not as if they were in separate syllables.
- Laud - table
- Hea - good
- Õun - apple
The accent is normally on the first syllable. However there are some exceptions such as aitäh 'thanks' and sõbranna 'friend'. In many loanwords from other languages the original accent has been borrowed as well: professor, mehaanik (mechanic).
Still the accented syllable does not dominate the pronunciation of a word so markedly as it does in English.
It's important to pronounce the words correctly so that the meaning of the word won't change.
Now you know the basic rules of pronunciation. Continue to the next lesson to keep learning Estonian!
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