Today is Emakeele päev, or 'mother tongue day' in Estonia. I guess the philosophy behind this holiday is to create nation-wide appreciation for the language of Estonia, Estonian.
I have been working on my Estonian lately by picking my way through Dagmar Normet's book Une-Mati, Päris-Mati, ja Tups. Each page yields an unending avalanche of new vocabulary words. Just from the first pages of this book I have learned:
Noomima (to scold), Vahva (cool), Oivaline (wonderful), and Püstitama (to erect). Another key word, used all the time in Estonian, is Mõistma (to realize/understand). All of these words, just from the first few pages of a children's book.
People tend to think that Estonian is an impossible language. I do not agree. I recall watching my roommate in college trying to learn Japanese characters, just so he could write a basic sentence. Now that was a tough language.
But the real challenge here is learning the vocabulary and remembering it. The grammar can be learned, with effort, well enough, and if you listen to Estonian enough you'll be able to guess the cases. But the vocabulary is so different that words literally slip in one ear and out the other. It takes a long time to make words stick for good.
To an English speaker, how am I really supposed to figure out the difference between suusatamine (skiing) and suitsetamine (smoking)? Then there's the difficult past tense. Ma suusatan (I ski), ma suusatasin (I skied), ma suitsetan (I smoke), ma suitsetasin (I smoked), and then the mouthful, past perfect mina olen suusatanud (I have skied), ma olen suitsetanud (I have smoked).
And if you make one tiny mistake, nobody understands what you are talking about because in the Estonian language everything has to be put into context. You have to explain everything or else people just don't understand you. For example, the other day I went to buy tissues at the Apteek.
I was sent to buy ninataskurätikud, literally 'nose pocket towels,' but instead I asked for 'ninakäterätikud' or 'nose hand towels', to which the müüja (seller) mockingly replied, "Kuidas?" (What?). Another time I was sent to buy tikkud (matches) and wound up asking for tundlik (sensitive) instead. These words are all gobbeldygook to me. They are random combinations of consonants and vowels.
One of my first brain busters was learning to differentiate between ostma (to buy) and otsima (to look for). The only real difference is that one is ots and the other is ost. These two sounds make a world of difference.
Of course, English is no easy language either. English speakers forget how difficult this language is. In reality, English is nothing but an apple that fell a bit far from the Germanic tree. It's a mutt, in other words, an odd mix of German, French, and Scandinavian languages with Celtic syntax and pronunciation added in. What makes English that different from Estonian? Not much.
I try to remember this fact as I work my way through the Estonian language. I try to remember that for Estonians, what's the difference between "sale", "sail", "seal" (to close), "seal" (the animal), "cell" (the bilogical construct), and "cell" (the room in the prison) not to mention "shell"?
As hard as your language is for me, I am sure that my language has been just as much a pain in the ass for you.