neljapäev, juuli 02, 2009

summer reading

I was impressed. My Lithuanian host in Kaunas spoke not only English but Russian as well. He had to be the same age as me, or even younger. How did he do it?

"What, speak Russian?"

"As far as I know there aren't too many Russian speakers in Lithuania. How did you learn?"

He gave me an odd look, as if I asked him how he learned to swim or tie his shoes.

"We learned in in school and," he paused, "it's a very useful language. You should learn it."

"No way," I told him. "Learning Estonian is a full time job."

He gave me that same strange look again, as if I had escaped from the Kaunas insane asylum. His look said, He speaks Estonian but not Russian? How could that be possible? He probably doesn't know how hard it is even to learn Estonian, and I mean really learn it, learn it so that you can read any newspaper article or book off the shelf. It takes time, patience, and a good dictionary.

It also takes stamina, stamina that is not fit to be wasted on learning Russian or any other "useful" language. If I opened the Russian door or Arabic door or Chinese door, they would become more languages I had tinkered with but never really learned. That's not what I intend with Estonian. I intend to be as functional as possible. That's why my summer reading is Pikk Jutt, sitt Jutt ("Long story, shit story") a newish Estonian-language title by Vello Vikerkaar.

Who is Vello Vikerkaar? He's a foreign Estonian, a väliseestlane, and like a lot of väliseestlased, he brims with witty insights and a hint of arrogance. Until they became presidents and ABBA managers, most väliseestlased could be seen as having drawn one of life's medium-sized straws. They weren't farmers running from the Khmer Rouge, but life was no swanky suite in Vegas either. They were citizens of a country that existed on some Western maps and in corners of the universe of international law. They couldn't restore the family farm because the family farm had been collectivized.

So Vikerkaar can be forgiven the dry way with which he digests life's absurdities. In a way, it's what's made him famous. Aside from cross country skiing and šašlõkk consumption, dissecting other Estonians is a national passtime. Another is wondering how Estonians are perceived by outsiders. Put the two together in one weekly column, and you get the success of Vello Vikerkaar.

The dictionary and I are two chapters in already. I've already picked up nifty words like jändama (to make a fuss) and kütkestav (glamorous). I've followed Vello as he and his Estonian-born wife Liina take in Liina's Aunt Virve, a woman with a very inconvenient, wire-gnawing pet bunny. I've been there with Vello as he traces the origins of the famous Ernest Hemingway quote, "in every port in the world, at least one Estonian can be found."

An added bonus is that Vello, who was reared in Canada, writes in English, which is later translated into sturdy, riigikeel Estonian. There are few funky south Estonianisms (they have a habit of slippin a dialect word in here and there) or metaphors about farm animals in the book. From my perspective, it's a good place to start for an Estonian language student who yearns to break free of tiresome self-help books.

24 kommentaari:

Colm ütles ...

Great post! I liked it alot.

"No way," I told him. "Learning Estonian is a full time job."

It so is.

But it's not just the learning of the language that is troublesome it's also learning how to speak like an Estonian. Getting used to the way of talking and interacting can be as difficult as studying the lingo.

Thanks for the tip on the book. I'll check it out. I defo feel like I have out-grown the study-yourself books, even though I've never ever finished one.

ants ütles ...

To master perfectly a foreign language, speak it at first fearless not perfectly

Lingüista ütles ...

Ants, sul on õigus!

Indeed, I'm having as much trouble to learn Estonian by myself -- if you don't have Estonians around to interact with, that makes it all the worse. (All the exposure I get to the spoken language comes from watching "Jänku Juss" cartoons from Youtube... Or then "Aktuaalne kamera" from the etv website, but that I can hardly ever really understand. Even when I know the words, they speak quite fast. I'm happy to understand a sentence every three or four.)

I can't dream of learning to speak it "like an Estonian" for the time being... Having said that, why should this be much worse than learning to speak English "like an American"? I think the only difference is that we get so much more exposure to English in the world in general.

Hm, since I do speak Russian, I feel like defending it as an interesting and important language. I understand the point that time is limited and one has to choose one's target languages, though. But there's a lot of fun things to do and read in Russian as well (the uncool attitude of the current Russian government is not the only thing in the Russosphere...).

Kristopher ütles ...

Nice piece, it should also be noted that the opening of this post is a classic Vello Vikerkaar-style lede. Someday they'll be teaching that in writing class. Good on you.

Colm ütles ...

I can't dream of learning to speak it "like an Estonian" for the time being

Never dream that, it's unattainable! :D I met a man this week and he actaully grew up bilingual in Estonian and English in the USA and has lived in Estonia for 11 years. His wife tells me he still has an accent and his Estonian is a lil 'foreign'.

Just aim to be a speaker and user. That's what I am aiming for. Good luck!!

Giustino ütles ...

I defo feel like I have out-grown the study-yourself books, even though I've never ever finished one.

It took me years to finish E Nagu Eesti to the point where I felt I knew 90 percent of what was in it. I just finished it a few weeks ago.

Hm, since I do speak Russian, I feel like defending it as an interesting and important language. I understand the point that time is limited and one has to choose one's target languages.

I may get to Portuguese eventually. I listen to Portuguese language music every day. I can even understand a lot of lyrics. There is more hope for me there.

Moro
Num país tropical
Abençoado por Deus
E bonito por natureza

Katherine ütles ...

Actually, better translation for kütkestav is "captivating". :) It has a similar hidden meaning (or a perception of such hidden meaning) of seizing or capturing someone.. or should I say, similar logic in a sense.. kütked (plural) in Estonian means something like tethers, leashes. So when you kütkendad someone, you tie them up or limit their mobility. And when you kütkestad someone, you draw them to yourself and tie them to you in a way. :)
Other synonyms for kütkestama/kütkestav are paeluma/paeluv (pael is Estonian for ribbon, snare, banding; kingapael for example is a shoe lace) or köitma/köitev (as you know, köis is Estonian for a rope). :)

Myst ütles ...

Nice one Katherine, well explained. How would you explain jändama?

I'd say that "to make a fuss" is not really it. It's... to attempt to improve something over a long period of time, without any significant results. :-) Isn't it? As in, "Ma jändan selle kuradi lülitiga juba kolmandat päeva." :-)

I'd recommend Vello's book wholeheartedly. It's excellent. Very funny! As is his blog.

But, who is Vello really? That is the question. ;-) Any guesses? Unless you believe he is who he says he is, of course. :-)

PS. Nice blog Giustino, been reading for a while. *thumbs up*

Katherine ütles ...

I'd say that "to make a fuss" is not really it. It's... to attempt to improve something over a long period of time, without any significant results. :-) Isn't it? As in, "Ma jändan selle kuradi lülitiga juba kolmandat päeva." :-)

___________
First one that comes to mind is "I have messed with this darn switch..." However, when you'd say (regarding a third party) "Ära jända nendega", then to me it seems it is not as much as "don't mess with them" as if they were some sort of badasses and there would be repercussions, but more in a sense like "don't bother" or "don't waste your time". What do you think?

Lingüista ütles ...

Mas que beleza! Jorge ben Jor! Since I'm Brazilian, I feel actually flattered (it may sound crazy, given Brazil's size, but there's something in me that feels we're just this little Estonia-like country somewhere in South America and that gets surprised every time a non-Brazilian shows signs of knowing anything about Brazilian culture... Maybe Estonians also feel like that if they meet a foreigner who likes Urmas Alender? :-)

Out of curiosity, why are you interested in Portuguese, Giustino? Is it just because it's similar to Italian? Have you ever been to Brazil or Portugal (or Angola or Cape Verde or Mozambique or São Tomé e Príncipe or Macau or Goa or East Timor? :-)

I had thought at least some Estonians would agree with your Lithuanian friend on Russian (except that they'd think it would be crazy to learn Lithuanian, not Estonian). But (maybe because the big difference between the two languages) the impression I get from Estonians speaking Russian (at least those in Russian-language ETV programs like Суд присянжых) is that they speak it with considerable difficulty and a heavy accent. (Ansip and Aaviksoo, for instance.)

What is your favorite Estonian word or expression, Giustino? Any words that you think give a glimpse of Estonian culture or the Estonian mentality? (Jeitinho is supposedly such a culture-rich word in Brazilian Portuguese.)

plasma-jack ütles ...

they speak it with considerable difficulty and a heavy accent.

For Estonian ears, there's too many consonants in Russian language, and they're situated in illogical places (not to mention the unreadable alphabet). Estonians have words like "meelehea". In Russian, the same word is "udovoljstvije".

Lingüista ütles ...

Out of curiosity, plasma-jack, does Russian sound more difficult to pronounce to Estonians than, say, German, or even English?

Giustino ütles ...

Out of curiosity, why are you interested in Portuguese, Giustino?

For many logical and illogical reasons. Logically, I respect Brazilian culture as a kind of redemption of the tragedies of colonialism. It may have been nasty, but hey, look, we got samba and capoeira and bossa nova out of it.

Illogically, I just like the way it sounds. Spanish -- especially Mexican Spanish, the form I am most familiar with -- sounds really hyperactive. But Portuguese sounds laid back and messy.

What is your favorite Estonian word or expression, Giustino? Any words that you think give a glimpse of Estonian culture or the Estonian mentality?

I like Kel janu, sel jalad which means something like, "he who is thirsty has legs," or, basically, "go get yourself another beer."

My favorite expression is from the film Nukitsamees, when little Kusti gives his sister some strawberries in the woods and says, söö ja ära karda -- "eat and don't be afraid."

Kristopher ütles ...

In a recent column, Vello said he had an uncle Feliks in Kansas, another Estonian-American journalist who used to live in Estonia has a father Feliks from Kansas. That may explain Vello's origin, but not who he is...

Michael Moossen ütles ...

hi... i am following you on this blog for quite a time already and i really appreciate your work sharing your experience here.
i am by now already 4 years together with an estonian, and for me it is really an issue the pronunciation, since my mother tongue is spanish, it is really hard for me to deal with long and short sounds, or b and v (this is not so bad anymore, but still), or to tell the difference between a and ä, or o and õ... what is your experience with pronunciation?

plasma-jack ütles ...

Out of curiosity, plasma-jack, does Russian sound more difficult to pronounce to Estonians than, say, German, or even English?

Dunno. German shouldn't be too hard, because there's many German loans in Estonian. English seems to me as the most easy language in the world (TM), although I still make horrible grammar and pronounciation mistakes (also influenced by French lessons).

The easiest foreign language to pronounce for us might be Latin - almost everything is pronounced as it's written, the words aren't too long and there's enough vowels. The Slavic languages might be worst in Europe with words like "rdza" ("rust" in Polish) or "zgrda" ("building" in Serbian). There are worse examples, but I couldn't find any right now.

Katherine ütles ...

Even hello in Russian is quite a tongue twister - Vzdravstvuyte! When I can, I always opt for informal "privet!". :)

Katherine ütles ...

Sorry, no edit. So will spam :) Hello is Здравствуйте! aka Zdravstvuyte! Tongue twister nevertheless.

Michael Moossen ütles ...

i forgot to mention that we leave in Germany and we come just a couple of weeks in the year to estonia. so my estonian is not more than a couple of words since i prefer to improve my french or english when i get the chance...

i am anxious to read your report of the song festival ;)

Manona ütles ...

Hmm...

Many Estonians, especially the younger generation does not speak Russian. Although we learned it at school, like 12 years :s

2 years ago i got a job where its necessary to speak Russian. It was so hard at first,but now i speak a little. Having a husband living at Moscow helped a bit :)

notsu ütles ...

I'd say that Estonians generally speak English and German with as heavy Estonian accent as they do with Russian language. Italian or Hungarian pronounciations are easier to master, at least I have been taken once or twice for Hungarian and once for Italian - but then again, when I speak English, I rather have a French accent than an Estonian one (as I have been told), so maybe I'm abnormal anyway.

Colm ütles ...

It took me years to finish E Nagu Eesti to the point where I felt I knew 90 percent of what was in it. I just finished it a few weeks ago.

Congrats! It is defo the most value for money course book. They tried to pack as much as is possible on every page. It's a quagmire I can't get out of.

Take a well deserved holiday before you tackle the beast that is T nagu Talinn! :-D

ants ütles ...

Giustino - How do you translate into Estonian "Itching for Estonia"?

Lingüista ütles ...

The first time I heard an Estonian accent, I also felt the similarity with some kind of Italian -- I thought maybe some dialect from a place I don't know, say Sicily or Calabria? It sounded Italian but then again it didn't sound Italian, I couldn't quite place it. Then I was told it was Estonian.

Like you, I'm also using E nagu Eesti, but I tend to supplement it with other books (because, despite E nagu Eesti being a treasure of words and expressions, it's a bit weak on the grammatical side). So I also use Tuldava's Estonian Textbook: Grammar, Exercises, Conversation, which is better on texts and actual explanations of what's what in the grammar, and even Armin Hetzer's Estnisch: Eine Einführung, which is explicitly aimed at people who want to learn to read, but not necessarily to speak, Estonian.

Giustino, I understand what you mean with 'logical' and 'illogical' reasons. In my case, I was also strangely attracted to Estonian (and also to Latvian, though, curiously, not to Lithuanian); it isn't something I could have predicted and there doesn't seem to be any logical reason for that that I can think of (are there any two countries more different than Brazil and Estonia?). Still, for some reason, Estonia, Estonian and the Estonians have won my heart. (For some strange -- probably Freudian -- reason, I associate them with Tolkien's hobbits...)

Funny that you mentioned capoeira -- a cousin of mine is a highly respected capoeirista. I was so surprised to see capoeira taught here in the Netherlands. Maybe Americans feel like that when they see old American serials and sitcoms like Mangum or Charlie's Angels playing in Brazil.