neljapäev, detsember 18, 2008


My Estonian language has progressed to the point that I am able to get by in daily life without needing to switch to English or relying on my own personal interpreter to explain things to a confused cashier.

This benefits me greatly, as many Estonians think they know English but construct sentences that are equal in absurdity to the ones I have spoken.

One fellow mixed up the words "mean," "mind," and "think." "What do you mean about the apartment?" he asked. "I don't mean anything," I replied. "Oh, I am sorry, what do you mind about the apartment then?" These are the kinds of exchanges that only Timothy Leary or Noam Chomsky would appreciate.

In regular life, I am a bit clumsy anyway. This is why I write, because it is so much easier than talking. I might be physically standing in line waiting to buy some groceries, but, mentally, I am miles away. In New York, this can get me into trouble, like at a deli, where the guys take your order in the local accent. "Soyawanbaloneynmustadonroi?" [Do you want bologna and mustard sandwich on rye bread?] And if you don't answer with a snappy response or a quip about A-Rod, they look at you like you are from another planet.

While living in New York, still a city of immigrants, I developed fairly perceptive ears. Two guys could approach me on the street and say, "Gabba gabba hey?" and I would respond, "Right, just hop on the J and get off at Delancey and Essex." I would think little of their accents. Jamaican, Korean, Kaliningradian -- who knows and who has time to care?

Here in Eesti though, they just think I am hilarious. I went to visit Epp's Onu Tiit the other night, who has infamously bad diction. While Onu Toivo, usually lubricated by a few beers, has excellent diction and is a joy to listen to because I can understand every word, Tiit is a lõuna eesti mumbler.

Toivo would say, "Juu-stiin, kas sa tead, et sa räägid niiiii hääästi eeesti keeelt? Iiniimesed on elanud siiin üümbes 50 aaastat ja mitte üüks sõõõna!" Tiit, meantime, would say something like "J'n, t'd 't, s' r'g'd ni' h's'ti 'est' k'lt blub blub blub blub blub viiskend blub blub blub." Even though these two wild and crazy guys have their own linguistic idiosyncrasies, they are still considered "normal." I, on the other hand, am abnormal.

"Justin, kas sul kitarri on?" asks Ave-Liis, Tiit's daughter.

"Jah, on olimas," I respond. It should be olemas, "O-leh-mas," but I said olimas, "O-lee-mas," by mistake; a slip of the tongue caught too late. This prompts a chuckle and a repetition of my mistake. "Ol-i-mas, Ol-i-mas," she teases. I suddenly know how those poor first-generation Sino-Americans feel when they are ridiculed for substituting the letter 'R' for the letter 'L' and vice versa.

Inside the house, where I meet cousin Tomi for the first time, I notice his cheeks ballooning in suppression of laughter as he listens to a Yankee speak his language. I remember another cousin, Ken, now in his early teens, fighting a similar urge to burst out laughing as he heard me try to mumble like the best of them. Estonians, the sober ones at least, are usually reserved and not prone to fits of giggles. But have me speak to them and they are one "olimas" away from losing all control.

Yesterday at Tartu Kaubamaja, I engaged another acquaintance, whose cheeks grew equally rosy as I rattled through my accented words and awkwardly constructed sentences. [I use a lot of English constructions: "Have we met before?" is "Oleme kohtunud enne või?"] And then I crossed the boundary by wishing Häid Jõule [Merry Christmas], to which I received a terse "Jah" and a dry "suurepärane" [wonderful] in response.

I complain to Estonian friends, but they assure me that my language is suurepärane, and that they too have bad English accents [which is probably correct, though I don't notice their accents that often]. And even if I say it right, I still get it wrong. I remember walking into a friend's place in Tallinn and exclaiming "noh, kuidas su käsi käib!," only to be met by reticent stares. "You didn't say anything wrong," my friend said later. "It's just the way you said it."

There is a great scene in the film 101 Reykjavik where one of the main characters has a chat with his foreign-born brother-in-law in Icelandic, then makes fun of his foreign accent behind his back. [Hlynur, the 30-ish main character in that movie, is also shiftless and has an absent, alcoholic father -- oh, the similarities between these two, small countries!] With so many encounters like these, I can't help but wonder if I have become that guy.

44 kommentaari:

LPR ütles ...

I've been trying to wean myself off this blog, but now that effort was dealt a severe and sweet blow.

Thank you for writing this, G.

It made my day.

Colm ütles ...

Great post. I can't help thinking if I myself will ever get my head round this language. I try to speak to speak in Estonian as much as I can when I'm in Eesti. My fiancée's family are fine about it but strangers just don't bother to take the time to understand.

Cheryl Rofer ütles ...

"You didn't say anything wrong," my friend said later. "It's just the way you said it."

I've gotten this response, too, usually when I'm using English word order instead of the way an Estonian would have said it. That's the part I think I'll never get right.

On the bright side of things, though, I now understand why some things that Estonians write or say in English come out the way they do.

Indrek ütles ...

I remember walking into a friend's place in Tallinn and exclaiming "noh, kuidas su käsi käib!," only to be met by reticent stares. "You didn't say anything wrong," my friend said later. "It's just the way you said it."

The idiom "kuidas käsi käib?" shouldn't have the word "su" in there. It isn't grammatically wrong, but it just sounds odd (at least to me). It gives the feeling that you stress the "your *hand*" part in the sentence.

I think that pronouns (mina/ma, sina/sa, etc) for a non-native Estonian speaker are as hard to handle as articles ("a" and "the") for Estonians.

For example:

räägin homme - I will speak tomorrow

ma räägin homme - I will speak *tomorrow* (I won't do it today)

mina räägin homme - *I* will speak tomorrow (I am the one who does the talking)

Imagine someone asking you "mis teed?". If you want to respond "I'm reading a newspaper." (just stating a fact) you should say "loen ajalehte"
But if you make a direct translation and apply English intonation on the sentence it might sound like "mina loen ajalehte" - which sound overly enthusiastic and egocentric.

LPR ütles ...

Indrek is dead on. Estonians are never overly enthusiastic about anything except driving. You put the slowest sack-o-potatoes slow as molasses apathetic Estonian man behind the wheel of his auto and he will turn into hot Argentian tango dancer and street fighter in no time.

Anonüümne ütles ...

Estonias simply are not used to hearing their language spoken with an american accent, so it is more of a spectacle. Russian accent is heard every day, and while it is actually far funnier, it does not elicit this response so often anymore.
You are absolutely correct: at certain stages of learning a language everyone speaks a bit funny. I used to mix up "floor", "door" and "wall", and routinely refer to the glove compartment as the glove department. Imagine the fun times americans had with that.

You have taken the time and effort to learn our backwards and complicated language. Thank you, and shame on us for laughing.

Sharon ütles ...

The laughing helps, I think. I mean, it sucks, but it also helps. The fear of ridicule is a great motivator.

I think we need to laugh at fellow native speakers, more often, though. We tend to forget that a language has to be learnt and just expect people to pick it up because it's their mother tongue.

I've always been a big believer in pointing out when someone has used the wrong word or a weird construction. I cop a lot of flack for it, but you only half learn a language by osmosis. You also have to receive it like an apprentice learns from a master.

Sharon ütles ...

Oh, and if I can do a little pointing out of weird constructions...

Indrek, very informative - thank you. I'll certainly keep that gem in my pocket.

But a native English speaker (depending on country of origin) would probably put the main stress on the first syllable of the second word. Where they put the second stess depends on how much poetry they read.

"mina loen ajalehte"

It's surprising how much our speech patterns still follow verse meters (particularly iambic and anapestic) given the fact that most people these days wouldn't recognise a sonnet if it bit them.

What sort of an effect would that have on the meaning?

Indrek ütles ...

I think if you stress just the word "loen" in that sentence it will work the same way as in english.

Mina loen ajalehte = I don't know what you are doing, but I am using the newspaper for reading (and not for watching pictures or making paper hats)

As I understand I can say in english: "I read the newspaper" and it has the same exclusive effect?

But if you put the stress also at the end of ajalehte then it just sounds accented because native speakers won't do that in a normal speech. Well, maybe only if you really want to stress that the news are on the paper (in which case you shouldn't stress any other word).

Colm ütles ...

"As I understand I can say in english: "I read the newspaper" and it has the same exclusive effect?"

I'm reading: What does it look like I am doing? / I'm doing something eher so go away.

I'm reading the newspaper: I'm actually reading theses sheets of paper, not just holding them in my hand.

I'm reading newspaper: So shush the outside news is more important than the lives of the people around me.

Kristopher ütles ...

All this detail (though spot-on) is a very good case for just making like Onu Tiit:

- Mis teed?

- A'l'hte l'n blub blub blub.

Kristopher ütles ...

changing the word order -- "ajalehte loen" sounds the most unpretentious and normal to my ears. Yes, the emphasis is on "it's a newspaper that I'm reading" but there's no "screw you" tone to it: it just sounds matter-of-fact.

Kristopher ütles ...

and as to what meter "ajalehte loen" is in, it's pretty obscure but I think it's called logaoedic, though I refer that one to Sharon.

Rein Batuut ütles ...

I'd have to say that for a foreigner the safest thing to do is to not put any intonation into a sentence at all. Try it - it works for statements, questions and exclamations likewise! It's the traditional (and stereotypical by now) way of speaking in Estonian :D

notsu ütles ...

Actually, I would say "lehte loen."
('m reading a newspaper)

Anna ütles ...

I agree with notsu. "Lehte loen (or "loen lehte") would probably be my response, too, to a casual question like "Mis teed?" We don't use the long word "ajaleht" too often these days, do we. Instead we just say "leht" (paper), like English speakers.
And Justin, I think your Estonian is simply admirable. Truly.

LPR ütles ...

One of the coolest things to say in Estonian is "Lasen leiba luusse".

Can't think of an equivalent in English.

Martin-Éric ütles ...

I guess that I can count myself lucky that I had mastered Finnish before I got around Estonian.

While I still make the occasional wrong substitution with the Finnish equivalent for some words, especially when I'm tired, I get by just fine.

My main issue is to build distinctly Estonian vocabulary (where it dramatically differs from its Finnish counterpart) and Estonian sayings that people throw at random sometimes catch me off-guard.

Speaking of one occasion when I was dead tired and kept on mixing too much kuradne soome keelt in my eesti keelt:

A few months ago, I was seated in front of Andrus Ansip at a private dinner. At some point, the discussion veers into macroeconomics and whether Ansip thinks that Estonia will be hit by the recession or not. Macroeconomics just happens to use a vastly different vocabulary soome keeles than eesti keeles, even though both are mutually understandable.

Our host, noticing mid-evening that I was starting to struggle with some of the vocabulary, said that everyone cannot help but congratulate me for how well I managed so far, but if I wanted to, I could just as well switch to English (not everyone present around the table understood soome keelt) and let everyone else reply eesti keeles.

So we did.

After about 20 minutes of this, Ansip made a comment to the effect that this feels about eerily surrealistic as a Twilight Zone episode, in that exactly one guy speaks a radically different language than everyone else and yet everything he places in the discussion makes absolutely perfect sense in context. :)

Giustino ütles ...


You dine with Ansip, I tip my hat on the street to Arnold Rüütel. That about says it all.

John Menzies ütles ...

But everyone knows the Twilight Zone.

Mr. Rüütel often quotes at will from Doctor Who -- and always in context.

With all due respect to Mr. Ansip, all that can be surmised is that he watched the "Rooside sõda" episode with the "things that are surreal" question. We don't even know if he has heard of Dali. I am unimpressed.

Justin ütles ...

I've found the level of surprise at a foreigner speaking Estonian depends on where you are. I speak Estonian quite well, though definitely with an American-style accent. Most people in Tallinn don't seem to mind, but I do get strange looks in Tartu. Outside the big cities, they get really surprised, that's for sure.

Sharon ütles ...

This whole concept of a lack of emphasis is freaking me out, man.

It may say "librarian" on my business card, but I spent fifteen years studying Speech and Drama (which, for the uninitiated, basically means I spent fifteen years studying how to recite poetry and read aloud from the likes of Shakespeare, Austen and Beckett).

Sure, it's an obscure skill set that I spent many years refining, but I take pride in the fact that I'm one of the few people you'll meet in the course of your day who can make Kubla Kahn sound like it might actually make sense.

The one thing I learnt (like my life depended on it) is that intonation makes a world of difference (and emphasis is an important part of intonation). It doesn't just make a difference in your meaning, but also in whether or not you are interesting to listen to.

Effective intonation is good. No intonation is bad. Stuff like that.

I'm also trying to reconcile this with my main source of hearing Estonian spoken - a small stash of audiobooks. The intonation used by the readers is very poetic and melodic - quite a joy to listen to. They definitely put emphasis on words and syllables in every sentence.

Of course, actual conversation is always markedly different from reading or recitation, but I still have some trouble believing that the same people who intone so beautifully when they read would be completely void of emphasis when they talk.

Mind you, this does go a way towards explaining why a CD of Estonian conversation practice I bought recently sounds so boring. I thought it was because it was aimed at beginners...

Sharon ütles ...

Reading over some of the comments, I sense there might be a bit of confusion regarding the different uses for emphasis in spoken English (as well as the other 'Romantic Languages').

Like I mentioned earlier, we seem to owe a lot to older verse forms when it comes to our intonation - we tend to put a little bit of stress on certain parts of an uttered word or sentence just because it feels natural to stress that syllable at that point. It's part of the poetry of the language and aids the flow of the rhythm.

Also, the stresses are built in to a lot of words. Some words always have the stress fall on the same syllable (for example, syllable). In many cases (because we have a lot of homonyms, homophones, gerunds and nominalised words), putting the stress on different syllables helps to make the intended meaning/use of the word clearer. You envelope something in an envelope, for example.

We would, quite naturally, put a little bit of stress on the syllables 'read' and 'news' in the sentence "I'm reading a newspaper" for the following reasons:

1. Pronouns and articles are usually unstressed unless they are of particular importance. Likewise for participle endings.

2. The principle verb in a sentence is usually stressed (even if it is only a secondary stress)

3. "Newspaper" is a word in which the stress 'naturally' falls on the first syllable. If I had been reading the obituaries the stress would have fallen on "bit".

4. Saying that sentence without any emphasis or intonation would have sent a message to the listener - and probably not a nice one. Something along the lines of "I'm not even remotely interested in talking to you" or "Well, duh - it's kind of obvious."

The natural, rhythmic stress of the language doesn't actually emphasis anything. If it seems to stress the word "reading", that's only because it's actually the answer to the question:
"What are you doing?"

Sharon ütles ...

Something else I noticed after the fact:

When I suggested the secondary stress might go on the latter part of the word "ajalhete", it actually had nothing to do with the meaning of the word itself.

Of course, in English, we'd put the stress on the "news" part of the word "newspaper".

So why did I suggest it might be put somewhere else in ajalehte? Precisely because it's not an English word.

As someone who's knowledge of Estonian is poor (but growing all the time, with help from you good people), I don't know where the stress should go, but something in my head tells me it has to go in there somewhere. So, I put it where it would sound nicest according to my ears.

I expect a lot of English speakers would do that with foreign languages.

Doris ütles ...

well, the way I was taught in the distant past of High-school Estonian: Since ajaleht is a compound word, consisting of aja+leht, you put a stress on both of the words that make up the one bigger word. Usually though, one of the two stresses is "dominant" and THAT is now gut feeling. If I'm speaking quickly and generally, I might stress the word AJ'aleh'te, but if I'm speakind specifically about that particular newspaper, I would stress it aj'aLEH'te.

I think it also depends a little bit where you are: Southern Estonians tend to pronounce all the h's rather strongly whereas northern Estonians try to avoid them as much as possible. A friend of mine actually once got into an argument with her professor over whether lots of h's in a poem are poetic or not. She, being from P6lva, said that it was very poetic, he, from Tallinn, said that they disrupted the rhythm of the poems and should be used as inconspicuously as possible. no words like hobune or hall or puhas or uhhuutuuled or... well, you get my meaning :)

iida ütles ...

"Have we met before?" is "Oleme kohtunud enne või?"

If you say that sentence that particular way in Estonian, it sounds awfully offending like: "What do you want from me, you stranger? I don't know you, go away if you don't have anything else to say."
Whereas "Kas me oleme enne kohtunud?" sounds like the person is interested in communication and getting to know one another.

Unknown ütles ...

It's ALWAYS a safe bet in Estonian to put the stress on the first syllable. Some Estonians even do that with words that should have the stress on another syllable. For example Marek Strandberg is a prime example of that (EFektiivne instead of efekTIIVne), also Taavi Veskimägi does a lot of that. But it isn't actually as disturbing as people who put the stress on another syllable if it should be on the first one.

So ajaLEHte sounds EXTREMELY weird in my opinion. My language is mostly influenced by the North and North-East Estonian and I don't communicate much with Southeners so maybe someone really says it like that, don't know.

Giustino ütles ...

My language is mostly influenced by the North and North-East Estonian and I don't communicate much with Southeners so maybe someone really says it like that, don't know.

See on minu arvuti, ja too on teie arvuti.

I am so excited that southerners have a word for 'that.' It's a valuable word.

Rainer ütles ...

I just saw 101 Reykjavik. One weirdass movie... Not too many similarities with Estonia, though, when it comes to indiscriminate sleeping around.

Giustino ütles ...

That film was made at the height of Reykjavik's party capital heyday. I have a feeling the national mood is a bit different there now.

Rainer ütles ...

"You dine with Ansip, I tip my hat on the street to Arnold Rüütel. That about says it all."

It says that you're a couple of name-droppers :D

Kristopher ütles ...

"Paldiski" could be used to weed out spies, much like the Dutch used "Scheveningen".

If they put the stress on the "Pal-", they're OK; if they emphasize the "-dis-" then they could be subjected to further questioning.

Kristopher ütles ...

I want to hear some more off-the-record stories about Ansip. I was talking to a former TBT journalist today in a dive bar and he said he had been with Ansip once and that Ansip had been "very drunk". I pricked up my ears and said "Oh yeah?" but the upshot was that Ansip was still "highly competent" or some such phrase and had praised Kallas. It seems that every story about Ansip severely lacks a punch line.

LPR ütles ...

What little I've seen Ansip through internet clips - he appears totally comical in his stiffness as if he is performing some sort of a continuous self-parody.

There's a dearth of charisma in esto politico circles, that's for sure. Take Ilves' nonclimatic intonation or that what-the-fck was that chrismas greeting from Savisaar this year. It is all so hilarious.

Or maybe I just have a abnormal way of seeing things. I don't know. If this is all normal to you all, then fine, I am crazy. :-)

Martin-Éric ütles ...

Finnish has three neutral pronouns:

Se: it.
Tämä: this.
Tuo: that.

Southern Estonian having more in common with Finnish that Northern Estonian, it retained thus retained both see and too.

If you assume that Estonian is more correct than Finnish on the substantive form for Fenno-Ugric words, Tämä would become Tas.

Now, for 12 points, which word is used to represent This in the following Latvian snipet?

Cik tas maksā?

For 10 points, what other word do Estonian and Finnish share with Latvian, in the above snippet?

Bonus question: What does the question ask?

Lingüista ütles ...

Martin-Éric, I can't resist.

The word used for 'this' in your Latvian snippet is tas (masculine singular).

The word shared by Latvian and Estonian in this snippet is maksā 'costs' (compare Estonian 'maksma' and Latvian 'maksāt', obviously a borrowing; judging by the Finno-Ugric equivalents for 'cost' -- e.g. Finnish maksaa -- it would seem the Latvian word was borrowed. Another neat example where it apparently went the other way around is Estonian maja and Latvian māja, both meaning 'house'.

The question asks 'how much does it cost' (Latvian cik 'how much').

I'm a newcomer here, so I should say I'm a Brazilian, and out of sheer love for languages I'm now trying to learn both Estonian and Latvian. I've never been to Estonia, but I've read a lot about its history, literature and politics, and this blog has been an interesting read for the last few weeks.

Sharon: yes, linguists will agree with you that there is rhythm to language, to all languages; so your primary and secondary stresses tend to go around in some neat way. Polysyllabic words in English tend to be formed of trochaic binary feet (look at 'Mississippi'); some other languages prefer iambic feet; but almost always binary. I guess rhythm has something to do with the human capacity to put smaller cognitive units together to form bigger units, which is essential to our language-speaking abilities.

Lingüista ütles ...

A comment on 'have we met before?'--I always thought of it as a very English way of addressing someone. The first time someone said that to me in America, I thought she was implying we had had some romantic liaison that I had forgotten, which made my eyes go big like saucers, because I had never seen that woman (it sure made Americans look frisky to me).

In Portuguese (my mother tongue), at least, what Americans mean by 'have we met before' is better said as 'do we know each other (already)?' or 'we know each other already, don't we?' or something like that. (These probably would sound strange if used in English, wouldn't they?)

Unknown ütles ...

"Have we met before?" or "Kas me oleme kohtunud?" is something else than "Do we know each other?" or "Kas me oleme omavahel tuttavad?" in my opinion. The latter is more like "have we drank wine together in a cozy bar before that I don't remember about" and the former is more like "haven't I bumped into you on the street or listened to your lecture" or something like that.

Lingüista ütles ...

If you wanted to suggest the same in Portuguese, you might try "have I seen you before?" or "haven't we been to the same bar before?" or something like that. It may be just a little cultural difference, but it would sound strange to me to say "haven't we met before" to someone just because I remember having seen him/her in some other occasion -- at least my impression about Portuguese is, this would suggest we had some sort of romantic encounter (if I'm talking to a woman) or common business or joint venture (if I'm talking to a man). Maybe it's just something about the words in question, though ('encontrar' = 'meet' in Portuguese sounds so goal-oriented to me). From you people's answers, I supose kohtuma in Estonian does not sound like that.

Lingüista ütles ...

I thought a little more, and it occurred to me that English 'meet' also means (besides 'coming together somewhere') also 'being introduced to each other'. So two people can say, 'we've met at that party', meaning they didn't know each other before and got to know each other (maybe via the host, who introduced them to each other) at that party. The Portuguese equivalent couldn't possibly mean that. I wonder if Estonian kohtuma could?

Unknown ütles ...

Well when married people are giving an interview then they can get a question like "Kus te (esimest korda) kohtusite?" or "Where did you meet (for the first time)?". And that's completely acceptable in my opinion.

ontark ütles ...

I quess such comments can get annoying, but I don't think anyone means anything bad with them, it is just what we are like, we have our own language, constructed through thousands of years and then we think it is the easiest thing there is. Whenever anyone spells something wrong, we usually notice and comment, because it is funny. Sometimes different spelling has a different meaning, which you have propably experienced yourself.

And people are happy that there is a foreigner learning their language, they just want to help you with their sarcastic comments and laughs behind your back.

Lingüista ütles ...

Well, in fact, I don't think the Estonians are very mcuh different from any other people in this respect. Americans, despite taking it for granted that other people will learn their language, are just as capable of finding it funny when foreigners make unexpected mistakes (as I noticed when a friend of mine started laughing when we were on a bus and I read the sign saying FOR INVALIDS ONLY with the word INVALIDS stressed as inVAlids (as in: this argument is inVAlid) instead of as INvalids). He told me he had never noticed these words were ultimately the same, with different stress, until I mispronounced them.

And if you think there aren't Americans who pronounce English very much like Tiit pronounces Estonian, well, let me assure you, there are. It was a rare day when I could understand a full sentence uttered by one of my colleagues, whose need to chew on every vowel so as to remove all distinctiveness was truly irresistible.

All in all, I think all peoples are like that, in their experiences with foreigners who learn their language. As far as my (admittedly limited) experience with Estonian speakers goes, I haven't noticed any striking differences.

Ward ütles ...

I recognized myself in almost every sentence. Suurepärane. Keep on writing, you make me long for going back to Estonia...