Orthography and pronunciation

The Estonian alphabet is: a, b, d, e, f, g, h, i , j, k, l, m, n, o, p, r, s, š, z, ž, t, u, v, õ, ä, ö, ü. It is simple to read Estonian texts composed of these letters, because it is pronounced as it is written. Nonetheless, those with a different mother tongue have to take certain differences into account. For example, it is not worth seeking voiced plosive consonants in Estonian, such as are found in Russian and Finnish: the Estonian letters b, d, g indicate the weak grade of the consonants p, t, k. Thus the letter d is pronounced with voicing in the words президент and presidentti, but without voicing in president. Likewise the letters z and ž are not pronounced with voicing, as is possible in Russian and English (pleasure), for example, but a weak s and š. In learning Russian, it is hard for an Estonian to understand why it has to have so many sibilants, when Estonian can get by with much fewer.

The simplicity of the consonant system of Estonian is somewhat made up for by the vowels, of which there are as many as nine, that is, more than in its most significant contact languages. The English speaker will find the sound ö in the word girl and the sound ä in the word cat, but will not find õ or ü anywhere. The Frenchman will find the pronunciation of ö and ü in the words sœur and une, ä is almost the sound in the name Seine. German has the same sounds ö and ü as Estonian, but the pronunciation of German ä is somewhere between Estonian e and ä, and it does not have õ at all. Russian does have õ, but it lacks ö, ü and ä, whereas Finnish has all except õ. Students of Estonian who tend to say ö or u instead of the unfamiliar õ, can take comfort in the fact that it is a vowel that even Estonian children adopt last of all, and most people in the islands don't use it at all.

For good pronunciation, it is not enough to be able to master õ and the other phonemes. Neither quantity, palatalisation or stress is marked in writing; one simply has to practice them. Palatalisation functions in standard Estonian automatically with the consonants l, n, s, t, d if there is an i in the following syllable; it need not be indicated in writing. With palatalisation, the tongue moves closer than normally to the palate in producing those consonants, with an added nuance of an i. Stress need not be especially marked either, because the main stress is usually on the first syllable, with secondary stress on the third and fifth, sometimes on the second and fourth syllable. Main stress may occur away from the first syllable in foreign words like galopp ("gallop") or kurameerima ("to court").

Stressed syllables may be pronounced with the first, second or third degree of quantity. The first degree appears in short syllables ending in a single vowel, such as krõ-be ("crisp") or va-ba-ne-ma ("to excuse, release"). The second and third degrees appear in long syllables such as kar-tul ("potato") or praa-di-ma ("to fry"), and moreover with the third degree a long syllable is pronounced with extra stress. Sometimes different forms of a word are composed of the same phonemes, and the only way of telling the difference between them is to pronounce them with either the second or third degree. For example, teie teate ("you know"), is in the second degree, and selle teate ("you know that") in the third, and selle kõrva ("its ear") is in the second degree, while seda kõrva ("that ear") is in the third.

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