Do Estonians ever speak?

​Yes, they do. Sometimes by staying silent.

The Estonians’ character has inevitably been shaped by their country’s history and its natural environment. The long, dark winters fostered their sombre scepticism and taciturn manner. Yet, the dreary season of indoor chores also provided moments for self-contemplation and even for some sunnier flights of fancy.

​The ethos of olden folklore still provides insights into the value-judgements of contemporary urbanised Estonians. Thus, the main character of an Estonian folk tale never actually becomes king, nor does he charge into battle with dragons, brandishing his trusty sword. Rather, relying on his sharp mind and quick wits, he talks philosophy with all kinds of characters and double-crosses them in the end.

Inherent self-irony, a rational rather than romantic disposition, and a sceptical nature have created an image of Estonians as stubborn and self-absorbed. Indeed, they loathe instruction from bystanders and are deeply convinced that their own advice is the best possible. In everyday life, Estonians may defend their rights in a rather unusual way – just by sullen silence. “Silence is gold, speaking – silver,” to quote an old proverb.

​Foreigners are well advised to bear in mind that in human relations, Estonians generally try to avoid sentimentality. Much that other nationalities would voice without hesitation, Estonians may reveal only once they know a person quite well. As Estonians tend not to be impressed by someone’s social standing alone, they find small talk and the exchange of formal compliments quite difficult to bear, no matter which end of the conversation they are on. This has to do with the nation’s stubborn conviction that any authority may be, indeed must be, ridiculed.

As is typical of small peoples, the innermost identity of Estonians is closely connected to their language. The words of their mother tongue spring from the depths of the soul, charged with meaning, so they are to be used sparingly – as a secret weapon with which to protect dreams and deeds. After all, while literary Estonian arose from the Lutheran reformation of the 16th century, the vernacular memory of Estonians, centred as it is around distinctly metered, repetitive runo singing, stretches back over several millennia.

Estonian, together with Finnish, Hungarian, Sámi and several others, belongs to the Finno-Ugric family of languages and has probably been spoken in this corner of Europe since it was first inhabited by man.

The grammar of the language is complex: it has 14 cases, no articles, no grammatical gender, and no definite future tense, and these are just the most striking features that distinguish Estonian from the Indo-European languages of the rest of Europe. This is probably one of the key factors that has helped Estonian to survive, become an official language of the European Union, and above all, a modern cultural language with a contemporary terminology covering all major fields of life.

​Estonian is spoken by over 1.1 million people in Estonia, approximately 920 000 of whom use the language as a mother tongue. However, as a result of the many episodes of voluntary and forced exile in the 19th and 20th century, considerable Estonian communities have been established in Sweden, Finland, Canada, the United States, Russia, Germany and elsewhere. The nation’s enterprising spirit remains strong, and Ernest Hemingway’s fancy, that “no well-run yacht basin in the Southern waters is complete without at least two sun-burned, saltheaded Estonians,” can be taken as a fact again.

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