When you settle in Estonia as a Frenchman, a question soon arises: how will you learn that language? Confident that your mastery of two or three other languages will help you, you book a course somewhere and start studying. Then, usually about halfway through the first lesson, you clutch your head, thinking, “What is this language?”.
For most people, I believe, Estonian is a completely new language. Nothing feels like what you have previously learned, nothing seems to make sense, and the answer to most of the questions you ask your teacher is “That’s just how it is”. Why is there no verb for “to have”? That’s just how it is. Why should you use a singular after a (obviously plural) number? That’s just how it is. Let’s not even talk about “Jüriöö ülestõus” (not that you would use that often).
And then you leave the classroom, feeling sad and dumb, despite the teacher’s best efforts to tell you that you’re doing well. Grieving, you walk down to the supermarket and try to decipher the labels to find yourself some comfort food. And then, suddenly, coming out of the condiments aisle, you stumble upon a label that looks weird, even for Estonian. “Majonees provansaal”.
You stop, consider it for 5 minutes, try to pronounce it every way possible. Is this a joke? You ask around, and no, it’s not a joke. This is actually mayonnaise provençale, the Estonian way (let’s not dwell too much on the difference in taste). In shock, you keep walking. Find yourself in the alcohol section, where you see that the “sommeljee” has recommended this “šampanja”. In the meat section, you stumble upon an “antrekoot”.
As you walk home (on the “trotuaar”), “inspiratsioon” strikes you: you shall ask the dictionary people about the loanwords like these from French. So you do. And, very helpfully, they do reply and send you a list of over 3000 words, which you start looking at, balancing between amusement and “what-is-this-ness”, from “aadress” to “vuajerism”, not forgetting “šarniir”, “palee”, “marott”, “kurbett”, “fiktsatsioon” or “böfstrooganov”.
So with that list in hand I started trying to sort it out, and although I definitely didn’t get to the end of it (that may come one day), certain patterns have emerged. Loans from French seem to be primarily in a few sectors: food (obviously), military, administration. Let’s talk about food, because, as a Frenchman, I can say there is nothing more important than food.
Sure it’s fun to find these words in a menu when ordering in a random restaurant. And it’s possibly even funnier when, after ordering your “böf tar-tar”, the waitress helpfully informs you that it’s actually raw meat. But it sometimes takes a little time to find back the actual word it may have come from. Let’s take “krembrülee”, for example. Unless you pronounce it out loud (and you have to know how to pronounce it out loud in the first place), how do you connect it to “crème brûlée”?
The funniest thing about these words is possibly the fact that most of these words must have come through the Russian aristocracy, who had French cooks (and was anyway quite Francophile). These words have then passed onto more and more ordinary kitchens, until the present day, where anyone would find it absolutely normal to make a quick “puljong” or use “želatiin”.
So all in all, learning Estonian is a long journey, seemingly a never-ending one, but there is some fun to be had in the cute little words it throws your way from time to time. So leave your “frustratsioon” aside, take your “kuraas” in both hands as we say in French, and register for the next “kursus”.
Learn more about the Estonian Language Week, and pick up the kuraas to try it out yourself.