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Estonian Pronunciation Guide

For clarity, in this guide the vowel (or diphthong) of a stressed syllable is shown in boldface, except for one-syllable words. In dictionaries, the stress is marked by other means; e.g., in Estonian Grammar Dictionary the dot symbol, the acute accent, the plus sign, and the apostrophe provide information sufficient for pronouncing a word, in particular for determining the position of the stress. These symbols are not used in normal Estonian orthography.

A remark on the usage of cases

This remark is here to make the translations of examples more understandable. If you only want to learn to pronounce Estonian words, then you can omit this remark and ignore the English translations and grammatical labels in the examples.

In the examples in this guide, Sg stands for the singular, Pl for the plural, Nom for the nominative case, Gen for the genitive, Ptv for the partitive, Ine for the inessive ("in"), Ade for the adessive ("on"), and Com for the comitative ("with") ( sinisedNom.Pl majadNom.Pl = blue houses). We shall often omit Nom and Sg. To show possession, the possessor is named first, in the genitive ( meheGen.Sg majadesIne.Pl = in the man's houses). Some prepositions and most postpositions require the genitive case ( lambiGen juures = near the lamp). After a numeral, a noun (together with its adjectives) is put in singular ( kolmesIne.Sg sinisesIne.Sg autosIne.Sg = in three blue cars); if the whole group is in the nominative, then the noun (together with its adjectives) is put in the partitive ( neliNom.Sg sinistPtv.Sg autotPtv.Sg = four blue cars). See also Basic uses of the cases in Estonian Morphology Guide.

Vowels

There are nine vowels, which correspond to nine letters: a, e, i, o, u, õ, ä, ö, and ü. The letters a, e, i, o, and u are pronounced like in Spanish, Italian, and German. The letters ö, ü are pronounced like in German. The letter ä is pronounced like the vowel in the English word "hat". The letter õ is pronounced somewhat similar to the Russian letter "ы".

Each vowel can be short or long. A short vowel is always written as a single letter ( sinine = blue). A long vowel is written by means of two identical letters ( nooredPl muusikudPl = young musicians).

A diphthong is a sequence of two vowels that belong to one syllable. In a diphthong every vowel is denoted by one letter ( naine = a woman; auto = a car; toidusIne = in the food; jõime siniseidPtv.Pl jogurteidPtv.Pl = we drank blue yoghurts; koeradPl = dogs). In some cases adjacent vowels belong to different syllables and do not form a diphthong ( di-a-loo-gidPl = dialogues). There are no triphthongs in Estonian ( lau-adPl = tables). Below, in the rules concerning stressed syllables, a diphthong is equivalent to a long vowel.

Consonants

The letters f, š, z, ž only occur in foreign loanwords ( šeff = a boss, a chief). Usually, z and ž are pronounced like s and š, respectively.

Consonants can be short or long. In the position between two vowels or at the end of a word after a vowel, a short consonant is written as a single letter h, j, l, m, n, r, s, or v ( raha = money; sinises majas = in a blue house; olen noorem = I am younger), and a long consonant is written by means of two identical letters ( lilla = lilac; kümme = ten). For the sounds /k/, /t/, and /p/ the rules are different, a short consonant is written as g, d, or b, respectively ( õde magab = the sister is sleeping), whereas a long consonant is written as k, t, or p ( rikas = rich; auto = a car) or even kk, tt, or pp (see below). In Estonian, the six letters g, d, b, k, t, and p are always pronounced voicelessly and unaspirated, like the sound denoted by t in the English word "store". In foreign names, also other letters of the Latin alphabet are used; they are pronounced as in the language the name comes from.

At the beginning of a word, any consonant is short and is written as a single letter. At the beginning of a word, k and g are pronounced identically (most words use k); the same applies to t and d and to p and b ( blondidPl giididPl = blond guides; kokaGen pluusidPl = the cook's blouses).

Two or more consonants in a row form a consonant cluster. In consonant clusters, each consonant is denoted by one letter ( lambidPl = lamps; mängin = I am playing; kirjutan = I am writing; jooksen = I am running; seitse = seven; arstidPl istuvad = doctors are sitting; kolmesIne karbisIne = in three boxes), except s in certain combinations (see below).

Palatalization

The consonants denoted by t, d, l, n, and s are palatalized in certain words, which is not shown in spelling. Before i or j the sounds denoted by t, d, l, n, and s are always palatalized. They are never palatalized before a, o, u. In Estonian Grammar Dictionary, palatalization is shown with the apostrophe (') after t, d, l, n, or s; before i or j the apostrophe is not used ( pruun' = brown; mün't = a coin; pos'tiljon = a postman; in the last word there are three palatalized consonants: s, t, and l).

Stress and syllabic quantity

In most words, the first syllable is stressed ( neli = four); exceptions occur only in foreign loanwords ( mehaanik = a mechanic).

A stressed syllable is short, long, or overlong. In scientific terminology, the terms for stressed syllables of different syllabic quantity are "short light syllable", "long light syllable", and "long heavy syllable" (short heavy syllables do not exist in Estonian). In some texts, these syllabic quantities are called "quantity 1", "quantity 2", and "quantity 3".

If the last syllable is stressed, then it is necessarily overlong ( mees = a man; kolm naistPtv.Sg = three women; poiss = a boy; pikk = long).

In Estonian Grammar Dictionary, overlong syllables are indicated by putting a dot (.) before the overlong syllable, except for one-syllable words, where the only syllable is necessarily stressed and overlong ( .kuldne = golden; .diivan = a sofa; spetsia.list = a specialist; kuld = gold).

A stressed syllable is short if its vowel is short and the vowel is followed neither by a consonant cluster, nor by a long consonant ( olen vana = I am old). It is important to pronounce the vowel in a short stressed syllable very short (shorter than the short vowel in the following unstressed syllable).

In most cases, in the written form there is no difference between a long stressed syllable ( arstiGen pruuniGen pluusiGen juures = near the doctor's brown blouse) and an overlong stressed syllable ( kaks .arstiPtv.Sg = two doctors; kaks .pruuniPtv.Sg .pluusiPtv.Sg = two brown blouses). However, when a short vowel is followed by a long plosive (k, t, or p), then in the overlong case the plosive is written as kk, tt, or pp ( pikk = long; .rikkadPl .rokkaridPl = rich rockers). Another case where an overlong stressed syllable is clearly indicated is that of lss, mss, nss, and rss (see below).

If a nonfirst syllable is stressed and contains a short vowel or a diphthong, then Estonian Grammar Dictionary marks the stress with the acute accent (´) after the vowel of the stressed syllable ( stati´stika = statistics; ora´nžidPl detai´lidPl = orange details). The acute accent is not used when the stressed syllable contains a long vowel ( mehaanik = a mechanic).

In a fixed list of frequently used one-syllable words, the general rules about representing a long sound using two letters are ignored. These words are on, ma, sa, ta, me, te, nad, mu, su, mul, sul, tal, sel, tol, kas, kes, mis, kus, et, ja, jah, ju, las. If pronounced separately, each of these words consists of one overlong syllable, but normally in a sentence they have no stress and the sounds become short.

The pronunciation of overlong syllables

An overlong syllable is pronounced more intensively than a long one. What matters most in this distinction is the proportion of the durations of the stressed syllable and the following unstressed syllable. The following rules explain how to turn a long stressed syllable into an overlong one in pronunciation.

If the vowel of an overlong stressed syllable is long, then it sounds even longer than usual ( noor = young; .pruunidesIne.Pl .kookidesIne.Pl = in brown cakes). If an overlong stressed syllable contains a diphthong, then its second component sounds longer and more intensive than usual ( de.tail = a detail; .laudadelAde.Pl = on tables; .teadlane = a scientist; kaks .koeraPtv.Sg = two dogs).

If the vowel of an overlong stressed syllable is short and is followed by a consonant cluster, then one of the consonants sounds longer than usual. In most cases, this is the first consonant in the cluster ( kaks .kirjaPtv.Sg = two letters (messages); kolm = three; .istuma = to sit; .mängima = to play; .kuldne = golden). Generally, the second consonant becomes longer if the first letter in the consonant cluster is l, m, n, or r and the second letter is k, t, p, or s ( .lampidega = with lamps; .karpides = in boxes; mün't = a coin; arst = a doctor).

For the two-sound clusters /ls/, /ms/, /ns/, and /rs/ there are two possibilities: if the first consonant is longer, then one writes ls, ms, ns, or rs ( .sponsor = a sponsor; .kursus = a course (in learning)); if the second consonant is longer, then one writes lss, mss, nss, or rss ( val'ss = waltz; .kirssidegaCom.Pl = with cherries).

If the vowel of an overlong stressed syllable is short and is followed by a long consonant, then this consonant sounds longer than usual ( ho.tellidesIne.Pl = in hotels).

If a nonlast syllable is stressed and overlong, then the (short) vowel of the following unstressed syllable is pronounced somewhat shorter than after a long stressed syllable ( rikas maja = a rich house; .rikkasIne majasIne = in a rich house; tooliGen peal = on the chair; kaks .tooliPtv.Sg = two chairs).

Compounds

In compound words, every part has its own stressed syllable. In Estonian Grammar Dictionary, the border between parts of a compound is shown with the plus sign (+) ( meditsiini+õde = a nurse; kirja+.kandja = a postman). If a part of a compound consists of only one syllable, then this syllable is necessarily overlong, and no dot is needed to indicate this ( kuld+mündidPl = gold coins).

Some words have two stressed syllables and behave as if they were compounds ( .kons.tant = a constant; .kont.sert = a concert; .trans.port = transport).

A remark on inflection

In Estonian, inflection does not shift the stress ( o.ra auto = an orange car; ora´nžidPl autodPl = orange cars; o.ranžidesIne.Pl autodesIne.Pl = in orange cars; ho.tel'l = a hotel; hote´llidPl = hotels; ho.tellidesIne.Pl = in hotels). However, many nouns and adjectives ending in -ik obtain additional stress in certain forms ( aristok.raatlik .kun'stnik = aristocratic artist; aristok.raatlikudPl .kun'stnikudPl = aristocratic artists; kaks aristok.raat.likkuPtv.Sg .kun'st.nikkuPtv.Sg = two aristocratic artists).

Many roots have a weak and a strong form. For all nouns and adjectives, the nominative plural and genitive singular use the same form of the root ( pruunidNom.Pl koogidNom.Pl = brown cakes; pruuniGen.Sg koogiGen.Sg peal = on a brown cake). For almost all nouns and adjectives, the genitive plural and partitive singular use the same form of the root ( .pruunideGen.Pl .kookideGen.Pl peal = on brown cakes; kaks .pruuniPtv.Sg .kookiPtv.Sg = two brown cakes). Most cases are based on the genitive ( koogisIne.Sg = in a cake; koogilAde.Sg = on a cake; koogigaCom.Sg = with a cake; .kookidesIne.Pl = in cakes; .kookidelAde.Pl = on cakes; .kookidegaCom.Pl = with cakes). See also Declension in Estonian Morphology Guide.


Other resources on Estonian pronunciation


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Last modified 20.09.2011.
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