Estonian belongs to the Finnic branch of the Finno-Ugric languages. Estonian is not related to its southern neighbor Latvian, which is a Baltic language related to Lithuanian. Estonian is related to Finnish, spoken on the other side of the Gulf of Finland, and more distantly to Hungarian. One of the distinctive features of Estonian is that it has what is traditionally seen as three degrees of phoneme length: short, long, and “overlong”, such that IPA /toto/, /to:to/ and /to::to/ are distinct, as are /toto/, /tot:o/, and /tot::o/. The distinction between long and overlong is, in practice, as much a matter of syllable stress (involving pitch) as duration. Long and overlong vowels are not distinguished in written Estonian; plosives, however, appear in writing with three “degrees”: b,d,g; p,t,k and pp;tt;kk (all unvoiced plosives).
The two different historical Estonian languages (sometimes considered dialects), the North and South Estonian languages, are based on the ancestors of modern Estonians’ migration into the territory of Estonia in at least two different waves, both groups speaking considerably different Finnic vernaculars. Modern standard Estonian has evolved on the basis of the dialects of Northern Estonia.
The oldest written records of the Finnic languages of Estonia date from the 13th century. Originates Livoniae in Chronicle of Henry of Livonia contains Estonian place names, words and fragments of sentences.
The earliest extant samples of connected (north) Estonian are the so-called Kullamaa prayers dating from 1524 and 1528. In 1525 the first book published in the Estonian language was printed. The book was a Lutheran manuscript, which never reached the reader and was destroyed immediately after publication.
The first extant Estonian book is a bilingual German-Estonian translation of the Lutheran catechism by S. Wanradt and J. Koell dating to 1535, during the Protestant Reformation period. An Estonian grammar book to be used by priests was printed in German in 1637. The New Testament was translated into southern Estonian in 1686 (northern Estonian, 1715). The two languages were united based on northern Estonian by Anton thor Helle.
Writings in Estonian became more significant in the 19th century during the Estophile Enlightenment Period (1750–1840).
The birth of native Estonian literature was in 1810 to 1820 when the patriotic and philosophical poems by Kristjan Jaak Peterson were published. Peterson, who was the first student at the then German-language University of Dorpat to acknowledge his Estonian origin, is commonly regarded as a herald of Estonian national literature and considered the founder of modern Estonian poetry. His birthday, March 14, is celebrated in Estonia as Mother Tongue Day.
In the period from 1525 to 1917, 14,503 titles were published in Estonian; by comparison, between 1918 and 1940, 23,868 titles were published.
In modern times Jaan Kross and Jaan Kaplinski remain as two of Estonia’s best known and most translated writers.
Writings in Estonian became significant only in the 19th century with the spread of the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment, during the Estophile Enlightenment Period (1750–1840). Although Baltic Germans at large regarded the future of Estonians as being a fusion with themselves, the Estophile educated class admired the ancient culture of the Estonians and their era of freedom before the conquests by Danes and Germans in the 13th century.
After the Estonian War of Independence in 1919, the Estonian language became the state language of the newly independent country. In 1945, 97.3% of Estonia considered itself ethnic Estonian and spoke the language.
When Estonia was invaded and occupied by the Soviet Union in World War II, the status of the Estonian language changed to the first of two official languages (Russian being the other one). As with Latvia many immigrants entered Estonia under Soviet encouragement. In the second half of the 1970s, the pressure of bilingualism (for Estonians) intensified, resulting in widespread knowledge of Russian throughout the country. The Russian language was termed as ‘the language of friendship of nations’ and was taught to Estonian children, sometimes as early as in kindergarten. Although teaching Estonian to non-Estonians in schools was compulsory, in practice learning the language was often considered unnecessary.
During the Perestroika era, The Law on the Status of the Estonian Language was adopted in January 1989. The 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union led to the restoration of the Republic of Estonia’s independence. Estonian went back to being the only state language in Estonia which in practice meant that use of Estonian was promoted while the use of Russian was discouraged.
The return of Soviet immigrants to their countries of origin has brought the proportion of Estonians in Estonia back above 70%. And again as in Latvia, today many of the remnant non-Estonians in Estonia have adopted the Estonian language; about 40% at the 2000 census.