Although the difficulty of learning a language is somewhat subjective and is influenced by many individual factors, Estonian, in general, is quite a difficult language to master. It is often listed among the word’s hardest languages, as well as one of the hardest foreign languages for native speakers of English.
However, as with many other languages, there is nothing about Estonian that is impossible to learn with some effort, motivation, and regular practice. This article will give you an overview of the key parts to consider when it comes to Estonian grammar to give you the idea of what you should focus on learning.
In Estonian, nouns and pronouns do not have grammatical gender, but nouns and adjectives decline in fourteen cases: nominative, genitive, partitive, illative, inessive, elative, allative, adessive, ablative, translative, terminative, essive, abessive, and comitative, with the case and number of the adjective(s) always agreeing with that of the noun (except in the terminative, essive, abessive and comitative, where there is agreement only for the number, the adjective being in the genitive form).
There are also some additional cases such as the prolative or the similarly formed instructive, which are not traditionally counted among the 14 grammatical cases.
The nouns in Estonian have singular and plural forms. The nouns in plural have always the same ending, yet forming the plural can be a little tricky.
There are no articles in the Estonian language.
Adjectives in Estonian have the same 14 cases as nouns (see above), and the adjective or adjectives must always agree with the modified noun in case and number (except in the terminative, essive, abessive and comitative, where there is agreement only for the number, the adjective being in the genitive form).
The stem for the comparative and superlative forms is the singular genitive of an adjective; if a word has two syllables in the genitive or a vowel following -ke(se), then -ke(se) is left out and the last vowel in the stem changes to -e.
New adjectives can be derived from existing words by means of suffixes.
Antonyms can be formed by prepending eba or mitte to an adjective. Alternatively, for an adjective formed from a noun or a verb, an antonym can often be constructed using the suffix -tu or -matu.
Adverbs in Estonian can be formed in different ways: by adding case endings to different words, such as adjectives and other adverbs; by adding suffixes -sti, -ti, -li, -ldi, -kesi, and others to adjectives.
tõsine, tõsiselt — serious, seriously
rõõmus, rõõmsasti — glad, gladly
Some words, like siis, veel, palju, and others are original adjectives not formed from any other part of speech.
In Estonian, there are personal (mina, sina), reflexive (ise), demonstrative (see, too), interrogative (kes, mis), existential (keegi, miski), free choice (mingi, kumbki), and universal (kõik, mõlemad) pronouns.
Personal pronouns have two forms in Estonian – a long form which is used when you want to emphasize the pronoun and a short form which is used when you don’t.
mina, ma — I
Personal pronouns in Estonian inflect according to the same 14 cases as nouns.
In Estonian, each verb has two kinds of infinitives: the -da infinitive and the -ma infinitive.
There are three different participles: the present -v participle, -nud participle, and -tud participle.
There are 4 tenses in Estonian:
1) Olevik – Present
Ma olen praegu koolis.— I am at school at the moment.
2) Lihtminevik – Past Simple
Ma olin eile koolis. — I was at school yesterday.
3) Täisminevik – Present Perfect
Ma olen käinud koolis 12 aastat. — I have been going to school for 12 years.
4) Enneminevik – Past Perfect
Ma olin käinud koolis juba 5 aastat, enne kui mu õde esimesse klassi läks. — I had been going to school for 5 years already before my sister started first grade.
There are five different grammatical moods in Estonian:
1) Kindel – Indicative
Ma lähen poodi. — I am going to the shop.
2) Tingiv – Conditional
Ma tahaksin minna poodi. — I would like to go to the shop.
3) Käskiv – Imperative
Mine poodi! — Go to the shop!
4) Kaudne – Oblique
Ta minevat poodi. — Supposedly, he is going to the shop.
5) Möönev – Jussive
Ema ütles, et Marko mingu poodi. — Mom said that Marko should go to the shop.
Normally, Estonian sentences are either in personal or impersonal voice (instead of active and passive like in English). However, there also exists a stative passive form, which expresses the state that the object has reached as a result of the action. It can also be used as an adjective that describes what has happened to a noun.
Mina ehitan maja kaljule. — I am building the house on the cliff.
Maja ehitatakse kaljul. — One is building the house on the cliff.
Maja on ehitatud kaljule. — The house is built on the cliff.
Both prepositions and postpositions are used in Estonian. Each apposition requires the noun to be used in a particular case. Here are a few examples:
with the genitive case and declinable: alla – all – alt (under), ette – ees – eest (in front of), juurde – juures – juurest (at)
with the genitive case and non-declinable: eest / jaoks (for), järgi (according to), kaudu (via), kohta (about)
with the partitive case: mööda (along)
with the elative case: alla (down), läbi (through), peale / saadik (since)
with the genitive case: läbi (through), peale (besides), üle (over)
with the partitive case: alla (down), enne (before), kesk / keset (amid)
with the terminative case: kuni (until)
with the abessive case: ilma (without)
with the comitative case: koos / ühes (with)
This is a very brief overview of Estonian grammar. To truly master it, you will need to study each of the parts of speech in much more detail. However, this overview will hopefully give you a general idea of the Estonian grammatical system and of the main points you should consider when learning.