How similar are Finnish and Estonian?

Finnish and Estonian are among the very few languages spoken in Europe which do not belong to the Indo-European family of languages.

This is a very significant fact, because of how large the Indo-European family is. It includes for instance:

Finnish and Estonian both belong to the Uralic family of languages. The Uralic languages are not part of the Indo-European family of languages.

Besides Finnish and Estonian, the Uralic languages also include Hungarian and some others which are less known (such as Mansi and Khanty).

Linguistically, Finnish and Estonian are closer to each other than they are to other Uralic languages such as Hungarian.

This is because Finnish and Estonian are both part of the Finnic branch of the Uralic languages, while Hungarian is part of the Ugric branch.

diagram showing the relationship between Finnish and Estonian within the Uralic family of languages

While Finnish and Estonian have a lot of similar vocabulary words (which we will see), in the case of Finnish and Hungarian the vocabulary is much less similar.

Although Estonia is included in the Baltic states (because of its geographic location) its language (Estonian) is not classified by linguists as a Baltic language.

The Baltic languages (which include Lithuanian, Latvian) are part of the Indo-European family of languages.

Finnish and Estonian: similarities and differences in vocabulary

Finnish and Estonian vocabulary words which are identical

Finnish and Estonian are similar, and closely related languages. As a result there are many vocabulary words which are identical between the two languages.

Here is a list of Finnish and Estonian words which are the same:

Table: Finnish - Estonian identical words
English Estonian Finnish
water vesi vesi
moon kuu kuu
money raha raha
tree puu puu
snow lumi lumi
hand käsi käsi
expensive kallis kallis
sea meri meri

Finnish and Estonian vocabulary words which are similar

There are many words in Finnish and Estonian, which although not identical are quite similar.

Here is a list of Finnish and Estonian words which are similar:

Table: Finnish - Estonian similar words
English Estonian Finnish
today täna tänään
kiss suudlus suudella
river jõgi joki
belief usk usko
night öö
bird lind lintu
peace rahu rauha
eye silm silmä
laugh naerma nauraa
shoes kingad kengät
clean puhas puhdas

Notice the letter 'õ' in the Estonian word «jõgi»: that letter exists in Estonian but not in Finnish.

Finnish and Estonian vocabulary words which are completely different

Since Finnish and Estonian are different languages (and not different dialects from the same language) there are also many vocabulary words which are completely different between them.

Here is a list of Finnish and Estonian words which are very different:

Table: Finnish - Estonian different words
English Estonian Finnish
smile naerata hymy
house maja talo
art kunst taide
book raamat kirja
computer arvuti tietokone
easy lihtne helppo
privacy privaatsus yksityisyys
silence vaikus hiljaisuus
slow aeglane hidas
smart tark fiksu
seasons aastaajad vuodenajat
vegetables köögiviljad vihannekset
important oluline tärkeä
telephone telefon puhelin
love armastus rakkaus

Looking at these words which are different between Estonian and Finnish, we notice that some of the Estonian words are similar to German words (for example “kunst”, “privaatsus”).

This is because Estonia was occupied by the Germans during a period of the middle ages. As a result, despite Estonian and German being languages with completely different origins, there are a number of German loanwords in Estonian.

Estonian - Finnish vocabulary false friends

In the context of languages, “false friends” are words which sound similar in both languages but have completely different meanings

Here are some Estonian - Finnish false friends to be careful of:

Finnish and Estonian are both genderless languages

Another similarity between Estonian and Finnish is that they are both genderless languages, meaning that grammatical gender is not present in those languages.

In particular, Estonian and Finnish both use gender neutral pronouns. The English pronouns “he” and “she” both translate to the Finnish pronoun “hän”, and to the Estonian pronoun “ta”.

As genderless languages, Estonian and Finnish nouns don’t have genders. To an English speaker this might not seem that noteworthy, but in many European languages every noun has a gender.

This is the case with French, where remembering the gender of French nouns can be tricky for language learners.

This is even more the case in languages such as German and Norwegian where each noun has one of 3 possible genders (feminine, masculine and neuter).

Estonian and Finnish similarities in pronunciation

Estonian and Finnish are both languages in which the length of vowels can change the meaning of words.

Finnish distinguishes two vowel lengths (short vowels and long vowels). Estonian goes one step further and distinguishes 3 vowel lengths: in addition to short and long vowels, Estonian also has a rare "overlong" vowel length.

In some languages, long vowels are indicated by marks (diacritics) on those vowels. In Finnish and Estonian long vowels are indicated by doubling the vowels (writing it twice).

This is why Finnish and Estonian are languages in which so many vocabulary words have double vowels.

Are Estonian and Finnish hard to learn?

The U.S. Foreign Service Institute, rates languages into 4 categories, based on the time it takes for diplomats who are learning those languages to reach working proficiency.

Category I languages are those which are most similar to English and take the least amount of time to learn. These include Spanish, Norwegian, Italian.

Category IV languages are the “Super-hard languages” which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers to learn. These include Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Arabic.

Estonian and Finnish similar in difficulty: they are both category III languages (“hard languages”), which means that it takes about 44 weeks (1100 class hours) to reach a working proficiency in those languages.

One of the reasons why Estonian and Finnish are difficult languages for English speakers to learn, is that they both have many grammatical cases. Finnish has 15 grammatical cases, and Estonian has 14.

In Finnish and Estonian, suffixes are used to indicate the grammatical cases.

Conclusion

Estonian and Finnish are both very similar languages, and because they are unrelated to the Indo-European family of languages, they are very different from the languages which many of us are familiar with.

We’ll end on a quote by J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of the Lord of the Rings who was also a linguist - and more precisely a philologist, meaning someone who studies the history of languages:

“It [discovering Finnish] was like discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me.”
— J.R.R. Tolkien
References:
  1. [1] Source
  2. [2] Source

PS: you can use our free language tool, VocabChat to record your own vocabulary and phrase lists.