Estonia is the smallest and northernmost of the three Baltic states, with Latvia to the south, Russia to the East, bounded on the north and west by the Baltic Sea. This is a region of marked ethnic and linguistic diversity, and the Estonian language is historically distinct from those spoken in the neighboring countries. It is one of the few European languages which are not derived from the Indo-European linguistic family. Its closest major kinship is with Finnish and it belongs to the Baltic-Finnic sub-family of the Finno-Ugric linguistic family. The origins of this language group are thought to lie further east in the region of the Urals and it is possible that the ancestors of the Estonians moved into the Baltic area as early as four to five thousand years ago. The Ugric group moved southwest, giving rise to a number of languages of which the largest is Hungarian. Despite their common origins Hungarian and Estonian are mutually incomprehensible.

The diversity of the tribes living in the Baltic region and their relative backwardness made them a tempting target for the expansionist inclinations of their larger regional neighbors. By the early part of the 13th century what is now northern Estonia had been occupied by Danes and southern Estonia and Latvia, known as Livonia at the time, colonized by Germans.

For the next three centuries the German influence predominated within a feudal structure overseen by the Knights of the Teutonic order. The native Estonians remained an essentially rural sub-class, retaining their language and their folklore. This state of affairs was brought to an end by the mounting threat from Russia which compelled the loose confederation of Baltic states to seek help elsewhere. Northern Estonia came under Swedish rule, while its southern territories were initially controlled by Poland and then, in 1629, also by Sweden. In the early 18th century it was the turn of the Russians to control Estonia. Towards the end of the 19th century an active process of russification began. Russian control ended for the time being during the chaotic years at the end of World War I and Estonia and the other Baltic states had gained full independence by 1920. This was lost in 1940. The country suffered greatly under both Soviet and German occupation and after the war Estonia underwent a second phase of russification. Estonian, which had been the state language since independence, was downgraded. It was not until the collapse of the Soviet Union that Estonian once again became the only state language.

Given all these vicissitudes it is extraordinary that Estonian survived and not surprising that in the course of its development it has been influenced by the languages of its neighbors and colonizers, in particular German, Russian, Swedish and Latvian.


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