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How to say: Estonian names

14:58 UK time, Monday, 21 May 2007

A guide to the words and names in the news from Eva Liina Asu-Garcia of the BBC Pronunciation Unit

Over the past few weeks, several Estonian names have been in the international news in connection with the relocation of a Soviet era monument in Tallinn and subsequent riots and looting by part of the ethnic Russian population, as well as international cyber attacks targeted at the Estonian government’s, banks’ and newspapers’ websites. Also, last week, a new synagogue was opened in Tallinn to replace the one destroyed in WWII. In the context of all these events a few words about the pronunciation of Estonian, my native language, might be helpful.

Estonian is a vowel-rich language; there are 9 vowels: A, E, I, O, U, Õ, Ä, Ö and Ü. Unlike in most other languages, vowels and consonants in Estonian can have three degrees of length: short, long and overlong. In spelling, however, only two lengths are marked - thus one letter as a rule denotes short and double letters either a long or overlong sound. The primary stress falls on the first syllable of each word.

The name of the prime minister, Andrus Ansip contains only short vowels and is pronounced: UN-druuss UN-sip (-u as in "bun" in Southern British English, -uu as in "book"). Most of the vowels in the name of the defence minister Jaak Aaviksoo are long, and thus: YAAK AA-vick-saw (-aa as in "father", -aw as in "law"). President Toomas Hendrik Ilves is pronounced: TAW-muss HEN-drik ILL-vess.
The Estonian language also has 36 diphthongs ie combinations of two vowels in one syllable. For instance, the surname of the Estonian ambassador to the United Kingdom Margus Laidre is pronounced: LIGH-druh (-igh as in "high").

(For a guide to our phonetic pronunciations, click here.)

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