Still from Angus' "Konsonantide Hümn" lyric video.
Friday, 03 September 2021 19:00
Estonian Life No. 35 2021 - Vincent Teetsov
Vowels are nine reasons, among others, why Estonian is a difficult language to learn. But tackling pronunciation and the alphabet is the first step before you can learn basic phrases, sentence structure, verbs, and so on.
When you're starting out with Estonian, it's difficult to figure the vowels out because they are probably unlike letters you've ever heard or seen before, at least if the sounds of English are your only frame of reference.
Thankfully, the reggae and ska band Angus, from Viljandi, have a boppy song just for this conundrum. If you want to practice Estonian vowels, “Konsonantide hümn”
(“The Consonant Anthem”) is the song for you.
Ok, so the song title is a little confusing. For song lyrics that are all vowels, the title should probably be “Täishääliku hümn”
or “Vokaalide hümn.”
Then again, maybe it's meant to be a joke. Plus, putting all those complex vowel sounds in the title would make it more difficult for us to name the song before we ever get acquainted with the sounds within.
So how do we pronounce each vowel? To start, we must target the vowels without special accents. That's just what singer and guitarist Anton Ventsel leads us into at the song's one minute mark:
“A – E – I – O – U...”
Ok, ok, hold up right there for a second!
To clarify, the letter A is pronounced softly, like opening wide at the dentist and saying “aaaaa...” E rhymes with “hey.” The letter I rhymes with the double Es in “feet.” O is like the rounded ending of “dough.” U sounds like the double Os in “root.” All good? Right, let's continue.
“...Õ – Ä – Ö – Ü.”
Whew. This escalated very quickly. How can we make sense of all of those dots and squiggles over the letters?
Well, the University of Tartu Phonetics Lab explains how the Õ sound can be voiced by placing your tongue “at the same height [as for] O and E. Your throat is slightly closed and your lips are unrounded.” When Õ is pronounced, you'll see the teeth bared, wide open flat lips, and you'll hear an “euuu” sound, more or less.
Ä is pronounced like the hard letter A in “cat.”
For Ö, imagine that the täpid
(dots above, or umlaut
if you're being very proper) are your eyes, and the wide, round Ö is the shape you need to make with your lips. Estonian language YouTuber Liisa Orav
has described the Ö sound as being similar to the letter E in “her,” which is perhaps a clearer explanation, but I promise that imagining that face will help you remember the sound as well!
For Ü, Orav has compared the sound to the “ew” in “few.” You'll want to move your lips into a tighter rounded shape, as if you were about to whistle.
Now try going through all nine vowels, saying them three times each. It'll let you hang off each letter a little bit before moving on to the next one.
When that's coming out smoothly, say each of the nine vowels again, only once this time, at a slow and steady pace. When that's ready, say the letters a bit faster, at the speed of your heart rate. If you mess up, don't worry. Just pick it up and try again.
When you're ready, turn Angus' song back on and take it at the tempo of the recording. Then use these sounds and harmonize as best as you can. For instance, take the octave above the main melody.
When your cheeks and jaw get tired, just bob to the one-drop rhythm of drummer Rauno Vaher. Move to the sloping groove of bassist Mati Tubli, the two and four beat guitar chop of Elari Ennok and Anton Ventsel, and the grand proclamations of this seven-piece band's horn section.
Rejoice in the fact that you've exercised your Estonian muscles for the day, by not only vocalizing the sounds of the language, but doing it through the singing of a song. Hästi tehtud!
Written by Vincent Teetsov