Estonian phonology

This article is about the phonology and phonetics of the Estonian language.

Vowels

Estonian vowel chart, from Asu & Teras (2009:368). For some speakers, /ɤ/ can be more back (closer to /o/), or more back and higher (closer to /u/).

There are 9 vowels and 36 diphthongs, 28 of which are native to Estonian.[1] All nine vowels can appear as the first component of a diphthong, but only /ɑ, e, i, o, u/ occur as the second component. A vowel characteristic of Estonian is the unrounded back vowel /ɤ/, which may be close-mid back, close back, or close-mid central.[2]

Estonian vowel phonemes[3]
Front Back
unrounded rounded unrounded rounded
Close i y ɤ u
Mid e ø o
Open æ ɑ
  • Vowels /ɑ, e, i, u/ can occur in both initial and non-initial syllables. Vowels /o, ɤ, æ, ø, y/ generally occur in initial syllables; they can occur in non-initial syllables only in compound words, exclamations, proper names and unnaturalized loanwords.[2]
  • The front vowels /æ, ø, y/ are phonetically near-front [æ̈, ø̈, ÿ].[3]
  • Before and after /j/, the back vowels /ɑ, u/ can be fronted to [ɑ̽, u̟].[2]
  • The unrounded vowel transcribed /ɤ/ can be realized as close back [ɯ], close-mid central [ɘ] or close-mid back [ɤ], depending on the speaker.[2]
  • The mid vowels /e, o, ø/ are phonetically close-mid [e, o, ø].[3]
  • Word-final /e/ is often realized as mid [].[2]
  • The open vowels [ɑ, æ] are phonetically near-open [ɑ̝, æ̈].[3]
Estonian diphthongs[4]
Vowel ɑ e i o u
ɑ ɑe̯ ɑi̯ ɑo̯ ɑu̯
e eɑ̯ ei̯ eo̯ (eu̯)
i (iɑ̯) (ie̯) (io̯) iu̯
o oɑ̯ oe̯ oi̯ ou̯
u (uɑ̯) (ue̯) ui̯ uo̯
ɤ ɤɑ̯ ɤe̯ ɤi̯ ɤo̯ ɤu̯
æ æe̯ æi̯ æo̯ æu̯
ø øɑ̯ øe̯ øi̯ (øo) (øu)
y yɑ̯ (ye̯) yi̯ (yo̯)

There are very few instances of vowel allophony; for instance, the long /y/ is pronounced as the diphthong [yi] in certain[which?] environments.

Simple vowels can be inherently short or long, written with single and double vowel letters respectively. Diphthongs are always inherently long. Furthermore, long vowels and diphthongs have two suprasegmental lengths. This is described further below.