Estonian phonology | prosody


The stress in Estonian is usually on the first syllable, as was the case in Proto-Finnic. There are a few exceptions with the stress on the second syllable: aitäh ('thanks'), sõbranna ('female friend'). In loanwords, the original stress can be borrowed as well: ideaal ('ideal'), professor ('professor'). The stress is weak, and as length levels already control an aspect of "articulation intensity", most words appear evenly stressed.

Syllables can be divided into short and long. Syllables ending in a short vowel are short, while syllables ending in a long vowel, diphthong or consonant are long. The length of vowels, consonants and thus syllables is "inherent" in the sense that it is tied to a particular word and is not subject to morphological alternations.

Suprasegmental length

All stressed long syllables can possess a suprasegmental length feature. When a syllable has this feature, any long vowel or diphthong in the syllable is lengthened further, as is any long consonant or consonant cluster at the end of that syllable. A long syllable without suprasegmental length is termed "long", "half-long", "light" or "length II" and is denoted in IPA as ⟨ˑ⟩ or ⟨ː⟩. A long syllable with suprasegmental length is termed "overlong", "long", "heavy" or "length III", denoted in IPA as ⟨ː⟩ or ⟨ːː⟩. For consistency, this article employs the terms "half-long" and "overlong" and uses ⟨ː⟩ and ⟨ːː⟩, respectively, to denote them.

Both the regular short-long distinction and the suprasegmental length are distinctive, so that Estonian effectively has three distinctive vowel and consonant lengths, the distinction between the second and third length levels being at a level larger than the phoneme, such as the syllable or the foot.[6] In addition to realizing greater phonetic duration, overlength in modern Estonian involves a pitch distinction where falling pitch is realized in syllables that are overlong and level pitch is realized in syllables that are short or long.[7]

The suprasegmental length is not indicated in the standard orthography except for the plosives for which a single voiceless letter represents a half-long consonant while a double voiceless letter represents an overlong consonant. There are many minimal pairs and also some minimal triplets which differ only by length:[2]

  • vere /vere/ 'blood []' (short) — veere /veːre/ 'edge [gen. sg.]' (long) — veere /veːːre/ 'edge [ptv. plural] ' but also 'roll [imp. 2nd sg.] ' (overlong)
  • lina /linɑ/ 'sheet' (short) — linna /linːɑ/ 'town [gen. sg.]' (long) — linna /linːːɑ/ 'town [ine. sg.]' (overlong)
  • kabi /kɑpi/ 'hoof' (short) — kapi /kɑpːi/ 'wardrobe [gen. sg.]' (long) — kappi /kɑpːːi/ 'wardrobe [ine. sg.]' (overlong)

The extra length distinction has a number of origins:

  • Single-syllable words are always overlong, if they have a long syllable.
  • Overlong syllables appear in strong-grade environments, while half-long syllables appear in weak-grade environments. This is traceable to an earlier (Proto-Finnic) distinction between open and closed syllables: closed syllables shortened and weakened a preceding syllable.
  • Syncopation of a medial syllable lengthens the preceding syllable.
  • When a consonant disappears altogether in the weak grade, coalescence of the two adjacent vowels produces an overlong syllable.
  • Compensatory lengthening in the short illative singular form of nominals produces an overlong syllable, even from an originally short syllable.