Eesti Elu
Traces of language 13,000 years back
Archived Articles 17 Apr 2009 EL (Estonian Life)Eesti Elu
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Estonian Institute

The ancestors of the Estonians arrived at the Baltic
Sea 13 000 years ago when the mainland glaciers of the
last Ice Age had retreated from the area now
designated as Estonia. The first settlers who followed
the reindeer herds came here from south, from Central
Europe. Although the vocabulary and grammar of the
language used by people in those days have changed
beyond recognition, the mentality of the tundra
hunters of thousands of years ago can be still
perceived in modern Estonian.
Language and lingering mentality

Even the most ordinary everyday Estonian language
contains numerous ancient expressions, possibly going
back as far as the Ice Age.

The Estonians say külma käes, vihma, päikese, tuule
käes ('in the hand of the cold, rain, sun, wind'), or
ta sai koerte käest hammustada (literally 'he was
bitten from the hand of dogs' i. e. 'he was bitten by
dogs') or ta sai nõgeste käest kõrvetada (literally
'he was stung from the hand of nettles'). Quite
obviously, nobody any longer thinks that the wind,
rain, dogs or nettles actually have hands. But in
ancient times the moving, often personified natural
phenomena, to say nothing about animals and plants,
were believed to have certain powers. These powers,
sometimes exerting control over human beings, were
symbolised by a hand. Hence the contemporary Estonian
käskima ('to order'; can be translated 'to give orders
with one's hand'), käsilane ('handyman').

In all the above Estonian expressions 'hand' occurs in
the singular. This is associated with the integral
concept of the world of our ancestors. Everything
formed a whole, a totality, also the paired parts of
body which were used only in the singular. If one
wanted to speak about one hand, one had to say pool
kätt ('half a hand'). Hence the division of the
holistic world into the right and left halves, right
and left sides.

Even now, Estonians find their bearings spatially by
using parts of the body, mostly without being aware of
it themselves. If something is kõrval ('beside', 'next
to'), an Estonian speaker does not even notice that
what he is actually saying is that something is 'on
his ear' (kõrv, kõrva meaning 'ear' and suffix -l
corresponding roughly to the English preposition
'on'). The Estonian postposition peal ('on') means
literally 'on the head' (pea 'head' + -l); juures
(juur, juure + -s which corresponds in modern Estonian
to the English 'in' but in earlier times stood for
'near' as well) means that something or somebody is
close to the speaker's juur ('root'), i.e. the place
where he touches the ground.
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