My wife’s 95-year-old Estonian grandfather, Edgar, likes to tell me how stupid and ugly English is, particularly the kind of American English I speak. This topic is usually capped by the proclamation that Estonian once came in second only to Italian as the world’s most beautiful language. I’ve never been able to substantiate the whole language world championship thing (not that I’ve tried very hard), but I’m not denying that such a contest once took place, nor that Estonian came in second to Italian in the final race. I simply don’t know. All I’m saying is I can easily imagine finding old men the world over who would make similarly cranky claims for their own languages.
That said, as an American poet working exclusively in the language, I don’t entirely disagree with Edgar’s takedown of English. It has a lot going for it, true. It’s flexible, nimble, and like a good toilet paper, it’s exceedingly resilient and absorbent. But it’s also messy, chaotic, and oftentimes cumbersome, and though English can certainly turn on the charm when it wants to, I don’t think we can amass more than a handful of people who might call it particularly pretty. Estonian, on the other hand, has a lot of cheerleaders, about 1.1 million, or basically every single Estonian speaker in the world, because with the exception of sauna and giant wooden swings, there is nothing Estonians are more militantly enthusiastic about as their language. No, I’m going to agree with Edgar and the rest of his countrymen and women, Estonian is a beautiful language, maybe even the second most beautiful language in the world, especially when spoken fluently by beautiful Estonian women, of whom there are many. Hoist the blue, black, and white and cue the 30,000-person choir.
But while we’re at it, Estonia, there’s one other thing about your language besides its beauty I’d like to point out. It’s horrifically frustrating to try to learn as a 40-year-old American, which is to say, it’s an ancient Finno-Ugric language with virtually no similarities to English. It’s a language in which there is no gender or future tense, but fourteen noun cases with hundreds of different spelling groups, and instead of prepositional phrases, all the nouns change in weird, irregular ways, and then all the adjectives have to change along with them. True, all languages have their eccentricities, and learning any new language is a struggle, and I’m getting awfully old for this kind of knowledge acquisition at any level of complexity. All I’m saying is that to travel to the land of fluent Estonian, one must cross a bridge gaurded by evil philologists. But I married in, so what’s a guy to do?
The first time I tried to pick up some Estonian was in 2009 when I took a two-week summer intensive course at Tartu University. It was something of a failure, I’ll confess, but in my defense, no one learns more than a smattering of any language in two weeks, no matter how intense the course. Also, I returned to the United States immediately after finishing the class and—I don’t know if you realize this—there isn’t a great deal of Estonian spoken in the good old USofA. And do you want to practice something you’re bad at with your spouse, mother-in-law, or an old man who holds nothing in higher regard than the language you’re about to butcher alive? Right. So I walked away from my first attempt with what you might expect: My name is Matt, my favorite shirt is blue, and thank you for the delicious hand pies. In the interim I’ve retained exactly that, plus please, thank you, damn it, and my favorite, “mine perse,” which is kind of like f-off, but literally means “go up an ass.” Beautiful, no?
Now, five years later, I’m at it again because I’m living in Estonia for a year this time, going to the market every day, and pointing and grunting my way through transactions with the market ladies is quickly loosing its charm. No delusions of grandeur, mind you. I would simply like, for the first time in my life, to be something other than the stereotypical monolingual American that I am, the kind of person who might buy carrots without resorting to “please, orange things” in a bad accent and a lot of hysterical smiling thrown on top for goodwill. If, by the end of my stay, I can answer my Estonian teacher’s daily inquiry into my wellbeing by saying, reliably, “I’m well, thanks for asking,” instead of, “I’m well, thanks for pissing” (a mistake by just one umlaut in Estonian), I’ll count myself a success of sorts, a winner in the game of radically lowered expectations.
In the meantime, my lovely Estonian-American wife, Marika, mocks me daily, slowly and painstakingly asking me dumb questions over drinks or on my Facebook wall, things like, “how is the sausage occupied?” Well, perseauk (that means asshole, one of our terms of endearment, so you see how we roll), I’d be happy to tell you all about this sausage’s occupation, so long as I can do so in the simplest declarative sentences possible and you don’t rush me. This sausage name Matt. This sausage favorite shirt blue. This sausage love the hand pie, very good. Big thanks for pissing.