The Estonian language belongs to the group of Balto-Finnic languages, which in turn is a branch of the large Finno-Ugric family (see Finno – Ugric, languages). Estonian did not separate from the common Finnish until relatively recently, that is towards the eighth century of our era. Therefore the most ancient part of the history of Estonian, its peculiarities with respect to the common Ugric-Finnic, the most ancient words borrowed from the Baltic, Germanic and Slavic languages, are common to all or part of the other Balto-Finnic languages, because they are occurred at a time when the Balto-Finnic peoples lived in closer relationships than now. For the common traits with Finnish, see Finland: Language.
Of the characteristics of Estonian proper, which developed in the eleven and more centuries of independent life, we will recall only the complicated system of quantitative alternation, both vowel and consonant (vowels have four quantities, consonants three); the passage of g, d, b to the very light deaf ones G, D, B, the absence from the phonetic system of è, z, û, ã and the presence of õ (approximately like Romanian â or Russian y, but articulated even lower), the mutation of h – Balto-Finnic initial and the gradual extinction (less so in some dialects) of the vowel harmony (see A rmonia, IV, p. 527). Also noteworthy is the palatalization of the dentals in front of ai, j (both at the end of the first syllable and at the beginning of the second).
In Estonian there are two main varieties: the northern one (Estonian from Tallinn) and the southern one (Estonian from Tartu); the first (northern) is the basis of the literary language, which began to develop, like Finnish, following Lutheran propaganda (the first text is a catechism of 1535). In addition to the Indo-European elements that penetrated into Finno-Ugric or Balto-Finnish times, Estonian has taken many words from Russian, Latvian, Swedish, Finnish and especially German (both Low-German and literary German).