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Interview (and pub crawl) in Tallinn, Sunday

I'm in Tallinn, Estonia.

Tomorrow, as part of the HeadRead literary festival, I'll be interviewed by Mart Kalvert at the Estonian Writer's Union at Harju 1 in the old town, from 3pm. (This is a correction. Interview at 3pm, not 5pm.) I believe admission is free; in any case, it's going to be shown live on the huge videoscreen above the Writer's Union doorway if you can't get in.

It will be followed by signing of books, and then beer!!, or at least an attempted pub crawl through the old town, starting at Hell Hunt (Pikk 39) at 6pm.

If you can read this, and you're in Tallinn, and you want to come along, you're welcome.



Hi do realise that “I’m in Tallinn, Estonia." is almost an introduction to ...At least a Chapter...but maybe to the Intro to a Short-ish /Novella Story of The Laundry Files?

Just thought that I'd mention it.

You did think to pack the ...well sharpened and fire hardened at the pointy end, as well as Well Marinated in Garlic by the Light of The Full Moon ..Stakes! Funny how people think that Vampire activity is limited to Transylvania eh wot?

Is there any news on when and where we can expect to be able to read the Cold Comfort Famish Novella?


On t'other hand in Transylvania (and parts adjacent) vampires are are real, or at least believed in:


Please note that Tallinn and Romania are about as far apart as Toronto and Washington DC ...


Actually its about twice as far.


And much further, linguistically and culturally speaking.


I dono. I've spent time in both cities and except for what seems to be a similar language, they are incredibly different places. And after a while I came to the conclusion that the languages only seemed to be the same. The people in Toronto were very good at speaking American English and we were very bad at speaking what they called English.

And much further, linguistically and culturally speaking.

Actually, the linguistic connection between Estonia and Transylvania is somewhat close compared to both to most of Europe, since historically Transylvania has a large Hungarian speaking population,

and Hungarian and Estonian are both Finno-Ugric languages

Though I don't know how much similarity this entails.


BTW, any comments on Tallinn's somewhat adopted son Roman von Ungern-Sternberg already?


Not a lot to say, but they were interested that I'd even heard of him -- apparently there are only a couple of biographies of him out in Russian, and they were surprised to know that there was one in English -- James Palmer's The Bloody White Baron.

Estonia has a lot of, ahem, history with the Russian (and subsequently Soviet) empires. Much of it deeply unpleasant, especially the 1940-45 period (invaded by Stalin in 1940; counter-invaded by Hitler in 1942; counter-counter-invaded again by Stalin in 1944).


"Itt van egy szöveg első magyar, majd az észt"

"See on mingi tekst esimene ungari ja seejärel eesti"

Not a lot of similarity there, except in the last word. Do it in Finnish and there's a bit more semblance between that and the Estonian:

"Tämä on osa tekstistä ensin Unkarin ja Viron"

You can see some kinship there.

(I am relying wildly on automated translation - the closest I'm ever going to get to knowing Hungarian is having had a Godfather from Budapest.)

And Romanian, for the fun of it:

"Acesta este un text în primul rând în limba maghiară și apoi în limba estonă"

Very obviously a Romance language (well, what did you expect?).

I think the problem is that the Finno-Ugric language family is a bit like the reptiles - stuff gets shovelled in there seemingly for lack of anywhere else to put it. Linguists may see some deep resemblances, but to you or me the simiilarities will be remote.


There's a book which Amazon were selling cheaply on Kindle, about a year ago, about the genetic history of the British Isles (The Origins of the British by Stephen Oppenheimer). Going by the genetic markers, the Celtic/Anglo-Saxon split goes back to the initial post-Glacial recolonisation. So you get eastern England settled from, eventually, the Balkans, while the Western genes came up the Atlantic Coast.

And, while languages don't follow genes, Scandinavia also looks back to the Balkans, genetically, so the Finno-Ugric group of languages is something that fits in.

It's one of those books which some reviewers criticised for getting too technical, but I didn't have any problems. It's a part of the whole re-thinking of the Anglo-Saxon invasion story that many of us were taught in school. and which doesn't fit well with so much else we know today from Archaeology. Our teachers were suckered by the propaganda, and by trying to explain King Arthur as a piece of real history, when a cleric may have been stringing together half-remembered stories, a thousand and more years ago.

Think of the Venerable Bede being nearer to Xena Warrior Princess than to Mary Beard.


I was in Tallinn at the same time as HeadRead. This was purely by coincidence - not planned - but since I was there and Charlie was speaking (and I'm a fan) I went to the interview.

Before going to Estonia I did some homework. I can write out what homework I did (TMI), but here is what I learned (from both observation and authoritative sources).

  • There are Hungarians in Transylvania. They are a minority, but they exist.
  • Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian are all from the same Finno-Urgic language family, but the languages themselves are not similar. That is, speakers of one do not even recognize any of the others unless they have sought them out.
  • Hence, speakers of Hungarian do not recognize Estonian at all.
  • Hence, Finnish speakers do not recognize Estonian at all.
  • Some Estonian speakers in Estonia learn Finnish, but only because there so many Finnish tourists.
  • Estonians consider Finland to be like big cousins. Estonians like the Finns.
  • The Finns don't bother to learn Estonian, and largely don't care about Estonia - other than it has cheaper taxes on liquor and lower cost labor. (The number of Estonians that either move to or commute to Finland for work is considerable.)
  • If you hear Estonian spoken on the street, you'll recognize some of the sounds, but: you will know it's not Indo-European, Romance, and not Slavic. You'll think it might be Eastern European, but you'll have no idea whatsoever of what is being said.
  • For some samples with context, check the website This is a site that promotes independent Estonian film with small payments and torrent distribution. They've got links on YouTube. (My favorite link is to the comedy Mindless.)
  • One young Estonian woman (one of the tour guides in the alt.tourism kiosk across the street from the Estonia Writers' Union where Charlie was interviewed, and a political science graduate**) said that while she didn't understand Finnish, if we gave her two weeks in Finland she'd be totally fluent.
  • One young Russian woman (born and raised in Estonia but ethnically Russian, and the two groups distinguish themselves quite definitely) spoke Russian, Ukrainian, Estonian, Finnish and English. She told me that the Finnish and Estonian languages do not cross over and barely share anything.

So, Estonian is a language with about 1 million speakers, which is hardly enough to make a big splash in the world. But they have a long and important tradition of literature, theater, and film.

The young people in Estonia largely speak English, and some of them are quite fluent.

Charlie was interviewed by an Estonian man, Mart Kalvet, who spoke English well, and well enough to be understood by any random English-speaker who might have dropped by. During the interview I sat next to another Estonian man (writer and translator Andrei Tuch) whose English was flawless, and barely accented.

Those Estonians whose English is near flawless and barely accented actually are often mistaken for having learned their English in Ireland. They do a thing with some English language diphthongs like the Irish do where the sound "aye" sound goes to "oy". This wasn't uniform, but I noticed it a lot with native Estonian speakers who are fluent and well practiced in English. I asked one of the tour women about it and she laughed and said she is asked about that frequently by English speakers on her tour.

** I met a number of educated and bilingual Estonians who were noticeably underemployed. Estonia has a (serious?) problem with its educated young people going abroad for better employment. This is especially a problem with their medical professionals, who emigrate.


Well, the comment about finno-ugrian languages was somewhat tongue in cheek, and as a reminder that even for some seemingly unrelated subjects, it's possible to find a relation. OK, and a little nerdgas. ;)

Actually, as far as related languages are concerned, the examples with Estonian and Hungarian are not THAT bad. Without relying on Google Translate, you can use a common text extant in both languages, e.g. some European Community decree etc. Historicaly, linguists have often used a short fundamental Christian prayer, the paternoster, you can find different language versions at

For an example, Polish and Lithuanian are both Indo-European languages, of the Slavic and Baltic subfamily respectively, and the similarity between those two branches is quite big, with explanations ranging from a common ancestor after PIE breakup, see baltoslavic, to just big influence of two neighbours on each other, quite popular with Baltic linguists, actually, local patriotism and liguistics is a story in itself.

Now my father still speaks some Polish from his parents, as did my aunt who sadly passed away last year; they usually recited some songs or prayers, maybe that preservation of specific vocabulary's balancing things somewhat. Whatever, recently, I put my father onto the Lithuanian paternoster. He said he noticed some faint similarities, though not much. A word her, one there. If you look at the texts, you tend to agree.

Though the Slavic languages in themselves are quite similar, as are the Baltic ones. And well, this is for one of the better established higher branches...

As for Estonian and Hungarian, it seems like the finno-ugrian relation has been questioned by some linguists, too, at the very least, it is noted as quite divergent for a language family where the last common ancestor is said to be later than the one of the other usual suspects, e.g. Indo-European or Semitic languages. Though it seems not to be as bad as e.g. with the "Altaic" languages, e.g. nearly universally challenged.

BTW, for a really at-hand example of mutually unintelligable but related languages, take English(and Scots) and some Northern German dialects. On a tree diagram, the latter, e.g. the various "Platts" in Westphalen, are closer related to English than to High German or Dutch. Not that either helps you much...


Err, actually it's somewhat the other way around, the Hungarian language is something of a latecomer in its area, with two languages said to be related, Mansi and Khanty, spoken in Siberia. YMMV. Still, it seems quite clear that the Magyar language and culture entered Europe from the North-East:

For the actual people, well, AFAIR Hungarians are not that genetically distinct from your usual run-of-the-mill Central or South Central European.

Abstaining from them having the best-looking pornstars, BTW. Shit, didn't work.


Err, make that: Abstaining from mentioning them having the best-looking pornstars.

Err, shit, it happened again, but some things have to be said.



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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on June 1, 2013 9:15 PM.

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