Estonian belongs to the Balto-Finnic group of the Finno-Ugric language family. It separated from the common Finnish relatively recently. In phonetics we note a complicated system of quantitative alternations and the gradual extinction of the vowel harmony. There are two main varieties: the northern one, or of Tallinn, which is the basis of the literary language, and the southern one, or of Tartu.
Estonian literature originally had an exclusively oral popular character: songs, stories, fairy tales, riddles, proverbs, conjurations, etc., which in the nineteenth century constituted the nucleus of the national epic Kalevipoeg, a poem perfected and published between 1857 and 1861 by the doctor FR Kreutzwald. The first texts written in Estonian appear in the 16th century. in connection with the Lutheran reform. In the 17th and 18th centuries. the tradition of religious literature continues (for example, the 36 sermons of G. Müller), but there is no lack of efforts to organize the literary language, divided into the northern and southern dialectal groups. The complete translation of the Bible by AT Helle dates back to 1739, laying the foundations for a unitary literary language based on North-Estonian. In the eighteenth century there were attempts at poetic creations with a non-religious content: the lamentation of 32 stanzas by K. Hans (17th-18th century) belongs to this vein.
- A real Estonian literature only begins with the nineteenth century. PA Mannteuffel, J. Sommer (both 18th-19th century) and KJ Peterson (1801-1822), who was the first authentic poet of modern Estonian literature, imposed themselves with popular fiction or poetry. In 1838 the Õpetatud Eesti Selts («Estonian scholarly society») was established in Tartu, which advocated the collection and selection of material for the Kalevipoeg. In the wake of the national-romantic fervor is the work of the poetess L. Koidula, to whom the playwright J. Kunder and the poets, even epics, Jakob Liiv (1859-1938) and J. Tamm are associated by analogy of inspiration.
- In the second half of the nineteenth century, the social question arose among the storytellers: the ideology of the so-called free peasant is present in the works of J. Pärn. In the 1890s, realistic conceptions also opened up in Estonia One of its pioneers is Juhan Liiv (1864-1913), a prose writer as vigorous as he is lyrical; they can be compared to him, always on the ground of realism: A. Kitzberg, playwright; Estonia Vilde, novelist; A. Haava, poetess.
- In 1905 the literary group Noor Eesti (“Young Estonia”) was formed, programmatically open to fruitful contact with European culture ; among the major exponents stands out the neo-romantic and impressionist poet G. Suits, author of Elu tuli (“Fuoco di vita”, 1905). In prose, the neo- romantic culture of form is reflected in the early novel by F. Tuglas Felix Ormusson (1915) and the short novel by A. Hansen Tammsaare Nooreed hinged (“Young souls”, 1909). The Noor Eesti group broke up in 1917: immediately, however, another one was founded, called Siuru; the neo-romantic style was replaced by expressionist and futurist tendencies. The animators were the poets M. Under, the prose writer A. Gailit, as well as F. Tuglas, with the fantastic stories Saatus («Sorte», 1917). The poet J. Barbarus also published as part of Siuru. In the era of independence, the so-called neo-realist wave is reinvigorated, but many of the neo- romanticists also reach full maturity: A. Hansen Tammsaare gives the press Tõde ja õigus (“Truth and law”, 5 vol., 1926-33), while F. Tuglas writes the Roman; zo Väike Illimar (“Little Illimar”, 1937).
- From 1940 the tragic Soviet, then Nazi and, from September 1944, Soviet occupation again determined in Estonia also the end of a free artistic and literary expression. A large part of the writers who escaped deportation and massacres were forced into exile, particularly in Sweden, where the journal Tulimud (“Burnt Earth”) was founded, directed by B. Kangro, the literary organ of Estonian emigrants. During the second half of the twentieth century, the most representative figures were the travel diarist J. Smuul; J. Kross, political prisoner in Russia (1946-54), poet and translator, author of numerous novels, among which Professor Martensi ärasõit (“The departure of Professor Martens”, 1984) and Keisri hull (1978; transl. It. The madman of the tsar, 1994); Estonia Niit, wife of Kross, poetess and translator; A. Valton, author of short stories.
- The independence of Estonia since August 1990 it has brought about a lively renewal of artistic and literary production, increasingly open to stimulating contacts with European and international culture, including avant-garde ones. Among the most prominent authors: the poet J. Kaplinski, the poetesses V. Luik, D. Pareva, and Estonia Mihkelson, also author of the novel Ahasveeruse uni (” Ahasuerus’s dream “, 2001); the prose writers M. Unt, A. Reinla, M. Mutt and the eclectic A. Kivirähk, which is measured with multiple genres of creative writing. The novel Piiririik (1993; trans. It. Land of the border) achieved good success in Europe, 1996) by Estonia Tode (pseudonym of the writer and poet T. Õnnepalu), who under the pseudonym of A. Nigov published the autobiographical Harjutused («Esercitarsi», 2000).