How do people who don’t speak Estonian understand the emotions expressed in it?

Rene Altrov from the University of Tartu, conducted a series of tests as part of her PhD research on people with different nationalities and cultural experiences to find that out.

She concluded that geographic and cultural closeness play a surprisingly small role: of her sample size, it was the Finns who struggled the most with understanding emotions expressed in Estonian.

Her tests aimed to determine how foreigners perceive joy, anger, sadness and neutrality in Estonian.

People were simply asked to listen to sentences in Estonian and determine which of the four emotions were expressed in each.

Altrov’s research showed that people from the neighboring countries fail to notice when people speaking in Estonian express joy, putting it down as neutral speech.

“The same applies to anger – that too sounds neutral to them,” Altrov said.

Oddly enough, Italians managed to tell the emotions apart much better. It could be down to the fact that Estonian and Italian have acoustic similarities.

Neutral speech in Estonian was, on the other hand, considered angry by Latvians and Russians, and joyful by Italians and Finns.

“We’ve looked into it and found that neutral talk in Estonian tends to be quite intensive – it’s loud and high-pitched. This is different in Russia, where angry speech is intense-sounding, and then come sadness, joy, and finally neutral speech. In Estonian it’s the other way around – neutral speech, anger, joy and only then sadness.”

The latter is the most universal of the basic emotions studied, hence best recognized across languages and cultures.

Perhaps the most surprising find was that the Finnish, who are very close to Estonians in geographic, cultural and linguistic terms, had the hardest time recognizing the emotions expressed by Estonian-speakers. Latvian test subjects too often struggled to identify Estonian emotions by vocal expression alone, confirming the hypothesis that the recognition of emotions is culturally bound.