Among our crosswords and other puzzles, we’ll be featuring linguistic challenges from around the world from puzzle aficionado and writer Alex Bellos. A PDF of the puzzle, as well as the solution, can be downloaded below.
In Estonia, there is no sex and no future.
This has nothing to do with the very real decline in fertility rates in this European country of 1.3 million people on the Baltic Sea. Rather, it is about the Estonian language, which has no grammatical gender and no future tense.
Estonian is spoken by about 1.1 million people, and is notorious as one of the most difficult European languages for English speakers to learn, along with its siblings in the Finno-Ugric language family, Finnish and Hungarian.
One particularly complicated part of Estonian grammar is its nouns. Estonian nouns may have no gender (just like English but unlike languages based on Latin), but they have 14 grammatical cases, meaning that nouns may change in 14 different ways depending on their use in a sentence. (The translative case, for example, indicates a change of state, requires the suffix -ks, while the abessive case, indicating the absence of the noun in question, adds the suffix -ta.) English, on the other hand, has no grammatical cases.
As for verbs, to express something that might happen in the future there is no separate tense. Rather, you use the present tense and then a temporal marker, such as a specific time. So, in order to say, “I will solve this puzzle at 8:30 p.m.,” you say, “I solve this puzzle at 8:30 p.m.,” and context does the rest.
However, this statement presupposes you can determine how Estonians tell time, which is different from how English speakers tell time, and is the subject of the puzzle below.