Population census. More people speak dialects than in the previous census

Posted on 16 November 2022, 8:00

It is estimated that 17% of the native Estonian-speaking population speak a dialect. This is 2 percentage points more than in the previous census. The share of dialect speakers has increased the most in Hiiu and Saare counties, but it has not decreased in any county. 10% of dialect speakers speak more than one dialect.

A local language form or dialect means local language customs that differ from the Estonian literary standard, not a foreign language. A person who speaks a local language form is someone who understands and can also express oneself in this language. Data on command of dialects was collected with the 2021 population and housing census survey for all Estonian-speaking persons aged 3 and over. 

At the time of the 2021 census, 17% (151,820 people) of the native Estonian-speaking population speak a dialect. The proportion of dialect speakers has increased compared with the previous census – it was 15% (131,239 people) in 20111. “These figures show that there is a growing awareness of dialects among people in Estonia,” said Liina Osila, Population and Housing Census project manager at Statistics Estonia.

The highest proportions of dialect speakers by county are in Võru (74%), Põlva (60%), and Saare (42%) counties. These are followed by Valga (37%), Hiiu (32%), Tartu (22%), Viljandi (15%), and Harju (11%) counties. Pärnu, Jõgeva, Rapla, and Järva counties each have 9% of dialect speakers. The lowest shares of dialect speakers are found in Ida-Viru (8%), Lääne (7%), and Lääne-Viru (6%) counties. 

The share of dialect speakers has not decreased in any county. The biggest increases in speakers of dialects have been recorded on the larger islands: by 11 percentage points (p.p.) in Hiiumaa, 9 p.p. in Muhu, and 8 p.p. in Saaremaa. However, the share of dialect speakers has decreased on Estonia's smaller islands – most notably in Ruhnu and Vormsi rural municipalities, where the number of dialect speakers has fallen by 12 and 7 percentage points, respectively, compared with the previous census. „Nevertheless, it should be borne in mind that since small islands are home to a small number of people, even a slight change in the number of dialect speakers can have a big impact on the proportion," Osila explained. 

As expected, among native speakers of Estonian, the percentage of dialect speakers is highest among the older population. Approximately a quarter of the people in the age groups 65 and over and 50–64 speak a dialect (26% and 25%, respectively). Dialect speakers account for 18% in the 30–49 age group, 11% in the 15–29 age group, and 3% in the youngest age group.

The increase in the share of dialect speakers compared with the 2011 census has also been greatest in the older age groups. Among people aged 50–64 and 65 and over, the proportion of dialect speakers has increased by 3 percentage points. In the younger age groups (15–29 and 30–49 years), the figure has risen by 1 percentage point, and in the youngest group (3–14 years) it has remained stable.

10% of dialect speakers speak more than one dialect

“Unlike in the previous census, people now had the opportunity to indicate all the dialects they spoke, rather than being limited to the one they spoke best,” Osila elaborated. According to the results, it is estimated that 90% of dialect speakers speak one dialect, 8% speak two, and 2% speak three or more.

Every fourth inhabitant of Southern Estonia speaks the Võru dialect

Looking at the whole of Estonia, the Võru dialect group stands out, with 11% of the native Estonian-speaking population speaking its subdialects. This group includes the Setu subdialect, which is spoken by 3% of the population. Other notable dialects are the Insular dialect, spoken by 4%, and the Tartu and Mulgi dialects, each spoken by 2% of the population. The subdialects in the remaining dialect groups are spoken by less than 1% of the population.

The region with the highest proportion of dialect speakers is Southern Estonia, where the Võru dialect is the most common, spoken by one in four people (25%). The Tartu dialect is spoken by 4%, and the Mulgi dialect by 3% of people living in Southern Estonia. The Võru dialect is also the most widely spoken dialect among people living in Northern Estonia (6%) and Central Estonia (4%). In Western Estonia, the most common dialect is the Insular dialect, which is spoken by 14% of the native Estonian speakers living in that area.

As expected, dialects have a strong connection to regions. The Võru dialect is spoken by nearly three quarters (73%) of the population of Võru county and more than half (59%) of the inhabitants of Põlva county. 40% of the inhabitants of Saare county and 29% of the population of Hiiu county can speak the Insular dialect. The Mulgi dialect is spoken by 10% of the population of Viljandi county and 8% of the inhabitants of Valga county. 7% of the population of Tartu county and 5% of the population of Valga county speak the Tartu dialect. The Coastal dialect is most widely spoken in Ida-Viru county – 3%.

Based on these proportions, we can conclude that dialect speakers are still the most numerous in the region of origin of the respective dialect group, although we can also see some expansion into nearby counties and regions,” Osila added.

Information on command of dialects was collected through the population and housing census from the end of 2021 to the beginning of 2022. Data on command of languages was collected for people aged 3 and over. Nearly half of Estonia’s total population participated in the survey, and the breakdowns were calculated taking into account the people who refused to answer the question. Responses to the questions on languages spoken are generalisable to the whole population aged 3 and over. The aim of the survey was to find estimates for the questions asked. A more detailed description of the survey can be found in the methodology document.

For more information on command of languages collected during the population census, visit rahvaloendus.ee. The data are published in the statistical database.

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For further information:

Helen Maria Raadik
Media Relations Manager
Marketing and Dissemination Department
Statistics Estonia
Tel +372 625 9181
press [at] stat.ee


[1] In 2011, only native speakers of Estonian were surveyed about their command of dialects. For this reason, the figures presented in this analysis are only for native speakers of Estonian, although in 2021, non-native speakers of Estonian were also asked about their command of dialects.