A Short Excursion into the Estonian Language and its Corpus Planning as it relates to Free Software


The written form of Estonian language is standardised to a large extent, and while standardising a language – a living, developing phenomenon – is mostly nonsense, especially if the existence of standard rules becomes an excuse for schools to treat perfectly understandable and logically constructed sentences as deficient, it is desirable to have a monolingual dictionary documenting the standard spelling of as many words in a language as possible (as long as it is not claimed that all words suitable for use in writing must come from that dictionary, which is again something schools tend to nonsensically do). The Institute of the Estonian Language maintains such a dictionary for the Estonian language; they are also responsible for other aspects of corpus planning for Estonian, but we do not concern ourselves with those in this essay.

As pointed out earlier, languages change over time; with regard to vocabulary, this means that new words enter the language, old ones fall into disuse, and some acquire additional or new meanings. Such processes are, in general, great: they foster spread of culture and understanding between the cultures. However, the processes do have a few shortcomings: first, dictionaries must be kept up-to-date; and second, people responsible for updating the dictionaries have to make certain judgment calls on recent additions to jargon and slang. More often than not it is reasonable to defer to users of such terms; however, every now and then the majority of users are wrong. An account describing the unfortunate consequences and the ensuing fight follows for such a particular case concerning Free Software terminology.


  • ware (n) – vara; software (n) – tarkvara
  • free (adj) – prii; free as in speech, libre (adj) – vaba; gratis (adj) – tasuta
  • freedom (n) – vabadus, priius
  • free software – vaba tarkvara, now also vabavara
  • freeware – priivara

The Problem

A few decades back, “Free Software” and “freeware” were often confused with eachother. Whether non-native speakers were more prone to such confusion than native ones, I know not; however, the people who introduced the term “vabavara” into the Estonian language obviously confused “freeware” and “Free Software”, as did many that came after them. Hence, at some point the definitive dictionary of Estonian included the entry “vabavara – tasuta tarkvara. The dictionary above is sufficient for our purposes; hence, the problem should be immediately obvious: Estonian “vaba” never means gratis. However, due to people misunderstanding the English terminology, the definitve dictionary had become to associate “freedom” in the context of software with the quality of being gratis.

The Solution

Over the years many people recognised this as a serious problem and used “vabavara” to mean “vaba tarkvara”, which would have been perfectly unproblematic if the definitive dictionary had got it right. Fortunately, we put up a resistance: at least one important computing-specific dictionary never translated “freeware” as “vabavara”; an important GNU/Linux community deprecated the use of “vabavara” to mean “freeware”, and adopted the word to refer to Free Software; and many people, including me, contacted the Institute of the Estonian Language and let them know that this particular peculiarity was complete nonsense. While, to the extent of my knowledge, no-one has received a clearly positive response (detailing which changes would be introduced to the dictionary, and when they would be introduced) from the Institute during the years, the end of 2013 finally brought long-awaited relief and ended the years of misery for those who care about such linguistic issues: the latest edition of the definitive dictionary has altered the meaning of “vabavara” to “software the user is allowed to modify and distribute”, and included “priivara” to mean gratis software.

Eliminating the artificially introduced ambiguity is a great step forward for Free Software in Estonia. Hence, it is only fitting to thank the Institute and celebrate! Celebrate, all ye freedom lovers, for we now have freedom in our speech!

To celebrate, I suggest listening to the following two Estonian songs making use of both “vaba(dus)” and “prii(us)” to refer to freedom: Põgene, vaba laps! (YouTube), Pistoda laul (Youtube).

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