Exploring Estonian Proverbs and Sayings

Learning Estonian or any other language isn’t just about learning the grammar and vocabulary. To get a better and deeper understanding of the language, it’s beneficial to delve into the proverbs and sayings of the language. This can be a good way of gaining insight into how people of that culture think, as proverbs are often reflective of the values, beliefs, and culture of a society, and they frequently contain wisdom or advice about various aspects of life.

In this article, we’ll explain 15 different proverbs to give you an insight into the Estonian way of thinking.

Estonian proverbs and what they mean

1. Julge hundi rind on rasvane.

Translation: The brave wolf’s chest is fat.

This is probably one of the most well-known pearls of folk wisdom in Estonia. This proverb conveys the idea that those who are bold, courageous, or take risks are more likely to reap rewards or benefits. The saying suggests that individuals who are not afraid to face challenges or take on difficult tasks are more likely to achieve success or enjoy favorable outcomes. Just as a wolf that is brave enough to hunt may have a well-fed chest, people who display bravery or daring behavior often find themselves in advantageous positions.

2. Kes ei riski, see šampust ei joo.

Translation: The one who doesn’t take a risk won’t be drinking champagne.

This is a well-known proverb that is used often. It’s meant to encourage and inspire people to take seemingly riskier steps or to put more effort into something that they’re doing. According to the saying, courage and effort are a guarantee of success.

Discover 15 Estonian sayings and proverbs

3. Pindu näeb teise silmas, aga palki ei näe oma silmas.

Translation: You can see a splinter in another’s eye, but you can’t see the beam in your own.

This proverb originates from the Bible, and although Estonians are some of the least religious people in the world, they still have about twenty proverbs that originate from the Bible. 

4. Tühi kõht on kõige parem kokk.

Translation: An empty stomach is the best cook.

We’ve all noticed that even the simplest food is delicious when you’re really hungry. This saying suggests that hunger enhances your appreciation of food more, making it taste a lot better than it would in other circumstances.

5. Oma silm on kuningas.

Translation: Your own eye is the king.

This proverb expresses the idea that you can trust that things are the way they are by seeing or experiencing them firsthand. In short, you can believe something only after you’ve seen it yourself.

6. Suu ees sula sõber, selja taga kõrilõikaja.

Translation: A smooth-talking friend in front of your face, a throat-cutter behind your back.

This proverb warns of people who appear friendly and trustworthy when they are with you but that may have hidden or harmful intentions behind your back. It cautions you to be wary of those who are overly charming and friendly but without your best interests in mind.

7. Kui armastus on ees, siis meel on metsas.

Translation: When love is in front of you, the mind is in the forest.

This proverb conveys the idea that when a person is in love or infatuated, their thoughts and emotions may become scattered or distracted, much like a mind lost in a thick forest. It suggests that romantic love has the power to overwhelm one’s rational thinking and reasoning. When someone is deeply in love, their thoughts may become preoccupied with their feelings for the person they love, making it difficult to focus on other aspects of life or make clear, logical decisions.

8. Laisa tööpäev on ikka homme.

Translation: The lazy one’s workday is always tomorrow.

This proverb implies that people who are prone to laziness often find excuses to avoid their duties or tasks by promising to do them “tomorrow” or at some unspecified future date. However, “tomorrow” never really comes, and the work keeps getting postponed indefinitely. It’s a gentle reminder about the importance of diligence and not procrastinating. 

9. Tublidus ei tule tööta, osavus ei hooleta.

Translation: Diligence doesn’t come without work; skill doesn’t thrive without care.

This proverb conveys two important messages. The first part of the proverb, “Tublidus ei tule tööta” (Diligence doesn’t come without work), emphasizes the importance of putting in effort and hard work to achieve success. It suggests that being diligent is a necessity for accomplishing goals or excelling in any endeavor.

The second part of the proverb, “Osavus ei hooleta” (Skill doesn’t thrive without care), highlights the idea that acquiring and maintaining skills or expertise requires continuous attention, practice, and improvement. Even if someone possesses innate talent or skill, they must nurture and refine it through ongoing effort and care.

10. Suuga teeb suure linna, käega ei kärbse pesagi.

Translation: With the mouth one can build a big city, with the hand not even a fly’s nest.

In short, this proverb speaks of someone who talks big but doesn’t actually accomplish anything that they promise, or of someone who talks about all of their accomplishments but hasn’t actually done anything.

There are different variants of this proverb. Kärbse pesa (fly’s nest) and kana pesa (chicken’s nest) are used all over Estonia. Käo pesa (cuckoo’s nest) is mainly used in East Estonia, in South Estonia they say käbliku pesa (wren’s nest), and in Saaremaa it’s kotka pesa (eagle’s nest).

11. Suur tükk ajab suu lõhki.

Translation: A big piece breaks the mouth.

This is an Estonian equivalent of the English saying, “to bite off more than one can chew.” It means that someone is attempting something that is more than they’re capable of doing.

12. Tee hääd, tee kurja, kõik teed endale

Translation: Do good, do evil, all you’re doing to yourself.

This is a simple and self-explanatory piece of wisdom. It means that whether you do good or bad to someone, it will all come back to you.

Learn useful Estonian sayings and proverbs

13. Üheksa korda mõõda, üks kord lõika.

Translation: Measure nine times, cut one time.

This means that before every important decision or act, one should thoroughly think it through and not jump into it without thinking. 

14. Pill tuleb pika ilu peale.

Translation: Crying comes after a long beauty.

This phrase is something that kids hear often. It’s used when kids get very rowdy while playing and eventually start crying, because they hit themselves, fell, or got into a fight with the other kids. Parents would then say “Pill tuleb pika ilu peale” when trying to soothe the child.

15. Põrsast kotis ei osteta.

Translation: One does not buy a piglet in a bag.

This proverb means that someone has been deceived and bought something without inspecting it beforehand. Different versions of this proverb can be found in many languages, and it’s believed to originate from 14th-century England or France. In late medieval markets, you could get fooled into buying the wrong kind of meat.

Bonus: Oleks on paha poiss.

Translation: Should’ve/Could’ve/Could (oleks) is a bad boy.

This is still a pretty common saying today and is usually said when someone expresses an idea or wish that is pointless or can seemingly never come true, as well as when someone is talking about how things could’ve been different.

Bonus: Esimene vasikas läheb ikka aia taha.

Translation: The first calf always goes behind the fence.

This proverb means that the first attempt at something usually doesn’t come out right. But why is it specifically a calf, and why is it going behind the fence? For this, we need to take a look at the past.

There is a saying in Estonian, aia taha minema (to go behind the fence), which means that something failed. Back in the day, when there were any unneeded things or garbage, then they weren’t kept around the house but rather gotten rid of. So, figuratively speaking, these things were thrown behind the fence. This didn’t mean that they were thrown literally over the fence, but somewhere on the property. 

Animals that belonged to the family would also be buried somewhere outside of the fenced area, perhaps even in the forest. This is most likely where the Estonian saying metsa minema (to go to the forest) is from, since it also means to fail at something. Back then, it sometimes happened that the first calf of a cow would be weak and die, which explains the origin of the expression.

Linking Sayings to Language Learning

Learning a new language involves mastering the nuances of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation; however, one often overlooked and immensely rewarding aspect of language acquisition is delving into the rich world of local sayings and proverbs. In this section, we will explore the practical advantages of incorporating these linguistic gems into your language learning journey and offer valuable tips for easily integrating them into your study routine.

Sayings and proverbs are a great way to learn about the culture and mindset of native speakers, as by understanding these expressions, you gain deeper insights into their values, beliefs, and ways of thinking. This not only enhances your language skills, but also helps you navigate social situations more effectively when any of these sayings come up. They also enhance your vocabulary, because many of these proverbs and sayings might not be included in your study materials, due to containing unique vocabulary and idiomatic expressions. 

Tips for Integrating Sayings into Language Study and Practice

Start Early

Introduce sayings into your Estonian learning journey from the beginning. Incorporate a new saying or proverb into your daily vocabulary practice to make it a habit.

Contextual Understanding

Don’t just memorize sayings, but strive to understand their meanings and when and how they are used. Context is key to using them correctly.

Practice Conversations

Engage in conversations with native speakers or language partners if possible. Experiment with incorporating relevant sayings into your dialogues. This not only enhances your speaking skills but also promotes cultural exchange.


We hope that in addition to gaining insight into how the Estonian mind works and the history behind these sayings, you have also put some wisdom behind your ear (That’s another Estonian saying, meaning to keep something in mind).

As you continue your exploration of the Estonian language, we encourage you to embrace these proverbs, not just as words on a page but as windows into Estonian culture. Practice them in conversation, and let them become a bridge that connects you to native speakers. In doing so, you’ll not only become a more proficient language learner but also a more culturally aware and empathetic global citizen. Happy learning, and may these Estonian sayings illuminate your path to language mastery and cultural understanding.

Additionally, for those seeking a dynamic and interactive approach to Estonian language learning, integrating the Lingvist app into your studies can provide a valuable tool. With its personalized learning experience and focus on vocabulary acquisition, Lingvist complements the exploration of Estonian proverbs and sayings by helping learners build a strong linguistic foundation for a deeper understanding of Estonian. Try Lingvist today!

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