Estonian wisdom – 25 proverbs and sayings

A proverb is a simple and concrete saying, popularly known and repeated, that expresses a truth based on common sense or the practical experience, often metaphorically. Proverbs also encapsulate society’s values and beliefs. We have collected 25 Estonian proverbs and sayings and have also included the original expression in Estonian. Most of these are traditional, going back in centuries – yet, they are still used to this day. If you’re not an Estonian speaker and struggle to grasp the meaning, please ask under the comment section – the native speakers are certain to explain. Meanwhile, you can practice your Estonian!

He who seeks shall find – kes otsib, see leiab

Only a sheep lets himself be sheared – ainult lammas laseb ennast pügada

Make fun of the man, not of his hat – narri meest, mitte mehe mütsi

He who does not work, does not eat – kes ei tööta, see ei söö

He who helps himself will be helped by others – kes aitab ennast ise, seda aitavad ka teised

He who is late will be left without – kes hiljaks jääb, see ilma jääb

He who brings up the past, will have his eye plucked out – kes vana asja meelde tuletab, sel silm peast välja

Don’t sell the bear skin until you have the bear – ära karu nahka enne ära müü, kui karu käes on.

He who sows the wind will reap a storm – kes külvab tuult, lõikab tormi

He who is patient will live long – kes kannatab, see kaua elab

A smart one learns from the mistakes of others – tark õpib teiste vigadest

Where there’s work, there’s bread – kus on tööd, seal on leiba

The work will teach the worker – töö õpetab tegijat

A lie has short legs – valel on lühikesed jalad.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire – kus suitsu, seal tuld

Every tup has his St. Michael’s day – igal oinal oma mihklipäev

The cone does not fall far from the tree – käbi ei kuku kännust kaugele

A man by his word, an ox by his horn – meest sõnast, härga sarvest

Don’t rejoice before the evening – ära hõiska enne õhtut

The morning is wiser than the evening – hommik on õhtust targem

An old bear will not learn to dance – vana karu tantsima ei õpi

One does not look into the mouth of a horse given as a present – kingitud hobuse suhu ei vaadata

Old love does not rust – vana arm ei roosteta

All that glimmers is not gold – kõik ei ole kuld, mis hiilgab

Steady row, far you´ll go – tasa sõuad, kaugele jõuad


Cover photo: Kaarel Mikkin/VisitEstonia

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About the author: Estonian World

Estonian World is a global independent online magazine, founded in London in 2012 and headquartered in Tallinn, Estonia. The magazine has editorial representations in London, New York, Toronto and Tallinn, and contributors all over the world, on every continent. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram.

  • Chris Thompson

    The English translation given for “kes ei tööta, see ei söö” is inaccurate and sounds weird. It would be better translated simply as “He who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat”.

    • Tim Chiswell

      Even better as “Who doesnt work, doesnt eat” as it then includes the gender neutrality of Estonian

      • In this context “he” in English is also gender-neutral. It doesn’t refer to a man, just a person.

        • Tim Chiswell

          True, but after 100 years of feminism it’s becoming increasingly less acceptable in English to use words like ‘he’ when referring to a person in general – and since the problem doesnt exist in estonian ‘tema’ or ‘ta’ why introduce it into the translation?

          • I see your point, but “Who doesn’t work” just doesn’t sound like correct English to me.

          • karen

            How about ‘Whoever doesn’t work’ ? it may be a little cumbersome but still is gender neutral..

    • Editor

      Thanks Chris, we amended it.

      • Fred

        Kui perse sugelep, siis peremes kiidab

  • tiina

    a few minor editorial suggestions:

    It is a sheep who lets himself sheared
    only a sheep lets himself be sheared

    He who does not want to work, need not to eat
    he who does not work, does not eat

    He who reminds of an old thing will have his eye picked out
    he who brings up the past, will have his eye plucked out

    Don’t sell the skin till you have caught the bear
    don’t sell the bear skin until you have the bear

    He who sows a wind will reap a storm
    he who sows the wind will reap a storm

    The work will teach you how to do it
    the work will teach the worker

    One does not look into the mouth of a horse given as a present
    don’t look a gift horse in the mouth

    He who starts with small will end up with big
    he who starts small will finish big

    • Editor

      Thanks Tiina, we have amended some of them accordingly.

  • Paul Koff

    igal oinal oma mihklipäev – Every dog ​​his Michaelmas Day. I’m guessing “tup” is a mistake?

    • Annika

      Its either ram or tup, not a dog. As traditionally sheep were slayed on St Michales Day and black ones will definitely find their end on this day.

      • Paul Koff

        Thanks, Annika. I was reading it very wrongly – assuming it was the equivalent of the english saying “every dog will have its day.” This is a far bleaker sentiment than that!

  • Jaanus

    “He who suffers will live long” is wrong. It’s actually “He who is patient, will live long.” Estonian “kannatama” means both, and to proverb is about patience.

    • Editor

      Thanks, Jaanus – amended!

  • Evelin

    Proovige tõlkida: Julge hundi rind on rasvane. 🙂

    • inimene

      the brave wolves chest is greasy. otsetõlkes vist aga ma ei tea 😀

  • Karmen Kallaste

    One of the more popular ones is ‘The child can speak when the chicken pees’ (that is, never) ‘Laps räägib siis kui kana pissib.’

  • Krista Lepik

    Pildi järgi oleks võinud arvata, et siin on ka “tasa sõuad, kaugele jõuad” 🙂

    • Editor

      Good point, although “He who starts small will finish big” is fairly similar.

      • Kadri

        Though tasa sõuad, kaugele jõuad is a more commonly used proverb than kes väikselt alustab, see suurelt lõpetab

  • Joonas

    For americans, the “Every tup has his St. Michael’s day” would be better off as “every turkey has it’s thanksgiving”

    • sibermike7

      Every dog has his day

  • Teele

    Perhaps “Õnnetus ei hüüa tulles” could be “Disaster will not call before coming” or “Disaster will not call while coming”. And I guess instead of the word “disaster” we can use “accident”

  • Peeter Susi

    What about beans beans, the musical fruit?

  • Peter Enn

    Is anyone here familiar with an Estonian saying involving ‘staring at the cracks in the ceiling’? My late mother used to say it frequently, but I’ve forgotten exactly how it goes, or why it might be said. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks.