leib, sai, sepik

Kärt, my daughter’s classmate, came over to visit the other day. Kärt was hungry and wanted something to eat. The following conversation ensued:

Kärt: Kas teil leiba on? (Do you have any black bread?)

Me: Ei ole. (No.)

Kärt: Aga kas teil saia on? (But do you have any white bread?)

Me: Kahjuks meil ei ole. (Unfortunately we don’t.)

Kärt: Aga kas teil siis sepikut on? (But do you have any brown bread?)

Me: Ei. (No.)

Kärt: Aga mida te siis sööte? (Then what do you eat?)

The next day I went to the A ja O and bought a big loaf of sai (white bread) and another of what I thought was sepik (brown bread). When I got home, though, I noticed that my sepik was actually a new invention called saib, which marries sai (white bread) with leib (black bread). I’m still not sure what to do with the mysterious saib.

I am even more at a loss when to comes to describing Estonia’s varieties of what we English speakers simply refer to as “bread.” Leib, for instance, is not always black. And sepik is often more beige than brown. The words refer as much to consistency as to color. But there is no catch-all word for “bread.” Estonians are particular when it comes to their leib, sai, sepik, and saib.


47 thoughts on “leib, sai, sepik”

  1. Here are some pointers you may find useful:

    Leib, as a general rule, is made of rye;
    Sai is always made of wheat;

    Sepik is a trickier thing – it's either made of coarse wheat or mixture of wheat, barley, sometimes rye flour, whole grain and whatnot.

    Saib can actually be quite tasty once you get used to it.


  2. Ma arvan, et ta kysis:

    Kas teil saiA on?
    Kas teil sepikUT on?

    It's hard to tell. Saia on. A–>O. It could be 'sai on.' It sounds essentially the same. I am not clear on the grammar rule here. I understand “Ma tahan saia.” Makes sense! But why do you need to decline the word in a question?


  3. I am no grammar expert and don't know the actual rules behind it, but “Kas teil sai on?” seems a little too specific in this context. It's like asking: do you have one loaf of bread?

    “Kas teil saia on?” feels more general. Like: do you have any bread?


  4. If she asked
    “KUS teil sai on?” (Where is your bread?) then she would have been grammatically correct.

    Would you have heard the difference between KUS or KAS?


  5. I always try to compare my Estonian sentence to a French equivalent. When you use de/du/d', as in 'As-tu du pain?', it's leiba/saia/sepikut. But it only matches in some specific contexts, of course.


  6. I know, all you expats keep saying how hard it is to understand Estonian, but by the same token one can see now how hard it is for Estonians to understand and learn English grammar from their end as well. I've been there, done that. As a student and as a teacher. It is like you need a different operating system for your brain to process the code. It's like Apple v. Microsoft. Estonian being the Apple of course. Or better yet – Linux. It is a boutique language as my wife likes to say.


  7. Ah, but the point here is whole vs. part (the case is called 'partitive' in Estonian, isn't it?)

    So: “saia” actually means '(some) white bread', whereas “sai” is somewhere between 'white bread' and 'the white bread' (= 'the loaf of white bread').

    The similarity with the French partitive article du, de la etc. is indeed striking (especially because both languages evolved the same set of uses totally independently). In the Estonian (or basically Balto-Finnic) case, this may have resulted from (Balto-)Slavic influence, since languages like Russian can also use genitives as partitives in the Estonian way.

    So, I think (and I hope the native speakers here will agree):

    'Kas teil saia on?' = French 'Est-ce qu'il y a du pain chez vous?'
    (Is there bread / some bread on you? = Do you have bread / some bread?)

    'Kas teil sai on?' = French 'Est-ce que le/un pain est chez vous?') (Is the/a (loaf of) bread on you? = Do you have the/a (loaf of) bread?)

    More technically, “sai” would describe white bread as a simple entity, in the form of a loaf, or as a generic topic (“white bread is tastier than rye bread”). The partitive “saia” would describe some (specified or not) amount of white bread, some of it, as a mass noun. Yes, “sai” is like a count noun, and “saia” like a mass noun; “sai” is to “saia” as “many” is to “much”.

    Does that make sense to y'all? 🙂


  8. “Kas teil [enter the substance noun in partitive form] on?” always requires partitive: in a question like that, the quantity of the substance is par excellence unspecified, thus partitive saia/leiba/sepikut, not nominative sai/leib/sepik.

    The partitive exists in all Finnic languages and if I'm not mistaken, it evolved before our Slavic contacts. I'm tempted to think that Russian genitive-pro-partitive is actually a trace of Finnic substrate, but it's possible that it evolved independently. The idea isn't totally strange to other indoeuropeans – French use old Latin ablative preposition “de” in both meanings (genitive and partitive). Actually, wasn't there a partitive use of genitive as early as in Latin?

    Anyway, in Finnic languages, what we nowadays use as partitive ending, supposedly used to be old ablative ending (-ta/-tä). So, when we say “üks liiter piima”, it historically means “one liter FROM milk”.

    In the Ugric branch, Hungarians who don't have partitive actually sometimes use their elative to express that something is a part as opposed to the whole: it is possible to ask “10 deka a sajtból”, which literally means “1 kg from the cheese”.


  9. Would you have heard the difference between KUS or KAS?

    She was whining a bit. It was hard to hear her well. Estonian kids, particularly girls, adopt this very whiny, baby-like voice when they want something. The lower lip protrudes. It's made to convey desperation, like the kid's going to starve to death if he or she doesn't get any bread.

    I find it a little annoying, but I am sure that to others in these parts it's quite cute. “Aww, the little kid wants some leib, how adorable.” My daughter does it in English, “Oh Daddy, can I please have some ice cream, Pwwweeeeazze?” (With a sad little face).

    There seems to be a child's language. Kids around me say “siukene” rather than “selline” (this). I don't ever recall learning this word in school (or reading it in the papers. With “see” and “selline”, who needs “siukene”?


  10. Saib is an absolute winner. I live in London and when friends come to visit, they bring Saib, not rye bread. And saib with Merevaik.. oh my! I had to wolf down half a loaf after a three-month break from Estonian food.


  11. Ha Giustino, your 'siukene' example reminds me of all the children's names for well-known animals: notsu, kutsu, kiisu, jänku… as I worked in a kindergarten in Võru, it almost felt like kids have their own animal name register, not because they don't know the 'grown up' words, but because they prefer the childish ones.


  12. I'm wondering that despite that you have connected to Estonia already many long years (child went to school already as we can read), did you really only now discover that there is difference between sai and leib?

    Isn't it already time to start wondering how was it possible to live without making difference whether the product is made on rye or wheat? And, that classifying bread to just “white” or “black” is over-simplified.

    PS. Estonians divide “leib” to “must leib” – what is made on grained rye flour and “peenleib” – what is made on fine mill rye flour (püülijahu). (Sorry, but I don't know proper translation for “rukkijahu” and “rukkipüülijahu”)

    Kurat, kus must leib on?


  13. I started to think that this story is brilliant tiny example of cultural difference.

    Hungry little Estonian girl is asking for dark rye bread (leib) as first choice(?). But in the home of American girl this product is not used. Instead of leib there are offered chips. When little American girls are hungry, what they ask for? Chips?


  14. I'm wondering that despite that you have connected to Estonia already many long years (child went to school already as we can read), did you really only now discover that there is difference between sai and leib?

    Not at all. I remember teaching one of my students back in 2003 that we have “bread” in English, a wonderful catch all term for sai, leib, sepik, saib.

    The situation was amusing to me because she thought that after asking for leib and sai, and being told we didn't have any, thought there might actually be a fresh loaf of sepik somewhere.

    If there was a word for “bread,” then I could have just made myself clear from the beginning. “We are out of bread.”

    I know that the difference between leib and sai is far more than color. But it's hard to translate it simply into English without going into details about ingredients and the bread-making process.

    This reminds me of the anecdote about the many Eskimo words for “snow.” Here we have the many Estonian words for “bread.”


  15. PS — the funny part to me was the question, “Well, what do you eat then?” We had plenty of other things to eat. But, for an Estonian, a cupboard without bread is apparently bare.


  16. It's actually a very good example of which level of detail a language can have according to local culture.

    It reminds me of rainforest tribes I've read about who have all sorts of words for snake species, epecially venomous ones, but no catch-all term for “snake”.

    Most peoples in Northern Europe eat different kinds of dark bread, except the English who are under French influence (actually white bread is called French bread in Danish) but I haven't come across a language before with this detail level concerning bread.


  17. Apparently what we lack in the knowledge of wine and grapes, for example, we make up in our knowledge of bread and grains.

    What else is there in that climate? Potatoes?


  18. the funny part to me was the question, “Well, what do you eat then?”

    Apparently I didn't catch this point and even raised the same question! 😀

    No wonder, because for example on 19.century about 1/2 of daily nutrition of maarahvas came from bread. Speaking about common word… Yes, there is one, but probably not what you would expect. It's “leivakõrvane”, what means “all other foods except bread” 🙂

    PS. Cultivation of potatos started in the Russian Empire by the order of czarina Katariina II. So eating potatos is quite new habit when comparing to eating bread.


  19. @Giustino & DGC
    PS — the funny part to me was the question, “Well, what do you eat then?” We had plenty of other things to eat. But, for an Estonian, a cupboard without bread is apparently bare.

    Black bread is highly symbolic and in Estonian culture equates with food (akin to rice in China); it is typically a staple in every home and its presence shows that people living in a household have food on the table.

    If Estonians say bread in English, then we specifically mean black bread and not anything else. For sai I say white bread. Sepik is sepik

    I don't know much about the role of bread and traditions in Estonia wrt guests, but if a guest suddenly asked to eat something, then black bread would be the most basic food that I'd readily give. Black bread is also something that's offered at nearly every event, celebratory or otherwise.

    So, bread is sacred (leib on püha): You don't play with it, you respect it. It means that you are not to play with food, because it is God's gift.

    Saib is great, yet I've had it only once or so. This is gonna be Estonia's very own “Nokia” after Skype 🙂

    Potatos, on the other hand, became another staple when they were introduced as food after they served to complement flowers in manors and as a means to make alcohol.

    Introduction of potatos actually made an end to any foreboding famine, because a potato crop would withstand bad weather far better, though it can be prone to diseases.

    saia has two ways of pronunciation and also slightly differing meanings:
    saia in genitive is pronounced faster, like aia;
    saia in partitive has an extended i sound, akin to majja.

    siukene and selline mean [something is] suchsee on selline, or suchlike [is something], like good/badsihukene kõlbab küll. Another type of use: see jänku on siukene väike ja armas jne ^_^


  20. Anyone ever seen how Russians use black bread? After downing a vodka shot they take a piece of black bread, lift it to their nose and inhale deeply. Then they put the bread down without biting into it.
    There's probably a good reason for that. I just wonder what could that be?


  21. 'säherdune' or 'säärdne' is actually more proper for Viljandi than 'sihuke'. 'seesamune' is also widely used in Southern Estonia and is more accepted in everyday small talk as the firstmentioned are not and sometimes frowned upon if used.


  22. Well, Viljandi isn't South Estonia proper, it is a sort of borderland, like Tartu – or actually even more Northern than Tartu which lies exactly on North-South Estonian dialectal border. Viljandi dialect belongs to North Estonian dialect family. Not to be confused with Mulgi dialect, now that's southern (with a certain West-Estonian flavour).


  23. Not so sure all the various bread categories have been covered… we don't see a lot of peenleib on the shelves, and I know it bears no resemblance to the rye bread that every frequenter of New York delis is used to ordering – with or without caraway seeds.
    Peenleib for our family meant what nowadays we have to go over the border to Latvia for, which is known as sour dough bread and has a nice thick and crunchy crust and soft center.


  24. I must agree with Notsu on this one. It would be interesting if Giustino would blog about 'kartuleid' vs 'kartulaid'. Would be so interesting to get an outsiders view on that 'hot topic' as it has long divided us 'commoners' from the posh nationalists who have totally different idea on what mother-tongue exactly constitutes for. Fr example you could have used 'kartulaid' in your family for 8 generations yet it does not count for anything, not proper Estonian apparently, lol. Now if author could crack this one, that would be an achievemnet of a lifetime. Guistino could ask – what would happen if the president of Estonia would be using the word 'kartulaid'? Would he still be elected for second time in office?


  25. That´s btw urban legend about eskimos and snow. They speak polysynthetic language which makes any noun transform when sentence requires that and that´s it. Essence doesn´t change when they “snow laying on roof” with one word and “snow in gumboots” with other.


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