Study: Why do we use 'Estonglish'?

Estonian language dictonary
Estonian language dictonary Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Watching young Estonians use their language online and in everyday speech, some patriotic speakers of the mother tongue can but shake their heads and frown. Helin Kask, a doctoral student at Tallinn University, found English words with a specific meaning, but which do not have an exact equivalent in Estonian, are the most commonly used, in a phenomenon colloquially known as "Estoniglish".

Helin Kask told Novaator (link in Estonian) that the Estonian language has changed throughout history and had most contact with both the Russian and German languages, but after Estonia regained independence, the language has been busy incorporating more words from the "west" - where the influence of the English language, in particular, has begun to increase. The Internet plays a big role here, she said.

However, such mixing of languages is not unique to Estonia, as it takes place all over the world. 

Kask found the definition of a word is the main the reason why English words and phrases are used in Estonian. This is mostly because words and expressions with a specific meaning often do not have an exact match in Estonian. 

For example, it is difficult to find a one-word match for the English word "outfit", because in Estonian it is "riietus" (English: clothing) which, unlike the English word, does not include accessories, shoes, etc. 

As many new phenomena are first described in English, these words are also borrowed by other languages. As some fields, such as technology, are developing very fast, often some phenomena actually become obsolete before the Estonian equivalent takes root, and then there is no need for a word. This is also how English remains the norm. For example, before Estonian could find a suitable adjective for the LCD screen, LCD had already been replaced by LED. 

Sometimes, however, the reason for using English words lies in language economics. 

For example, thanks to Facebook, the verb "like" - in Estonian "laigi" - as in "like in my post", has been introduced in Estonian. This is because saying the equivalent in Estonian sounds awkward or even strange. 

In another example, you cannot translate the phrase directly "sulle peab meeldima minu postitus" (English: you have to like my post), but the user has to change the whole design: "sulle meeldib minu postitus" (you like my post). However, this would be significantly longer, so it is more practical to use the English word in terms of linguistic frugality. 

English discourse particles are also often used to guide communication or express emotions, such as "thank you" - "äitah", oh my god - "jumal küll", "anyway" -  "igatahes", "last but not least" -  "viimaks", or "whatever" -  "mida iganes". These are pragmatically important and are often borrowed from English because they are at the beginning of a sentence and attract attention there, the piece said.

Also, words with a strong emotional connection are often borrowed from English, e.g. "I'm so excited" - "põnevil", "erutatud", or "I love it!" - "ma armastan seda!". 

As Estonians are usually considered modest folk, it may be more effective and easier to express strong feelings through the means of another language. Sometimes swearing in a foreign language can be easier than in a mother tongue, such as "damn" instead of the Estonian "neetud". 

We do not often notice the influence of the English language 

Bloggers and video bloggers (vloggers) often use new and exciting expressions to captivate their audiences, but the story is often borrowed from English. As a listener, we may not even notice it. 

For example, use the expression "My apologies" - "minu vabandused," instead of which it would be more natural language to say I'm sorry - "ma vabandan". 

The use of the phrase "my cup of tea" (Estonian: "minu teetass") has also become more common in recent years, in situations where someone wants to express what a person likes - i.e. another direct translation.

Following the example of English, the use of the word "love"- "armastama", has also become more common; instead of "ma armastan hommikul kaua magada" (English: "I love to sleep longer in the morning"), an Estonian person would say "mulle meeldib hommikul kaua magada" (English: "I like to sleep longer in the morning"). This means that we may not always notice when English has influenced our use of language. 

Differences between blogs and video blogs 

However, when analyzing the use of English language in Estonian, it became clear that video blogs (hereinafter: "vlog") have used these three times more than in blogs. One reason may be that vlogs need to maintain a normal speech rate, so the word in the language that comes to mind first is used. 

However, when writing, the text can be repeatedly changed, corrected, and reworded. In the case of vlogs, however, it is more difficult to change the speech, because a new clip should be filmed, which is technically more complicated and time-consuming.  

Another reason may be that in an oral speech, the vlogger (Estonian: vlogija) does not have to think about how to integrate the English element into Estonian. For example, when writing, you may have questions about how to translate an English word, whether to use italics, whether and where to add a comma, and so on. 

Multilingualism, language connections, and lending are everyday phenomena in a globalizing world and should not be feared. The words we use in everyday language have changed under the influence of English, but the vocabulary is the most changing part of the language. It reflects the era.

Therefore, there is no need to worry about the future of the Estonian language at the moment, but it is important to take care of the language's reputation, and that it is passed on to future generations.

Helin Kask is a doctoral student at the Institute of Humanities of Tallinn University, who studies Contact Linguistics, Sociolinguistics and Multilingualism. She is a lecturer in Applied Linguistics in the School of Humanities at Tallinn University. Her work is focusing on English-Estonian language contacts in Estonian video and ordinary blogs.  


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Editor: Katriin Eikin Sein

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