Today is Native Language Day, a holiday Estonia has celebrated since 1996. The date of the holiday is the birthday of one of the country’s first Estonian-language writers, Kristian Jaak Peterson. What he expressed in his poem “Moon” has been the inspiration for events and debates around the topic every year.
Just under 1.1 million people speak Estonian. That’s about the same as the population of Brussels. Aware of the small size of their linguistic sphere, Estonians treat their language with exceptional care - not so much in its everyday use, perhaps, but they cultivate, celebrate, and shape it, every influence and change debated publicly.
The Institute of the Estonian Language takes the role of regulator, specifying what’s proper Estonian and what isn’t, which has sparked debate as well, as Estonian, like plenty of other languages, is changing under the influence of the global use of English.
Native Language Day starts what’s called “keelenädal" in Estonian, language week. Over the coming days, schools and other institutions as well as publications will devote some of their time to the topic of language.
On Friday, two prizes will be awarded to the winners of last year’s language competition, which is held annually and has the goal to promote Estonian, recognize the people who teach it, write it and speak it, and foster the use and status of the language.
In all of this, there’s always a certain feeling of apprehension. A lot of people perceive Estonian as a language under threat. Foreign influences replace original Estonian expressions, globally used terms are pushing into people’s everyday vocabulary, and the worry is genuine that Estonian might be lost over time.
At the same time, Estonia’s culture is alive and well. Local writers’ books become instant bestsellers, Estonian music is far from disappearing, films and TV series are produced and recognized internationally, and of late, the Estonian Russians have expressed their interest in the language ever more clearly.
Kristian Jaak Peterson’s “Moon”, dating back to 1818, already expressed these hopes and fears very concisely.
Kristian Jaak Peterson: Moon
Kas siis selle maa keel
Laulu tuules ei või
Taevani tõustes üles
Igavikku omale otsida?
Cannot the tongue of this land,
In the wind of incantation,
Rising up to the heavens,
Editor: Editor: Dario Cavegn