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Kaupo Meiel: Our common secret language

Every March since 1996, around the time of Native Language Day, Estonians have pored over the question of whether the tongue of this land, in the wind of incantation, rising up to the heavens, can seek eternity. This line in Kristian Jaak Peterson's poem “Moon” asks the rhetorical question to which we have yet to find an answer, namely whether we want to ensure the survival of the Estonian people and culture at all, as the preamble to the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia declares.

The Constitution doesn’t really talk about the Estonian language much, apart from the sixth paragraph, which stipulates that Estonian is the official language of Estonia, but obviously nobody questions that it is precisely the Estonian language that guarantees the survival of our people and culture through the ages; not Russian, which we have to speak to taxi drivers in some places in Estonia, or English, which our forward-looking scientists prefer over Estonian as the language of science.

A few years ago, Eve-Liis Roosmaa, Triin Roosalu, and Peep Nemvalts studied the language choice of graduate students in their doctoral theses. They learned, among other things, that some of the graduate students found that it was basically wrong if “everybody speaks their own language”, as writing in one’s native language was an endlessly pointless thing to do. The students arriving at this conclusion also begged to bear in mind that building of the Tower of Babylon went much more smoothly because everybody spoke the same language.

If even graduate students think that way, what are we bullying Narva’s unlucky taxi drivers for? Their environment is Russian-speaking, even though it’s in Estonia, where the official language is Estonian. According to this other way of looking at things, it’s basically wrong that “everybody speaks their own language”, so why not, say, let them speak the language that most of their customers speak? The parties involved understand each other, and the taxi goes exactly where it’s supposed to go.

If even the Estonian language doesn’t matter, why worry about Northeastern Estonia at all? To borrow some of the rhetoric used in the current debate around phosphate mining in the area, we could declare it almost a crime against the Estonian people that Northeastern Estonia isn’t sold to the highest bidder. Estonia could pay its citizens a guaranteed basic income for several years with this money, couldn’t it?

That we have to fight a little every day both at the institutional and the individual level to preserve the Estonian language and help it prevail throug the ages is a condition of being a small culture and a small linguistic area.

Before a simplified background, we’re clearly losing the fight. English-language culture is pushing into children’s consciousness through phones, TV, the Internet, and songs, and the adults don’t remain unaffected either. How many songs in Estonian did we hear on “Eesti Laul” at all?

Before a broader background, however, we’re doing better than ever before — we’re churning out films and TV shows in Estonian, and the available selection of genuine Estonian writing increases every year.

New books by Indrek Hargla, Andrus Kivirähk, and Tõnu Õnnepalu are instant bestsellers. For younger readers, there are Kairi Look, Piret Raud, Indrek Koff, and plenty of others who write children’s books. Reports of the death of the reader have been greatly exaggerated. Quite the opposite — we need more writers.

Estonian will never be a great and universal world language spoken while building a new Tower of Babylon. But if we try a little bit every day, it will prevail as the means by which we speak to each other — a language that unites a small and unique secret society.

When you participate in Vikerraadio’s dictation race, you won't just be using Estonian, but a secret language that just might find its own eternity.

Editor: Editor: Dario Cavegn

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