Native Language Day: Words are constantly changing, says institute director

Arvi Tavast of the Institute of the Estonian Language.
Arvi Tavast of the Institute of the Estonian Language. Source: ERR

Slang abbreviations already in widespread use such as põmst or pmst could easily at some point be accepted as part of the formal Estonian language, Institute of the Estonian Language director Arvi Tavast said, noting that words are constantly changing.

"Words move thanks to the fact that people are constantly trying to express themselves better and more precisely," Tavast said in an appearance on ETV's "Terevisioon" morning program on Monday, adding that a good example of this is to examine how foreign loanwords have morphed in Estonian over the past century.

"If we look at the [normative] Dictionary of Standard Estonian (ÕS) from 1918, then there are such words that are rather surprising by now — such as sümptoom, which we currently say as sümptom," he said, citing the Estonian-language word for symptom. "There are also several words that denote a practitioner in some field. Currently they are called a füüsik, but at one time they were a füüsikus."

Tavast also explained that words also tend to get shortened, especially words that get used frequently.

"Right now that includes examples such as tegelt, aint and pmst," he said, referring to the abbreviated forms of the words tegelikult ("actually"), ainult ("only") and põhimõtteliselt ("in principle" or "fundamentally"). These abbreviations are already in widespread informal use, although currently they aren't accepted as correct in the formal written Estonian language.

"While previously it was held that language changes as a whole somehow, the current view is that a language's body of speakers is diverse," the institute director explained. "One person gets used to using põmst, then another gets used to saying põmst. It's not the case that we all suddenly fundamentally shift from põhimõtteliselt to põmst; rather, people shift one by one."

Acceptance of the change generally follows once enough people have changed their own usage.

Tavast added that linguistic innovations tend to enter use through young people.

"Similarly to many other innovations, [linguistic innovations] reach society via those who are better prepared for change — who are more mobile," he concluded.

March 14 is celebrated in Estonia as Native Language Day.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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