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Lydia Risberg: Estonian language could be a source of joy and playfulness

Lydia Risberg
Lydia Risberg Source: Anu Põldsam

For some, the Estonian language is associated with a lot of rules - especially when compared to "rule-free" English. However, Estonian is also more pleasantly chaotic than often thought, and also goes through periods of innovation – just like "Khrushchyovkas" (Soviet-era apartment blocks - ed.) today. Experimentation, individuality and freedom could be the driving forces behind the use of the language, writes Lydia Risberg in a commentary that was originally published in Müürileht.

This story began to form in Tartu on Walpurgis Night (April 30 - ed.). There was no party going on, but I didn't want to be alone at home. So, I went with a friend to Ula Bar, which has an outdoor area. When we arrived, the sun soon disappeared and it started to get cold. Fortunately, we didn't have to disperse immediately, as my friend had a backup plan: let's go to a party. Or, to what was considered a party during the period of coronavirus restrictions, a quiet gathering at an apartment with a couple of intelligent people.

Who knows why, but the conversation turned to the Estonian language. I listened with eyes wide open, to a man who has a doctorate, telling me, that it was only last year at a conference, when he found out, that in Estonian, there are no hard and fast rules.

As the speaker had repeatedly had his texts redacted, he had assumed that there were an awful lot of rules in Estonian that he was unaware of, but that were known to those who edited his work.

However, even if, on a few occasions, he himself would have preferred to stick to his own wording, he still felt that it was better that way. And so, he assumed, Estonian was heavily rule-bound, unlike English, where there are no rules, which makes it a much easier language to write in (1).

But which way round is it? Does the user of a language have to bend to the rules, or does a language adapt to its users? This would be equivalent to asking whether someone who listens to music could only be allowed to listen to the tunes played on a particular radio station. Or to say that some songs should not be played at parties or in cafés because they have not been approved by the relevant music council. In reality, there are other factors that determine what music is played and listened to.

It's the same with language. Instead of a difficult set of rules for its users to apply, the Estonian language could be a "source of joy and playfulness (2)."

What are the rules of the game?

There are rules in Estonian. They are the few, consciously agreed, stricter rules that apply to the spelling of words, and to their inflections and inversions. These rules make it easier to read texts, because if everyone spelled words in different ways, we really would have a harder time understanding each other.

The other features of the language, however, do not consist of pre-defined rules, but rather emerge from patterns that emerge when it is used by its users, in other words, through communication. Thus, the meanings of words (terms aside) do not come from dictionaries, or from how they were defined by dictionary compilers, but from people's mouths, where they are constantly in use. Nowadays, those who compile the EKI (Institute of the Estonian Language) dictionary, do include examples of known word usage.

Speaking of dictionaries, I will make a small digression. I came across an article by Gregor Kulla in Müürileht, from which I became aware that, the EKI is in some ways, reinforcing outdated values. After discussing the matter with my colleagues, we changed the dictionary (we use) the same day, to a more suitable one - an online dictionary can be updated continuously, not just a new edition like paper dictionaries.

Not believing in the possibility of change, is probably also linked to the widely held image of the EKI as akin to a vicious old woman with a crooked face, who doesn't listen to anyone. But things are no longer written on paper. We all use Estonian together. Estonian is not a special project belonging solely to those who compile dictionaries.

Back to the language rules. A century ago, when the common written Estonian language was still in the process of being created, indeed, pretty strict language rules were sometimes imposed to achieve that goal. Today, however, that common language has evolved, and, while some of those rules from a century ago are still in use, others are not. The failure over the centuries to master the rules invented for a language is not the fault of the language's users, but of the rules (3). To a large extent, it is language users themselves who organize the language - language is formed through use, not in textbooks.

The truth is that, probably like many people, I like to read texts, which are smooth and not full of typos. However. The way to achieve a smooth, readable text (4) does not depend on (the removal of) a few words which, for one reason or another, have, over time been considered grammatically bad (5).

The Estonian language will not immediately descend into ruin if dictionaries and textbooks do not strictly control it (based on (usage in) the Päts' era perhaps? Or the 1960s?). If this were to happen, it would stagnate. That's why, instead of thinking that "this is not how the language should or may be used", we could instead think, that "maybe not all language users would make this (linguistic) choice, but some might."

When I use language, including when I write a text, I choose how to express myself so that the reader or listener can understand me. In the same way, when DJing at a party, I choose the music, which is best suited to that party. If I played death metal at a Pride party, I would probably be booed off, and replaced pretty much immediately. (Choosing the wrong song at a party is, in my opinion, even worse than using the wrong word at a scientific conference.) Perhaps, just as the dance floor at a party corrects the DJ's choices, so the reader or listener, and also the communicative situation, guides the decisions of language users.

Fixing the language (in time) would be equivalent to saying that "Khrushchyovkas" (Soviet-era apartment blocks still common in Estonian towns and cities) shouldn't be renovated, with changes made to the use of space, the walls painted, solar panels added to the roof and so on, because none of this was foreseen when they were originally designed. But, who would want to live in houses built in the 1960s forever? Probably not many people.

All things considered, restrictive language regulations, and an inflexible attitude to language in general, is basically the equivalent of only listening to the music that appears on a prescribed playlist somewhere. I don't want to live in a society like that. I'm sure that you don't either. And the good news is, that we don't have to.

Sources referenced

1 Sarnasest fenomenist noorte puhul vt: Lindström, L. 2022. Eesti keel olgu mugav töövahend, mitte veskikivi kaelas. – err.ee, 29.04.
2 Tavast, A. 2022. Milleks meile eesti keel? – err.ee, 11.05.
3 Vt ka: Tavast, A. 2022. Oma reeglid avastab igaüks ise [Intervjuu Heiki-Jaan Kaalepiga]. – Keel ja Kirjandus, nr 5.
4 Vt ka: Käpp, K. 2022. Komavead pole esmatähtsad. Õpetame lapsed kõigepealt imelises keeles kirjutama. – Eesti Päevaleht, 26.06.
5 Vt ka: Risberg, L.; Habicht, K. 2021. EKI keelekool: loendipõhisusest kasutuspõhisuseni. – Postimees, 23.10.

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