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Education minister: No major reforms to the Estonian language imminent

The official Õigekeelsussõnaraamat (ÕS) dictionary compiled by the Estonian Language Institute (EKI).
The official Õigekeelsussõnaraamat (ÕS) dictionary compiled by the Estonian Language Institute (EKI). Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The Estonian Language Institute (EKI) is not planning any major reforms to the language, Minister of Education and Research Tõnis Lukas (Isamaa) says.

The minister told ERR's radio news that: "Lest anyone had feared that far-reaching reforms are on their way soon, the action plan puts that to bed. The Estonian Language Institute (EKI) is undoubtedly trying to dispel those rumors that have suggested some drastic changes in language organization."

The EKI recently submitted an action plan to the Ministry of Education on its vision for developing and organize the official Estonian language, a plan which Lukas said was conservative, meaning no change of course is expected in language management. 

The Ministry of Education and Research has in turn sent the action plan back to the EKI with its suggestions on how to improve and refine it. The institute will then submit a revised version of the plan to the ministry, which will also be examined by the ministry's language council (Keelenõukogu)

At the same time, the EKI says it does not want to prescribe or proscribe the use of terminology.

Minister Lukas says that it is gratifying to see that that there has been such a wide-ranging discussion about the future of the Estonian language, adding that the further interplay of ideas between the institute and the ministry, as well as within the wider public domain, should be more properly structured.

He said: "We must have a concrete basis for discussion, so that it does not descend to the level of myth, legend and opinion, as has happened in the past."

"What we must avoid is a situation whereby an automatic transformation of the spoken language into the written language leads to the freedom to interpret these spoken language formats as constituting the official norm of the written language also."

"In this case, the language would disintegrate. We would then have neither a proper language which we could teach to others nor to understand each other with," Lukas, a former culture minister also, continued.

The Õigekeelsussõnaraamat (ÕS - pictured) is and will remain the standard for the written language, Lukas added.

EKI director Arvi Tavast confirmed no major reforms were on their way, with the only change being more latitude in the clarification of the meaning of terminology, which had previously been limited by the considerations of publishing on paper.

He also agreed that the institute had no intentions of directing which term to use in a given situation, and only to make suggestions in the interests of clarity.

Helika Mäekivi, board chair of the Estonian language editors' union (Eesti Keeletoimetajate Liit), said this latter concern had ben followed by plenty of discussion among language editors. 

She said: "For the past two years, we have been trying to obtain answers from the institute, but for the most part there has been confusion among our ranks. What we have come to realize, however, is that whereas up until now we have had a language organization which has guided things, where good language recommendations have shared and we have strived to direct people to use better terminology in written language, nowadays there is a desire to switch to a descriptive language set-up, where people are only presented with the language, without being given very thorough evaluations of it."

Tavast said that the institute still has a plan to reinstate a language advice "bank", which is in the process of being transferred, a change which Mäekivi welcomed.

As reported by ERR News, future editions of the ÕS and its online portal Sõnaveeb have led to concerns about insufficient information when selecting the correct terminology, with the Sõnaveeb in particularly having some alleged shortcomings and idiosyncrasies.

Tavasti added that the broader question is to what extent it is possible to say what is right and what is wrong in terms of language. In order to share such evaluations, more needs to be outlined than as to what is practical, written, beautiful or understandable to a reader, than was the case before, he said, giving the examples of "infrastruktuur" (ie. infrastructure), which he called a "long and ugly, foreign word" and "taristu", which, Tavasti said, was the beautiful and correct Estonian term for infrastructure.

"At the same time, this long and ugly word is more familiar to many people," Tavasti said.

The Sõnaveeb dictionary currently only states that the two words are synonyms, at present.

On the other hand, Mäekivi said recommendations in the direction of native Estonian words were not as easy to find as previously had been the case, giving an example of "paneel", whose vernacular equivalent was a conversation circle, ie. a discussion panel.

However, "Piloteerimine" is essentially equivalent to "trying" or "experimenting", she added (ie. piloting a project etc.) while the term "piloteerima", another foreign loan word, its meaning in the official dictionary is given as "driving a racing car", and "to test or try out". "The meanings of words in common language cannot be standardized, but the meanings of words are formed in language use," she said.

Tavasti said that this was a question of recommendation again and not actual advice on which to use; the word "piloteerima", as well as other terms such as "enamik" (English: the majority, the bulk of, most) and "enamus" (ditto) will be left out of the new language guide, he said.

These can simply be looked up in the ÕS dictionary, he said.

"In the dictionary, we are actually providing different means of expression that would be easier for people to understand," Tavast said.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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