Census: Number of dialect speakers in Estonia has increased

Seto children and adults voting for the next ülembsootska, or regent, at the XXVI Seto Kingdom Day in Küllätüvä. Aug. 3, 2019.
Seto children and adults voting for the next ülembsootska, or regent, at the XXVI Seto Kingdom Day in Küllätüvä. Aug. 3, 2019. Source: Aili Vahtla/ERR

An estimated 17 percent of the native Estonian-speaking population of Estonia speaks a dialect ⁠— marking an increase of 2 percentage points compared with the results of the previous census in 2011. Ten percent of dialect speakers also speak more than one dialect, according to the results of the 2021 Population and Housing Census.

At the time of the 2021 census, 17 percent of the native Estonian-speaking population, or a total of 151,820 people, speak a dialect, according to a Statistics Estonia press release. The proportion of dialect speakers has increased compared with the previous census, up from 15 percent, or 131,239 people, in 2011.¹

"These figures show that there is a growing awareness of dialects among people in Estonia," said Liina Osila, Population and Housing Census project manager at Statistics Estonia.

The highest proportions of dialect speakers by county were recorded in Võru County (74 percent), Põlva County (60 percent) and Saare County (42 percent). These were followed by Valga County (37 percent), Hiiu County (32 percent), Tartu County (22 percent), Viljandi County (15 percent) and Harju County (11 percent).

Pärnu, Jõgeva, Rapla and Järva counties are home to 9 percent of dialect speakers each, while the lowest shares of dialect speakers were found in Ida-Viru County (8 percent), Lääne County (7 percent) and Lääne-Viru County (6 percent).

Compared with the previous census, the share of dialect speakers has not decreased in any Estonian county. The biggest increases in dialect speakers were recorded on Estonia's biggest islands: by 11 percentage points on Hiiumaa, 9 percentage points on Muhu and 8 percentage points on Saaremaa. The share of dialect speakers on Estonia's smaller islands, however, has decreased ⁠— most notably on Ruhnu and Vormsi, where the number of dialect speakers had fallen by 12 and 7 percentage points, respectively.

"Nevertheless, it should be borne in mind that as the small islands are home to a small number of people, even a slight change in the number of dialect speakers can have a big impact on the proportion," Osila noted.

As expected, the percentage of dialect speakers among native speakers of Estonian is highest in the older population ⁠— approximately a quarter of those in the 65 and over and the 50-64 age groups speak a dialect. Dialect speakers account for 18 percent of the 30-49 age group, 11 percent of the 15-29 age group and 3 percent in the youngest age group.

The increase in the share of dialect speakers compared with the 2011 census results has likewise been greatest in the older age groups ⁠— of those aged 50-64 and 65 and over, the proportion of dialect speakers increased by 3 percentage points. This figure has risen by 1 percentage point in younger age groups (15-29 and 30-49), meanwhile, and remained stable in the youngest age group (3-14 years).

"Unlike in the previous census, people now had the opportunity to indicate all the dialects they spoke, rather than being limited to the one they spoke best," Osila explained.

According to the results, it is estimated that 90 percent of dialect speakers speak one dialect, 8 percent speak two, and 2 percent speak three or more dialects.

One in four in Southern Estonia speaks Võru dialect

Looking at Estonia as a whole, the Võru dialect group stands out in particular, with 11 percent of the country's native Estonian-speaking population speaking its subdialects. This group includes the Seto subdialect, which is spoken by 3 percent of the population.

Other notable dialects are the Insular dialect, which is spoken by 4 percent, and the Tartu and Mulgi dialects, each spoken by 2 percent of the population. Subdialects in the remaining dialect groups are spoken by less than 1 percent of the population.

The region with the highest proportion of dialect speakers is Southern Estonia, where the Võru dialect is most common and spoken by one in four people. The Tartu dialect, meanwhile, is spoken by 4 percent and the Mulgi dialect by 3 percent of those living in Southern Estonia.

The Võru dialect is also the most widely spoken dialect among those living in Northern Estonia (6 percent) and Central Estonia (4 percent).

In Western Estonia, the most common dialect is the Insular dialect, which is spoken by 14 percent of native Estonian speakers living in the region.

As expected, dialects had a strong regional correlation. The Võru dialect is spoken by nearly three quarters (73 percent) of the population of Võru County and more than half (59 percent) of the inhabitants of the adjacent Põlva County. On the western islands, 40 percent of Saare County and 29 percent of Hiiu County inhabitants can speak the Insular dialect.

The Mulgi dialect, meanwhile, was spoken by 10 and 8 percent of the populations of Viljandi and Valga counties, respectively, while 7 percent of the population of Tartu County and 5 percent of the population of Valga County spoke the Tartu dialect. The Coastal dialect is most widely spoken in Ida-Viru County ⁠— by 3 percent of inhabitants.

"Based on these proportions, we can conclude that dialect speakers are still the most numerous in the region of origin of the respective dialect group, although we can also see some expansion into nearby counties and regions," Osila added.

A local language form or dialect is defined by Statistics Estonia for census purposes as local language customs that differ from the Estonian literary standard, not a foreign language. A dialect or local language form speaker is someone who understands and can also express themselves in this language.

Data on command of dialects was collected as part of the 2021 Population and Housing Census for all Estonian-speaking persons aged 3 and up.

¹In the previous census conducted in 2011, only native speakers of Estonian were surveyed about their command of dialects. For this reason, the figures presented in this analysis represent only native speakers of Estonian, although in 2021, non-native speakers of Estonian were asked about their command of dialects as well.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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