Estonian language society wants to change spelling of several foreign words

Estonian dictionaries on a library shelf.
Estonian dictionaries on a library shelf. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

The Mother Tongue Society (Emakeele Selts) wants to change the official spelling of several foreign words in Estonian, reflecting the fact that people are accustomed to pronouncing them differently. While it may seem to some people that Estonian language rules are changed too often, the society confirmed that they thoroughly weigh each change individually and don't make them lightly.

A simple rule applies in Estonian: words are generally spelled the way they are pronounced. Some foreign words have so thoroughly adapted to the language, however, that their pronunciation and spelling no longer match.

Which is why, starting next month, the Mother Tongue Society plans on allowing spellings reflecting phonetic adaptations alongside official spellings. In other words, going forward, it will no longer be considered incorrect to write karatee instead of karate, tsunaami instead of tsunami, gaala instead of gala or polügon instead of polügoon.

"When we're attending the formal event, I'm not sure an Estonian would ever say they're attending a gala — that sounds funny in my opinion," said Urve Pirso, head of the Language Committee of the Mother Tongue Society.

"While tsunaami and gaala involve a long a sound, the word karate [or karatee] sparked confusion over how to decline it," Pirso explained. "According to current norms, the correct form in the partitive case would be karatet, not karateed. Students will be the worst off trying to figure out what to do with this word."

Proposals for rule changes typically come from researchers. This latest change, for example, is based on a PhD dissertation by Tiina Paet. According to Pirso, the Language Committee doesn't always agree with proposed parallel forms either.

"The general rule is that a new rule doesn't cancel out the old one, so those generations that have grown up with the knowledge that the word teine in Teine maailmasõda [World War II] is written with a capital T can continue writing it that way," said Language Committee member Helika Mäekivi. "Children will be taught according to the new rule in schools, however."

While some speakers occasionally grumble that Estonian language rules are changed too often, according to Mäekivi, a 13-year veteran of the society's Language Committee, just ten changes have been implemented in her time serving on it.

What changes may come next is hard to say, however, as language planning follows changes in usage, not the other way around, she added.

"What linguists have noticed is the conjugation of the words taotlema and töötama," Mäekivi highlighted. "The correct conjugation for these words would be the same as armastama, with the word stem remaining entirely unchanged: taotlema, taotleda, taotlen. But more and more often we're hearing taodelda, like the word töötlema [töödelda]. So that may be a word that the Language Committee will discuss at some point in the future."


Follow ERR News on Facebook and Twitter and never miss an update!

Editor: Aili Vahtla

Hea lugeja, näeme et kasutate vanemat brauseri versiooni või vähelevinud brauserit.

Parema ja terviklikuma kasutajakogemuse tagamiseks soovitame alla laadida uusim versioon mõnest meie toetatud brauserist: