Estonian written language sparked controversy even 400 year ago

Book. Source: ERR

A native Estonian readership did not emerge until the school network and literacy skills were established, whereby giving writing in Estonian a completely new significance, Kristiina Ross, the lead researcher at the Estonian Language Institute (EKI), writes in the "Keeleminutid" ("Language Minutes") column.

The formalization of the written Estonian language has been the subject of heated debate in the media. Does everything that a native Estonian writes qualify as standard written Estonian? Should we allow it to develop on its own, or should we try to harmonize and shape it according to some ideals? Quite similar issues were debated even more vigorously when the written language was just being developed.

When the Estonian language was codified in writing in the 16th and 17th centuries, the question of how to do it right and which characters to use was the source of fierce controversy.

The situation was exacerbated by the fact that the creators of the written language were German-speaking pastors, many of whom encountered Estonian for the first time as adults.

They had to begin writing in Estonian because they preached to Estonians and who required services in their native language. According to Martin Luther's teaching, all Christians should be able to read the Bible in their mother tongue, so the ultimate goal of developing a written language was to translate the Bible into Estonian.

However, it was still a long way off. In the beginning, Estonians who belonged to the lowest social stratum of the local society had nothing to do with texts in Estonian as they could not read. So the early Estonian-language books were merely intended to help German pastors with poorer language skills to conduct sermons in Estonian.

The first issue that needed clarification was the intended audience for written Estonian. Until the middle of the 17th century, the prevailing view was that since books in Estonian were used by the Germans, the text in them must be written in as much German as possible, so that it would be convenient for the user to read it.

Not until the turn of the century did emphasis begin to shift to the ability of the Estonians to understand what was being read out. A native Estonian readership did not emerge until the school network and literacy skills were established, whereby giving writing in Estonian a completely new significance.

The newly published book "See kuningas sest auvust, põrgukonn ja armutaim. Eesti keelemõte, 1632–1732" ("Estonian Linguistics, 1632-1732") is a collection of prefaces, meeting minutes and letters of publications on the foundation of the Estonian written language. It also delves into the etymology of Estonian phrases and words adapted from church songs, such as the title's "põrgukonn" or "hell frog" (= kurat/the devil).

The publication is compiled by Kai Tafenau, Kristiina Ross and Aivar Põldvee.


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Editor: Kaspar Viilup, Kristina Kersa

Source: "Keeleminutid"

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