Mihkel Mutt: Lay off the muttering hicks

Mihkel Mutt.
Mihkel Mutt. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

It has at times become impossible to immediately understand what language is being spoken in public. University lecturers are speaking as sock puppets used to in kids' shows, Mihkel Mutt writes on what he perceives as a new way to speak Estonian.

It is not mandatory to count every change in the human world as inherently valuable, not least because the latter often depends on the beholders' age and experience. But this does not mean change should not be highlighted and recorded. It is Man's obligation to history and the longevity of human culture.

Languages are constantly evolving, and changes in how Estonians wield theirs are no less important. Mostly in connection with vocabulary and grammar, while we can also mention the growing influence of English and the prevalence of pidgin.

But I would draw attention to one more phenomenon, which increasingly catches the ear. The manner of speaking.

It has at times become impossible to immediately understand what language is being spoken in public. It takes a while to realize those are familiar words. But the pace of speaking, its melody and even facial expressions are different than they have been around these parts, making it seem as if foreigners or machines were speaking Estonian.

I'm reminded of how I thought I heard Estonian being spoken when visiting Hungary for the first time. The melody of speech was familiar, I simply couldn't understand the words. What I'm talking about here is the opposite of that.

Of course, people use language in different ways. Some peoples speak faster than others. For example, the Japanese are regarded as one of the fastest speakers of their language, while the Vietnamese are counted among the slowest. The same goes for facial expressions and other paralinguistic aspects. Everyone's speech is different, just like their gait and posture. However, we are talking about more general trends inside a group of people here. Estonia has traditionally been counted among the slower languages – until recently that is.

We are dealing with a generational matter. Younger people tend to speak faster and with more intensity, which makes it sound like they have a lot they need to get off their chest. Let it also be said that linguists have determined that no matter how fast or slow different peoples speak in their languages, the amount of information conveyed in a unit of time is still roughly the same. This often reminds me of the Finns who tend to speak slowly but with intent so to speak.

The impression is reinforced by this new manner of speaking's general affect-like nature, a kind of throwaway chirping or throaty warble (with enunciation taking place higher and further back in the mouth). It speaks of dissatisfaction with the world, exaltation mixed with umbrage, but also courage and confidence in that the speaker is the one who has been set up to restore order.

It is possible that as people permanently imagine themselves as playing a role these days (which they often are), their speech is not natural but rather altered to fit the role based on their idea of what it should be.

Whenever I hear such speech, I immediately associate it with a puppet show where an actor is trying to sound like a rock, cookie, cloud or something even more absurd is speaking. This so-called carrot voice can increasingly be heard on the radio.

As I've said, it is a generational phenomenon, even though it can at times be caught by older people. It mostly concerns the millennials, and even though there are representatives of Generation Y who speak how Estonians used to speak, one can usually identify the age of those that surround them – for example, when taking a bus – going by ear alone.

This is obviously a consequence of the world opening up and its many effects. Living or traveling abroad is the new normal, while all aspects of the media play a role. By the way, the fate of beautiful English makes for another topic as it is also increasingly seldom heard, as even BBC anchors need to correspond to standards of "diversity and representation."

It also begs the question to what extent was the survival of traditional Estonian tied to our general state of being put on ice and cut off from global trends, and whether recent change would otherwise have occurred much sooner.

There are surely other reasons for changes in the manner people speak, such as young people wanting to set themselves apart form older generations. Estonians have traditionally been slow to speak and move their mouth, while they've still been faster than the Finns, which I believe is one reason why the latter considered Estonians to be more European between the world wars.

Perhaps new generations feel embarrassed, want to be global citizens and shake off the legacy of the country folk ("Take your peasant muttering somewhere else, you old nationalists"). It can come off downright provocative, as if to get an old teacher to say, "Child, can't you speak properly?"

But it is also likely there are more universal forces at play. The modern world's deepening virtuality has altered the person's relationship with their surroundings the cognitive changes caused by which also alter Man's speech.

The millennials are fully grown and well on their way to reproducing. Representatives of Generation Y are already giving lectures or reading news. The new speech can be heard everywhere, and it continues to spread, also among formally educated people. As a sock puppet used to speak during a children's play, a docent can now be heard speaking at a university.

Can something be done? The answer is, probably not. These matters are not subject to state control. While we have the Estonian Language Society's language working party and can get advice from the Estonian Language Institute, I do not think we have a body keeping an ear on how people speak. The only way is to compliment or shake hands with people who you believe are speaking beautiful Estonian.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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