Worries about the effects of English on national and cultural identity have been voiced the world over. The impact of the Victorian empire, where the sun never set, was profound. English is now the global language of business and politics, and has become by far the first second language that most people learn for that reason. Estonia is no exception.
The period of national awakening in mid-19th century Europe was fueled by romantic nationalism. Johann Gottfried Herder popularized the concept of a folk-nation marked by Volksgeit, or the soul of the people. Herder believed that language determined thought – and if you thought in your mother tongue then patriotism and nationalism evolved as an extension of protecting that unique language and culture.
The Scots were among the first during this period to express concern over what they saw as “creeping anglicization.” Other peoples of the British Isles such as the Irish and Welsh also fought for their languages, against the inroads being made by English in everyday usage. On the continent they were soon joined by the French and Germans worried about the undue influence of English on their national identity.
Fast forward to 2007, when the most common loanwords – words taken from another language and at least partly naturalized – are English. This is very noticeable in Estonia, where computer and IT-speak is only partially responsible for the intrusion of English phrases and catchwords. Examples abound – beginning with “sorri”, and ending with “thänks” as but two of the most commonly used words heard in a conversation between two Estonians on Tallinn streets. (And our youth, the mall rats? Adolescents go to the Viru Keskus to “tshill” or “häng”, no prizes for knowing what these words mean.)
Toomas Vitsut, chairman of the Tallinn City Council, has now come up with the barmy idea of granting English the status of an official language in the nation’s capital. This Monday former and present city fathers (and mothers) took part in a conference discussing the city’s future. The Tallinna Visioonikonverents saw other, more important issues discussed as well, (more below) but it was Vitsut’s proposal that boggled the mind.
Welcome to Estonia
As recent visitors to Tallinn know, the tourism boom means that it is already possible to get by with only English there. Certainly no comparison with Beijing. There, the Chinese authorities have invested considerable time and effort in teaching rudimentary English to taxidrivers, people in the hospitality industry, and others who may encounter visitors in preparation for next summer’s Olympic Games and the throng of expected tourists.
Vitsut, a member of the Center Party led by Edgar Savisaar (who once again reclaimed the mantle of Tallinn mayor after failing to gain control of Toompea) thinks that Tallinn would thus develop into a city where English would be useful on the streets and necessary in municipal administration. Vitsut would push for the same strict legal requirements now enjoyed by Estonian under the nation’s constitution as the only official language. He would also make proficiency in English mandatory by law in order to hold some municipal offices.
All this to “invigorate Estonia’s weakening economy given that Russian entrepreneurs are leaving the city,” according to The Baltic Times’ coverage of Vitsut’s address. Indeed, Vitsut seems more interested in money than language, protecting Estonian. The adoption of English as an official language “would require as radical an approach from official Estonian institutions as is the demand for command of the official state language” said Vitsut. Almost as an afterthought, Vitsut added "it would ensure higher incomes for residents of Tallinn and Estonia as a whole.”
Postimees and Estonia’s other dailies paid less attention to Vitsut’s claims, focusing more on Tõnis Palts concerns about keeping local young entrepreneurial talent from leaving the city (and country), on Ivi Eenmaa’s worries about transportation issues and Jüri Mõis’ views on urban sprawl.
English Speaking Union
The media failed to mention that Vitsut is the Chairman of the Estonian branch of the English Speaking Union (ESU), officially registered in Tallinn earlier this year. The ESU was founded in 1918 to promote “international understanding and friendship through the use of language.” The Union points out that one out of four of the world’s population already speaks English to some level of competence. The percentage is likely higher in Tallinn.
The ESU’s objectives include encouraging “the enjoyment and constructive use of English” through educational programmes, conferences and seminars. Their website points out that English has official or special status in “at least seventy five countries with a total population of over two billion.”
But Estonia, contrary to Vitsut’s vision, does not need another official language, even if only in the capital. Much has been historically done to accommodate Russian speakers; why should we now speed the demise of our unique language?
Experiences in the diaspora show that speaking more than one language is an asset – and not a fault in communication, as long as the goal of maintaining Estonian identity and ties is understood and in focus, as Peeter Bush wrote in this space last week. Visits to this newspaper’s website often see comments to Estonian language articles posted in English. This is to be welcomed when the points are lucid, made in the interest of furthering intelligible and valuable debate. In the fatherland, however, Estonian must be protected first and foremost.
Russification has been halted. The threat to our beautiful language is now more insidious. Vitsut and his ilk, certainly all Estonian politicians of whatever stripe, should put eesti keel ahead of any other language.
Which is why we applaud loudly Tõnis Lukas’ call this Monday while opening a conference dedicated to language and computer linguistics (keeletehnoloogia). Estonia’s Education Minister announced that Estonia is planning a “beauty contest” to mark the nation’s 90th anniversary of independence, according to a report on Monday: the winner will be the world's most beautiful sounding language.
BNS reported that Lukas wants his colleagues from around the world to get students to enter recordings of sentences of up to seven words in the contest.
"There's a story that a world championship of beautiful languages was once held in which Estonian took second place after Italian with the sentence 'sõida tasa üle silla', or 'ride gently over the bridge'," Lukas said. (And while that story is said by some to be apocryphal, many proudly present that quotation from the national epic “Kalevipoeg” as proof whenever they are asked about how Estonian sounds.)
Lukas added, "as part of the events for the anniversary of the republic, we're pleased to turn to other nations with a friendly call to check how our language sounds to others now.”
When in Rome, do as the Romans; when in Estonia, speak Estonian. Now that is a positive vision for the future generations to embrace.
Creeping anglicization (2)