Eesti Elu
The Estonian language: slated for survival, or destined for extinction? (7)
Archived Articles 02 Oct 2009  Eesti Elu
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According to Frederick Newmeyer, the question’s a non-starter. Estonian will survive, big-time.

During recent lectures in Tartu, Newmeyer, an internationally acclaimed linguist, stressed that the Estonian language is unique. Most of the languages threatened with extinction have speakers of 1 million or less, like Estonian. Of the approximately 6000 languages currently in use worldwide, probably only 200 will be left come the year 3000. 80% of all the world’s languages will be doomed.

Newmeyer says that the Estonian language’s predicted longevity is due to many reasons: the location of its base of speakers geographically, its history and traditions. Estonian has had the fortitude to withstand many onslaughts – linguistic, political, military and cultural - and has still stayed the course.

The University of Washington professor emeritus reminded listeners of the fate of the aboriginal languages of the USA, where it was encouraged, even insisted upon, that American native peoples speak the language of the larger society. (Somewhat similar to efforts at Russification in Soviet occupied Estonia.)

The loss of many smaller languages can be blamed on the left wing movement of previous generations. According to Newmeyer, this began with the French revolution that saw a forced shift toward a dominant dialect and the suppression of many regional and class-based language groups. The left wing in its insistence on societal equality has ignored the agony of dying small language groups.

One major reason for Newmeyer predicting the survival of Estonian is the language’s status as an internationally recognized state language. There are some 200 of these languages in the world. Their daily use, their presence on the internet, the publication of both official (i.e. state produced education texts) and non-official, general interest level books, gives these languages a certain guarantee of survival.

Although Newmeyer’s prognosis is positive, skeptical Estonians still offer an array of negative factors that will influence the development and the future of the Estonian language: advertising in a foreign language (usually English) is often more attractive for the advertiser and as well as for the targeted viewer; goods are not all labeled with Estonian language labels; syncing films and TV programs with Estonian or with sub-titles is expensive and time-consuming; the international market-based economy requires an English language workplace environment; the prestige of using foreign languages in the fairly new euro-integration context; language inspectors are too timid in issuing notices of violations; government policy in enforcing Estonian language usage as detailed in law has been too liberal; politicians are reluctant to candidly broach the language issue as one too harsh for non-Estonian sensitivities. These are some of the arguments that language fatalists use.

Finally, Estonian language experts and boosters say that retention of the language is not based on its perfect usage. There are rules of grammar and spelling, yes indeed. But being too restrictive is counterproductive. We need more language users, with some perhaps putting out an imperfect effort, but nevertheless an Estonian effort.

The experts’ opinion: proper and correct language? A pseudo-problem! Society has more important things to worry about.
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