Eesti Elu
Weighing in on language (2)
Archived Articles 31 Jul 2009  Eesti Elu
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When poet, philosopher, philologist/linguist, cultural critic and one-time politician Jaan Kaplinski expresses opinion it behooves us to pay heed. He is able to do so not only in Estonian but also at the highest levels in major languages (French, English, Russian). Add to this his comprehension of, and ability to translate, other languages such as Spanish, Chinese and Swedish - to name a few. Among living Estonians, when it comes to language, Kaplinski stands high on a rare plateau.

A critical component of his impressive CV is Kaplinski’s independence of thought. This, in addition to the brief summary above, is sufficient to place him among the so-called leading intellectuals of the world (no intent to denigrate the term, but intellectual no longer has the rarefied cachet it once had; indeed, it is often used by some, most notably right-wingers, as a pejorative). As an Estonian his emotions and ties to his country are beyond reproach. And as a human being there is no doubt that he cares deeply about the world around him, of the myriad threats to humanity and our environment. His deep understanding of Eastern philosophical/religious thought, especially Buddhism, has influenced his focus on global issues.

Kaplinski was one of the authors and initiators of the „40 kiri.“ The open letter from forty leading Estonian cultural figures to the Soviet authorities, written in October 1980 as a response to the heavy-handed actions of local governments against the demonstrations of school-age youth, called for protecting the Estonian language in face of increasing Russification and Soviet repression. Never published by the major Soviet newspapers even though it asked for opening dialogue between the regime and those concerned about Estonia, the Letter of the Forty became a widely distributed samizdat. It was very soon broadcast by Radio Liberty in Munich and VOA in Washington, allowing listeners to transcribe what they heard and share the letter thus with others.

The impact of this Open Letter from the Estonian SSR, which, while not dissident was definitely a protest, was considerable. Estonia’s cultural elite standing up against Russification raised national morale and strengthened bonds among people united first and foremost by language.

Jaan Kaplinski’s involvement with the letter brought the predictable KGB search-and-questioning results. Perhaps this prompted the man of letters to get involved in politics once the Soviet empire crumbled. Elected to the Riigikogu in 1992 as a member of the Centre party slate, he not surprisingly soon tired of the party line and became an independent member of parliament until 1995.

As many of his countrymen have done Kaplinski has embraced the internet age. He maintains a recommended web log, Ummamuudu, Võro for in my own way (http://jaankaplinski.blogspot..... As an answer to qui êtes-vous Kaplinski offers, “I have never been able to identify myself, to say what is my nationality, my profession, my religion, where I live, etc. I am more an yun-shui (unsui) as a moving cloud or flowing water. But things without clear borderlines are no less real than things easily definable. Fire has no clear borderlines either, and lightning, a kind of fire, comes from clouds.”

While certainly no lightning rod, Kaplinski does not shy away from speaking his mind. A case in point is last Saturday’s posting, a response to the recent open letter to the Obama administration from Central and Eastern Europe. “Not in my name”, Kaplinski’s own open letter to President Obama, merits reading, no matter your political leaning. (Both letters can be accessed from the Eesti Elu website).

But it was not Kaplinski’s blog foray into the political realm that captured the attention here. It was his carefully nuanced – and to the point opinion posted elsewhere, regarding Estonia’s redrafted language law.

The present language law was passed in 1995, and the Education and Science Ministry has worked out a new redaction of the outdated original. Many see it as draconian. The most contentious issues are with regulating the language in its public written form. As we well know, the oral leads the written in the constant evolution of language. This new government intervention with the latter seems to be a misguided bureaucratic attempt, dare one say a rather Orwellian if not Soviet strategy, to place power over our language in the hands of a select few. Education and the media are in their sights, journalists will be expected to conform, nay, be obligated to use only the Emperor’s Estonian.

In E-stonia these days vox populi is heard in the electronic realm. The people have a chance to offer their opinion online, in this case at the participatory site where an overview of the salient points of amendments to the language law was posted on July 16th. Among the reactions was Kaplinski’s, with last Saturday’s date.

Never translate a translator. Sage advice. However, please consider the effort to put into English what Kaplinski wrote that day in Estonian and Võro not for any linguistic ability, but for the message:

“… The regulation of language has gone beyond reasonable boundaries. I am tired of arguing with language editors, who think that they can improve even that written by Jaan Kaplinski. I personally believe that someone who writes more finely and better than me could improve [i.e. edit] my text. And who has the concomitant better comprehension of linguistics. I have not met such a person. If ‘a more proper language’, in other words a state imposed language advances as a result of this language law I shall simply end writing in Estonian. Let the language editors and language regulators write. I have done my work and if I continue to write it shall be in Võro, Russian or English – they are not state languages nor yet raised to be supreme.”

To which only one word need be added. Amen.

Poets have an especial ability to cut through the mundane, get to the core. Jaan Kaplinski weighing in on the future of the Estonian language in 1980 as a signatory of the „40 kiri“ was of major significance. In 2009 it is a clear indicator that the government needs to rethink the new language law and its relevance in the real world.
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