jeudi 20 octobre 2011

From Multi-Culti to Specious Monoculture in Estonia

Estonia is a borderland country between Eastern and Central and between Northern and Central Europe with a history of many conquests and many rulers. In the last couple of centuries it was a part of the Russian Empire with some autonomy. Local aristocracy was German-speaking, majority of them were descendants of the Teutonic Knights who conquered the Baltic provinces in the XIIIth century. German was the language of administration, culture and education with the exception of Estonian-language village schools. Such situation lasted until the "russification" in the last quarter of the XIXth century when Russian was introduced as the only official language and language of education. The second half of this century was also the time of the Estonian national revival movement inspired by the German romanticism and made possible by migration of many Estonian speakers to towns. For those people, identity became a problem that did not exist for their fathers and forefathers who were either peasants or urban underdog with little rights and practically no social mobility. The simplest way for these new Estonians was to become Germans, to become "linna-saks" as they were called ("saks" comes from the word for Saxons as the Gaelic "sassenach"). For some, especially after the russification of schools, there were many possibilities to find a good job or continue their education in Russia. To stay Estonian, to create a culture with Estonian as its language, to have Estonian literature, theatre, university education was initially the dream of some idealists. Only thanks to the struggle for supremacy between the local German landlords and the Tzarist government these idealistic Estonians found some windows of opportunity to create such a culture of their own. The rise of the Estonian culture was made possible by the boom of the Russian economy and culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. When the Russian empire fell apart as the result of the great war and the Russian revolution, Estonia gained independance. This was the result of strong nationalist sentiment, but also of the existence of a strong educated middle class, and, of course, help from the Entente, especially the British who were interested in creating a "sanitary cordon" separating the chaotic Bolshevist Russia from the rest of Europe.

In 1918 when Estonia became an independent republic, it was de facto a multicultural nation with three main languages -- Russian, German and Estonian, all of which had an official status. Most educated people were multilingual, and used all these languages in different contexts and situations. In contrast to Russian and German, Estonian had been a language of peasant, and had to be made fit for use in science and "high culture". This "refurbishing" of the Estonian language began already when Estonia was under Tzarist rule, but gained momentum when Estonian became the official state language of the newly created republic. But the two other languages preserved much of their role and status for at least a generation. Annexation of Estonia by the Soviets changed a lot, but not everything. I am born in 1941, and in our family both German and Russian were still in use to some degree. My mother read me poems in Russian when I was a kid, and my grandmother and her friends used a lot of German words in their speech. My generation is the first one who got all or nearly all of their education in Estonian. This is one of the paradoxes of Soviet life: although Russian was taught from the first of second year in schools, and it was de facto the state language of the USSR, the prestige and knowledge of Russian really
dropped during the Soviet period in Estonia despite the official propaganda and measures to stimulate its use. The Estonian language became both a symbol and an instrument of Estonian resistance to Soviet rule. This rule shaped the attitudes and orientations that have now, after Estonia regained its independence, inspired our cultural and language policies. In Estonia, Estonian is the only official language and its use is strictly regulated and guarded even by a kind of language police (Keeleinspektsioon) similar to the language police in Québec. This year, a law has been passed that 60% of lessons in local Russian schools have to be given in Estonian. In practice, this amounts to an effort to assimilate at least a good part of local Russian-speaking population. In any significant publishing house and periodical, the language editors are editing texts to make them to conform to the official standards of vocabulary and grammar. In some cases it amounts to a kind of language censorship. At the same time, most young Estonians are learning English, and the influence of English and other Western languages can be felt in both written and spoken Estonian despite the official policies. The efforts of our linguistic purists are centered on replacing the international words with what they consider Estonian ones, but there is little attention paid to the more latent influences. In fact, Estonian is more and more becoming a variant of the "Standard Average European", a language where an Estonian word is seen more as a correspondence to an English one than belonging to a group of semantically connected Estonian ones. The rigid language policies have become an obstacle to free, spontaneous speech and writing, partly obliterating the individual or local differences of style and obfuscating the language sense of most people. The real spoken language is living its own life, although it is often seen as slang and shunned or even prohibited in official use. The fact that our language teaching and language policies are centered on correctness and purity, not creativity and spontaneity, is, in my opinion, the main reason why many people in Estonia have difficulties in expressing their thoughts. I feel that under the specious cover of the Estonian monoculture, processes are under way that can become more destructive to the Estonian language (and consequently culture too) than the half-century of Soviet rule.

I finish with an item from my blog.

In his book "Linguistic Ecology: Language Change and Linguistic Imperialism in the Pacific Rim", Peter Mühlhäusler writes:

"The grammatical adjustment that is encountered in most Pacific languages that have come under the influence of expatriate missions and education systems is that a number of apparently viable languages (in terms of numbers of speakers and social institutionalization), such as Fijian or Samoan, have nevertheless disappeared, in the sense that what has remained is primarily their formal properties and what has gone is their semantic and pragmatic aspects. The continuation of mere lexical forms of earlier languages raises the question of identity of linguistic systems over time, external pressure(s) having introduced a degree of discontinuity and restructuring that renders the notion of historical continuity useless."

Hasn't the same happened to the Estonian language that has been and is being intensively restructured by foreign influences, these influences having been successfully internalized and sometimes taken to extremes by our own literati? Has the old Estonian disappeared, being replaced by a euro-language that has lost most of its "semantic and pragmatic aspects"? Isn't, paradoxically, the Russian language, at present downgraded and driven out of use a potential counterweight to the overwhelming Euro-American influence on Estonian?

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