Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Point of Pride

Much has been made of how formidable the Estonian language is.

In the 1990s, the American Peace Corps volunteer Douglas Wells wrote both a short story and a song celebrating its difficulty. Flattered by his harmonic salute to their impossible language, Estonian radio listeners rallied and put Wells’ song at the top of the charts for a period of several weeks.

Estonians generally resist flattery, but one surefire method to please them is to talk about how difficult their language is. Its difficulty, in fact, is a point of national pride.

Although most Estonians are unaware of it, historical records show that Jakob Hurt proposed Ardua lingua as the Estonian national motto in a companion piece to his 1886 dissertation on pure -ne stem nouns, Die estnischen Nomina auf -ne purum. “Foreigners may conquer our soil,” Hurt wrote, “but they will never master our language.”

But it now appears Hurt was wrong. Just the other day I set out to prove his thesis to a visiting group of tourists by counting the Americans (the laziest people on earth when it comes to languages) who have learned the Estonian language. I was confident I could count them on one hand, but I quickly found myself needing the other. And a few toes, as well.

There is Greg in Tallinn, who speaks it so fluently his very slight accent gets him mistaken for a drunken native. There is Robert in southern Estonia who can dazzle natives with his knowledge of every growing plant and scurrying critter. There are Jerry, Justin, Stewart, James, Edward, Bill, John, Scott, David and Rufus, whose accents may keep them from deep undercover spy work or limit local acting careers, but who manage quite nicely and are even able to read legal contracts in the Estonian language.

Of course I can name dozens from the European continent who have mastered the language. There are at least a half-dozen from China, Japan, and India who speak the tongue. And I know several fellow väliseestlased who have learned the language, as well.

If so many foreigners are successfully learning Estonian is not a key source of national pride in danger? Is the risk not present of the Estonian language losing its small, elite, club-like status? And so shouldn’t something be done to make the language more difficult?

If any presidential candidate is looking for campaign material, perhaps making the Estonian language more impenetrable might be a worthy platform, a cause around which every loyal Estonian speaker would surely rally.

President Ilves’ word competition Sõnaus is already making headway to drive the offending foreign words from the vocabulary. I have recently noticed the appearance of terms such as taristu, vabasektor, kestlik, and idufirma.

But we can do more. If we dedicated the Language Inspectorate (to which we should seriously consider giving an even more imposing name) full time to the task, we might be able to eliminate other offensive foreign terms such as “telefon” (suggestion: “elektrooniliseisiklikukõneaparaat”), “check-in’ima” (“sisseastumisregistreerimine”), “hotell” (“lühiajutiseööbimisepaik”), “hängima” (“lühiajutiseööbimisepaik”), and “tšau” (no suggestions).

There is of course another camp in this discussion. Some advocate making Estonian more user friendly, basic changes which would form a Pidgin version of the language. This new language would be highly flexible in its written form and pronunciation, something equivalent to the kind of English that my young Estonian friend Mart speaks.

Me to Mart: “Mart, stop capitalizing the ‘Y’ in ‘you,’ unless it’s at the beginning of a sentence.” Or: “Mart, quit pronouncing the ‘L’ in ‘salmon.’”

Mart to me: “I speak British English.”

In honor of Mart, I suggest naming the new language “British Estonian.”

We might go further. Roughly half the case endings could be dropped and few would know the difference. And do we really need two infinitive forms of every verb when much wealthier countries make do with only one? And why not drop the formal “teie” and its attendant verb conjugations?

Despite the obvious virtues of British Estonian, I suspect the simplification approach will find little traction among the Estonian people. To simplify anything runs counter to the culture at large. While e-advances may have theoretically made the workings of the state more efficient, has it resulted in sweeping reductions in the size of the public sector? “Show me the beef!” an American friend often demands of me when I start to praise Estonia’s e-state. Then he goes on to argue that to overcomplicate things is the very essence of being European, that a continent and culture in decline has little else left to do than make rules.

Also lending itself to further complication of the language is the dogged stubbornness of Estonians. Their desire to protect all things Estonian is evident in state-financed programs to keep the culture and language alive, but it is even more visible at the grass-roots level. Purchasing bus tickets at my local R-kiosk, no matter how fluent my Estonian-language request for a pack of ten tickets is, all further matters are handled in English (“Will you pay with a card?”).

Of course it could be insecurity, a need on the R-kiosk worker’s part to demonstrate that she, too, speaks a foreign language. Or perhaps she simply wants to practice. But I prefer the conspiracy theory, and I do sometimes suspect Estonians consider their language a very private matter, and that they would rather make fools out of themselves in English than to use Estonian in the presence of foreigners.

There is the unconfirmed story circulating of an Estonian EU representative who opted to address the general assembly in English. Reportedly, the representative stressed her conviction on a certain matter, noting that she would “give head” if she were wrong.

Having heard the story third- or fourth hand, I am sure my version is likely inaccurate on many levels. But, still, what a difference the omission of a possessive determiner can make. Perhaps she intended to convey that she would bet her life that she was right?

A French interpreter I know who works in Brussels tells me she has noticed that while representatives of big nations will generally don headphones to hear a speech in their native languages, Estonians will often shun the use of interpreters and listen to the speech in English. We may consider here the same theories in the R-kiosk case, but as an armchair scientist I must embrace the conspiracy. Don’t let Estonian out of the bag. Even Americans might learn it.

Which must lead us to conclude that further complicating the language is a natural next step in the defense of the culture. Consideration should be given, as well, to the illegalization of its use by foreigners. What might it do for state coffers if foreigners were fined for every “tere” or “tänan” that they tried out on a shopkeeper? Or if the uttering a complete sentence in Estonian by a foreigner could be considered an act of espionage? I think you’ll agree that I’m on to something.

Consider this fair warning: Allow foreigners to learn the Estonian language and they will soon sink in much deeper roots. They’ll soon start to marry the local women. And by then it will be far, far too late.

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