Why Focus on Estonia in Language Policy Research?

Estonia’s Borderland Existence

The “wandering border” mentioned in the chapter’s opening quote defines Estonia as a country situated on geographic, linguistic, cultural, ecclesiastical, and institutional borders. All these borders are wandering borders, as has happened with the EU and NATO enlargements. Estonia as a political borderland has gained power with discussions about the need to strengthen Estonia’s eastern border as NATO’s border (Siiner and L’nyavskiy, this volume). Estonia’s (socio-) linguistic situation also captures in many telling ways this borderland existence. Linguistic genealogy situates Estonian together with neighboring Finnish on the Finnic branch of the Uralic language family; but Estonians have also long had close contacts with Indo- European languages such as Baltic, Slavic, and Germanic languages. Whether having a different language family background determines Estonian speakers’ practices is disputable as is the question of whether Ugric cultures are less communicative than Western ones instead being more meditative and contemplative (see Kaplinski 2009 in Salumets 2014).

In terms of language ecology, besides common (Standard) Estonian and its traditional varieties, three clusters of foreign languages in Estonia reflect changing migrations, ruling powers, and borders (Hennoste et al. 1999): (1) German, which dominated from the thirteenth century to 1918, (2) more temporary administrative languages, e.g. Latin during the Middle Ages, Swedish, and Russian during the respective rules,[1] and 3) small ethnic groups’ languages like Estonian Swedish,

Estonian Russian (Russian Old Believers), Latvian, Finnish, etc. Historically, Russian, together with Estonian and German, has been one of “three local languages” (Ariste 1981). Depending on the era, the ruling power created language hierarchies rooted in the language that favored the dominant; the Estonian state reconfigured these hierarchies during the interwar and post-reindependence (i.e., post 1991) periods. In the twenty-first century, English joins Estonian, Russian, and German as the newest “local language.” Estonia’s residents together with their Nordic neighbors rank as some of the most proficient English speakers in Europe (Eurobarometer Special 2012, 386) in large part due to deliberate language policies that both permit and perpetuate the English language firmly in schools as the overwhelming first foreign language and in local popular cultural media (see Soler- Carbonell and Jurna in this volume). This history of language diversity coexists alongside existential concern for the only official state language - Estonian. As a small state (~1.3 million), language shifts, migration, and lopsided birth/death rates generate considerable concern about the long-term viability of Estonian in the coming decades (see e.g. Ehala et al. 2014).

  • [1] In Estonian areas incorporated into the Russian Empire (1721-1917), Russian twice had particular prominence as an administrative language— first during the period of Russification starting inthe 1880s, and then again during the Soviet occupation of Estonia (1940-941, 1944-1991).
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