Creating National Languages: Codification, Elaboration and Acceptance

While the basis of the Estonian national literary language had been developed in grammars in second half of the nineteenth century, the codification of the literary standard continued to be consolidated in the early twentieth century. Four conferences were organized between 1908-1911 to discuss various issues regarding the Estonian standard written language, and resulted in the publication of Eesti oigekirjutuse-sonaraamat [An Estonian Dictionary of Correct Writing] (1918) (Raag 1999, 30-31). This is an example of what Joshua Fishman calls the ‘first congress phenomenon’, an important landmark in planning ‘a language’ (Fishman 1993). In southern Livland, the Riga Latvian Society organized a linguistic department of linguists, literati, publishers, and teachers in 1904 to expand and codify the Latvian language and develop a new standard orthography (Bolin 2012, 199-207).

The establishment of the Estonian and Latvian nation-states with Estonian and Latvian standards as official national languages created a new language hierarchy. The borders of Estonia and Latvia were to a great extent drawn around the dialect continuum considered to be roofed by the same standard variety. Livland was split between Estonia and Latvia, and Vitebsk gubernia was partitioned and the western region (Latgale) incorporated into the new Republic of Latvia. All the same, there were populations left on the ‘wrong’ side of the linguistic-cum-state borders - Latvian-speakers in Estonia and South Estonian speakers in northern Latvia - in addition to many other minorities (Mela 2001).

Despite efforts in the 1920s to consolidate the Estonian and Latvian standard languages, the widespread adoption of these official languages as forms of everyday communication was gradual and geographically limited due to the lack of economic integration and localized public administration. The language shift to an all-standard Estonian variety (whereby all South Estonian-speakers are bilingual South Estonian- Estonian speakers) only occurred in the 1960-1980s through a combination of educational policies and natural causes, when the majority of those born before 1900 had passed away (Koreinik 2011a, b, 50). In Latvia in the 1920s, Latgalian was regarded as a dialect of standard Latvian, but was permitted in primary schools and local administration. At the same time as efforts were being made to codify standard Latvian, Latgalian was also continuing to undergo development as an Ausbausprache. The first conference on Latgalian spelling took place in 1903 in St Petersburg, where many Latgalian intellectuals were studying and living at the time. In 1908 the first Latgalian grammar was published by a native speaker and later grammars followed in the 1920s. A Latgalian orthography was officially adopted in 1929. This overlap between the development of Latgalian as a separate written form and the consolidation of the Latvian standard language is a reminder of how the processes of convergence and divergence can occur simultaneously. However, after the establishment of the authoritarian regime by Karlis Ulmanis in 1934, the use of Latgalian in schools, media, and public was prohibited. In neighboring Soviet Russia in the 1920s, Latgalian was also acknowledged as a minority language and used in primary schools (Nau 2011, 6).[1]

During the Soviet period from 1944-1991, the internal and external political circumstances shaping the sociolinguistic landscape of the region again changed. Russian was rapidly mandated as the dominant language in certain spheres as a result of forced integration with Soviet political and economic systems, as well as in key regions of both Baltic republics - in the capital cities of Tallinn and Riga, and the eastern industrial cities of Narva and Daugavpils - due to large numbers of Russian-speaking labor migrants. Standardized Estonian and Latvian continued to be consolidated as the national languages of both republics, for example, as the language of education in Estonian- and Latvian-language schools, and were regarded by many ethnic Estonians and Latvians as symbols of national resistance to Sovietization and the encroachment of Russian language. These initiatives finally gained institutional support in 1989 with the introduction of Language Laws in both Socialist Republics mandating Estonian and Latvian, respectively, as official languages. While South Estonian and Latgalian were not officially forbidden during the Soviet period, they did not receive any state support and their use in public was discouraged. They were relegated to use within the family, which completed the language-shift to standard Estonian-South Estonian and Latvian-Latgalian bilingualism in South Estonian- and Latgalian-speaking regions during the interwar period.

Kara Brown argues that against the backdrop of this threat to the national languages during the Soviet period, ‘there was no room for recognizing the regional languages’ (2005, 80).[2] As will come to light in the next section, the significant changes in the status and usage of Russian during the Soviet period continue to strongly impact on present-day beliefs about the viability of Estonian and Latvian. The discourse about the need to protect Estonian and Latvian from the “bigger” language of Russian remains salient and is echoed in state language policy which seeks to cement the relationship between official language, national language, and (nation-)state (Skultane 2010; Mole 2012). In this context, there is no room for South Estonian varieties or Latgalian as second (national or regional) official languages in Estonia or Latvia.

  • [1] For a more detailed account of this period, see Baiba Metuzale-Kangere (2004).
  • [2] My emphasis.
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