In Search of the True Estonian

The future of being Estonian doesn’t depend solely on demographic trends. Our understanding of the essence of being Estonian is important as well. Martin Ehala, Professor of Literacy Education at the UT Institute of Estonian and General Linguistics, sheds some light on the topic.

Song Festival in Tallinn

Mainly, it is thought that an Estonian is a person who speaks the Estonian language as a native tongue, loves Tammsaare, and feels greatly affected at the Song Festival. Image credit: Jarek Jõepera.

Not long ago, as I was visiting London, I spoke to a room full of teachers of Estonian language abroad. I told them that 50-90 percent of the world’s languages will probably become extinct during the 21st century. I followed with a question: If we’d line up all the languages in the world according to vitality, where would the Estonian language end up?

For about half of the listeners, the answer was: somewhere among the bottom 3000. The online version of the Postimees newspaper conducted a similar Gallup a few years ago with the results not being much better. As it turns out, a significant part of our fellow natives is peacefully going on with their lives, all the while thinking that the Estonian language is a lovely thing – but unfortunately too small, and thus destined to die out.

When one takes a look at the level of development of our language objectively, it takes a position among the few hundred most developed language cultures in the world. Estonian language functions as the national language and one of the official languages of the European Union. Estonia has an Estonian language-based educational system on all levels that meets the international standard, as well as a rich native tongue-based culture (journalism, poetry, prose, TV and radio programs, film). Estonian language-related technology is steadily progressing — creating language interfaces to computer programs, speech synthesis, and machine translation.

Based on the number of people speaking the language, Estonian is among the world’s largest 400, not the smallest 3000. To put it briefly, the average Estonian considers the Estonian language to be about ten times weaker than it really is.

This evaluation is probably influenced by the fact that the birth rate of Estonians is low and the exodus has grown abruptly in recent years. As the people leaving the country are largely young single women, who are likely to form a mixed family far from Estonia, it accelerates the decrease in population additionally. After just a couple of decades, the number of Estonians might not be great enough to sustain the Estonian language and culture in the world that is developing at an accelerating tempo.

The Small Estonia

Still, the future of being Estonian doesn’t solely depend on demographic processes. It has to do with how we understand the essence of being Estonian as well. Mainly, it is thought that an Estonian is a person who speaks the Estonian language as a native tongue, loves Tammsaare and feels greatly affected at the Song Festival. This definition stresses the valuable core of being Estonian. Unfortunately, for many this core is the whole Estonia. I’d name this kind of being Estonian ‘the Small Estonia’. The Small Estonia is truly becoming smaller and smaller because of the demographic processes.

But next to the Small Estonia exists the ‘Big Estonia’. Unfortunately, the Big Estonia is like an unwanted child of the Small Estonia, ignored for most of the time. But as the Big Estonia is growing, we can’t deny its existence anymore. We have to decide what to do with it — if we’ll give it away or accept and love it. If we decided to accept the Big Estonia, the future would look a little brighter.

Let’s conduct a little imaginary experiment. If a hundred young Estonian women get married to a hundred Estonian young men, resulting in 180 children, as current trends seem to indicate, the next generation is smaller than the one before. But if the same 200 young Estonian people find their spouses from the entire world or from amongst the non-native Estonians, resulting in 360 children, it would be a really significant growth. However, this is only in the case that those children consider themselves to be Estonians.

This wouldn’t fit the current concept of the Small Estonia, as such kids would inevitably exist in two cultures simultaneously and possess really different language abilities. Their Estonian-ness would not be absolute and indivisible, but mixed with some other identity.

According to the sense of the Small Estonia, they wouldn’t even be true Estonians. According to the sense of the Small Estonia, our Russians are not true Estonians, either, even if they happen to be citizens of Estonia and speak fluent Estonian. They just have to appreciate their Russian heritage to be excluded from the Small Estonia. The Small Estonia does not tolerate a double identity, not to mention double citizenships; one can only be a Small-Estonian at the core, with no additional conditions approved.

The Small Estonian-ness exists deep within many of us, continuously looking for a chance to exclude somebody. How else to explain the idea of banning dancing at the dance festival for senior citizens? Or, in the case of the Song Festival, to restrict the participation of choirs of Estonians abroad based on the accent? The idea that Russian choirs could perform some Russian-language songs that are important to their identity at the Song Festival is blasphemy to Small-Estonians. A Small-Estonian is ready to exclude from Estonians those who come up with thoughts such as these, as well as those communicating too closely with strangers.

The Small Estonia is even proud of it all. It sees no fault in living in a shrinking Estonia where the nature is beautiful and there’s lot of room to be alone. The Small Estonia never takes a loan, it shuts down all activities that aren’t profitable enough instead — cutting corners on schools, firefighting, police; using the shed for the fire material first, then the sauna.

The Small Estonia has created an idea of an endlessly shrinking sustainable Estonia to itself, something akin to the turtle escaping Achilles forever. It could work for some time but not for long. If we cannot get free of the Small-Estonian mindset, our last national achievement would be the Darwin Award for becoming extinct due to our own bigotry.

The Great Estonia

Unfortunately it’s really hard to get rid of the Small-Estonian mindset. The greater the national feeling of being endangered is, the stronger and more rigid the Small-Estonian-ness becomes. In a situation of danger it is a natural reaction to adopt a defensive position, so the instability decreases. And during the last ten years there have been many events that have increased the feeling of danger, such as the Bronze Night, the Georgian war, or the things that are currently happening in Ukraine.

Still, the national convergence doesn’t help in cases of such danger; rather, it complicates the situation further. Because of the fear, the ability to distinguish between different shades of grey and to find flexible solutions decreases. There is no other way to get out of this vicious circle than to defeat the existential fear and make brave moves. There is not much left to lose.

Let’s use an analogy. If you have built a garden, you hope to have some harvest. When there’s enough rain, it’s no problem. In case of a drought, there are two possibilities: watering the garden or hoping that rain will start. But there is a time limit for the waiting. After a certain moment, the entire harvest could be lost. On the other hand, water is expensive during the drought and there are expenses necessary for watering. It’s quite likely that a loan is needed. A Small-Estonian doesn’t go this route, putting the whole harvest at risk. If we wish for the Great Estonia, we have to think in the Great-Estonian way — if the garden needs watering, taking a loan is not out of the question, so the harvest is not lost. Afterwards, the harvest will allow the loan to be repaid.

The first thing that needs to be done is to give the Great Estonia the resources it needs to grow. Anywhere in the world where there are Estonian communities, Estonian Houses should get substantial backing. Money must be found for Sunday schools, choirs, dancing clubs, as well as for children camps in Estonia, trips to the Song Festival or Dance Festival and visits from Estonian singers, writers, and poets – much more than right now.

Nurturing the Great Estonia within the actual borders of Estonia needs probably even more money. The professional army must be increased substantially to offer an output for disappointed and disaffected young men of both nationalities. They must have the chance to make a career, gain appreciation, and become blood brothers during the missions. Mixed-nationality rescue and police departments should be created in the countrysides, with salaries and bonuses that would really be attractive for the local men. Country hospitals should be extended and good salaries used for attracting medical graduates. Estonian schools should offer possibilities to learn Russian language and culture as the first language in places where there are no Russian schools, but enough interested people. There could be many other measures.

All of this together would make it possible to solve or at least alleviate many problems essential to being Estonian — demography, integration, regional development, and safety. If we really want to see the rise of Great Estonia, it is high time to start watering — ten years from now it might already be too late.

The Estonian version of this post originally appeared in Postimees newspaper.

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