From runo verse to hymns

How and why compare old sublanguages

The article discusses the chances of elucidating the underlying mechanisms of the emergence of modern Estonian culture, based on a linguistic comparison of the runo verse and the old translations of Lutheran hymns, and presents a few preliminary results of this approach. Modern Estonian-language culture emerged in the 19th century as a hybrid combining the old genuine traditional oral culture and the newer European written culture mediated by Germans. In the mind of a 18th-century Estonian peasant those two cultures still led a relatively independent existence. The old genuine culture was, among other things, represented by the runo songs (regilaul) conveyed by active oral tradition. The most familiar texts of the new, mediated culture were those of the Lutheran hymns sung jointly at church every Sunday. This was a period when practically every speaker of Estonian had some experience of both runo and church songs, while the sublanguages of either type of songs were reflecting as well as affecting their way of thinking. To enable a comparison of those two sublanguages two respective text corpora are being compiled. The article brings a few lexical, morphological and syntactic examples of the differences between the runos and the church songs of the time. The revealed contrast between the two sublanguages is enormous. Preliminary results suggest that in Estonia the transition from an oral language and culture to a written one was abrupt and spasmodic. As a preliminary working hypothesis, we suggest that as far as Estonians had had no vernacular elite since the Middle Ages and most of the new ideas were mediated to them by intellectuals whose mother tongue was German, the birth of modern Estonian culture must have been particularly rash and raw as compared not only with European big nations, but also with their neighbouring peoples like Finns or Latvians.