Estonian language in 17th and 18th century church administrative documents

Keywords: historical sociolinguistics, Estonian language history, business Estonian, code switching

The article deals with language use in 17th–18th century documents concerning the Estonian-speaking area. Although this was the period when German (and Swedish) pastors were busy creating literary Estonian, the latter was mainly used in translating church literature (catechisms, hymns, the Bible) and in sermon writing. The matrix language used in church administration was German. The documents contain but single Estonian sentences, phrases and words still missing generalised analysis. A closer look is given to the cases of Estonian used in four kinds of documents of church administration: 17th century visitation records, two different kinds of parish registers from the early 18th century, and a register of parishioners from the late 18th century. It is investigated whether it is reasonable to approach the Estonian language material found in those documents as cases of code switching and what could be revealed by such text fragments about the linguistic communication and the status of the Estonian language at that time. The results suggest that the code-switching approach worked best for the visitation records, where the Estonian quotations reveal a clear pragmatic meaning, namely, by switching from the German matrix language to Estonian, the writer expressed distancing from the quote. In parish registers, German and Estonian entries follow different templates. Occasional switching from one language to the other had no pragmatic meaning, whereas choice of the template must have been eloquent of intra-community social relations. The exact nature of the relationship needs further research, though. As for the register of parishioners from the late 18th century, it suggests that at least some of the documents of the period in question show mixed use of the two languages without any special meaning added by code switching.


Kristiina Ross (b. 1955), PhD, Institute of the Estonian Language, Lead Research Fellow (Roosikrantsi 6, 10119 Tallinn),

Inna Põltsam-Jürjo (b. 1969), PhD, Tallinn University, Institute of History, Archaeology and Art History, Senior Researcher (Narva mnt 25, M-410, 10120 Tallinn),