The long journey of the probability particle vist in literary Estonian

Keywords: Estonian, Old Literary Estonian, corpus pragmatics, discourse grammar, epistemic particle, pragmaticalization

A survey is given of the development of the content and shape of the epistemic particle vist in Estonian texts from the oldest written records to this day. Diachronic analysis revealed a change in the use and meaning of the particle, notably, a gradual decrease in its epistemic certainty. In 17th century texts the forerunner of the modern particle vist was the adverb vissist, meaning ‘for sure’, but in modern standard Estonian vist expresses medium certainty, like oletatavasti ‘probably. Consequently, we have to do with a process of pragmaticalization.

According to our analysis of old dictionaries and texts the shortening vissisti > vist must have occurred nearly two centuries before the semantic change ‘for sure’ > ‘probably’. We assumed that the possible reason for the shortening lay in oral language usage, whence the first appearance of vist in the 1660s, first in Heinrich Göseken’s dictionary (1660) and almost simultaneously in Pastor Christoph Blume’s writings, especially in his hymns. At the time the meaning of both short and long forms was ‘for sure’. In 18th century texts the frequencies of the variants vist and vissisti are nearly equal, whereas in the 19th century vist becomes nearly thrice as frequent as vissisti. The semantic change of ‘for sure’ > ‘probably’ appears in writing since the late 19th century. There are also some bridging constructions illustrating the process of reanalysis. The derivative process of the particle vist is particularly noteworthy: Since the mid-19th century the particle vististi appears in literary Estonian, which was first associated with the initial meaning of vist ‘for sure’, but by today both vist and vististi have aquired the meaning of ‘probably’ (medium certainty). Such semantic change is not, however, unique as similar tendencies can be found in Russian, German and Galician, for example. Therefore, diachronic development of discourse particles certainly deserves more specific qualitative research in the future.


Külli Prillop (b. 1974), PhD, University of Tartu, Institute of Estonian and General Linguistics, Researcher of Estonian Phonology (Jakobi 2, 51005 Tartu),

Külli Habicht (b. 1964), PhD, University of Tartu, Institute of Estonian and General Linguistics, Associate Professor of Estonian Language (Jakobi 2, 51005 Tartu),