Language and history

Writing the Estonian past in Estonian


Keywords: language of history, Estonian terminology, cultural translation

This essay aims to discuss some aspects of the language used in the study of history. Similarly to other disciplines, historical research makes use of a specialized language. Writing about the past requires a distinctive style and specific genres. Widespread arguments identify historical writing with the narrative form, and thus attempt to equate historical text with literary artifact (White 1992). This general opinion, however, overlooks the specific features of historical texts, such as lexical and grammatical structures, inherent vocabulary, and academic conventions. The common language of history has points of contact with neighbouring disciplines, such as socio­linguistics, anthropological linguistics, and the social history of language (Burke 1987, 1993). Applying and transforming the vocabulary of historical sources to professional terminology has been a major characteristic feature of the professional language of history.

The reading, transcribing, and exploring of primary sources of history as well as presenting evidence from the texts should be interpreted as procedures of cultural translation. Although the principle is universal, the discussion in this essay will focus on Estonian historical terminology. The oldest layers of historical Estonian vocabulary are comprised of thousands of loanwords from Middle Low German (c. 1300 words), High German (c. 1500), Old Swedish and less from Old Slavonic. The majority of these loanwords have been adapted and modified to modern Estonian usage; however, various old-fashioned terms have lost their actuality and retained their significance only in historical studies.

The systematic formation of historical terminology in Estonian occurred along with the language reform movement of the 1920s. The creative work on historical terms responded to the necessity of new history textbooks to be composed for the independent Republic of Estonia. The language shift from German and Russian to Estonian in teaching and writing challenged the minor group of professional historians at the University of Tartu to elaborate professional Estonian for historians both in teaching and writing. Notable progress in academic rhetoric in the field of history-writing was achieved in less than two decades before the Second World War in the works of the new generation of scholars.

There has always been the necessity to compose (or translate) Estonian history texts into major foreign languages. History books and articles issued both in German and Russian normally do not raise questions in the use of terminology, as these languages are rooted in the past societies of Estonia. Historical texts on Estonian themes published in English, however, contain several terminological inadequacies as the appropriate terms (e.g. Est rüütelkond, Ger Ritterschaft) are untranslatable or missing in modern English usage. Therefore, the daily efforts of modern scholars to present their research to an international audience in academic English will require careful editing and explanation of various specific terms of Estonian history.

The fate of the scholars of a small nation will thus incur a double obligation to publish historical research in the most accepted foreign language and concurrently also in Estonian, calling to mind the virtues of thinking and writing in the native language.


Jüri Kivimäe (b. 1947), University of Toronto, Professor Emeritus, jkivimae@chass.utoronto.ca