The playground for Estonian in the early modern times


Keywords: language history, literary language, sublanguages

The article discusses the uses and opportunities of the Estonian language in the early modern times, focusing on the 17th and early 18th century. In the 18th century the Estonian territory was subjected to violent Christianisation by conquerors whose native language was German. The local elite was formed of native speakers of German (and in the 17th century, when the area was part of the Swedish Kingdom) also of native speakers of Swedish. The bearers of the traditional Estonian culture fell into the lowest social stratum. For centuries following the Reformation the Estonian literary language was created and developed by non-native pastors who produced Estonian translations of catechisms, psalms and the Bible, all based on German patterns. Native Estonian was used in oral communication. This, however, lends the view of the Estonian language history based on the analysis of written texts a colonial nuance, preventing one from getting an adequate survey of the usage as a whole. The 17th century, which was the most significant time for the emergence of literary Estonian, has left us not a single record of any native Estonian translator who might have participated in the formation of the language. Such a view of Estonian leaves an impression of the language as a passive object shaped and moulded at will by the non-native authorities.

To capture a better idea of the actual polyfunctionality of the language, efforts should be made to include oral and semi-written registers in the language description, despite the scarcity of reliable and relevant information on the Estonian language. The article attempts to give a rough idea of early modern Estonian by moving along its sublanguages, whose existence can be inferred from written records of other languages as well as from the bits and pieces of information available on Estonian. Based on a list of sublanguages affected by the 17th-century reforms in Sweden (Loit 2012) and considering the specifics of the Estonian-speaking community, it is found that early modern Estonian can be assumed to have included sublanguages of their own for business, military matters, church, trade, poetry, correspondence and everyday communication, plus a (German-Estonian) mixed language. The contours of all those sublanguages need to be defined.


Kristiina Ross (b. 1955), PhD, Institute of the Estonian Language, Leading Researcher (Roosikrantsi 6, 10119 Tallinn), kristiina.ross@eki.ee