Multilingualism in Estonian poetry


Keywords: multilingualism, exophony, macaronic poetry, Estonian poetry, language contacts in literature, multilingual literary field

Apart from Estonian, some other language – from local dialects to major languages such as German and Russian – has usually been spoken in parallel on the Estonian territory. As a result, the literary culture of the local (small) language came to evolve in dense contact with some foreign literatures and cultures. However, there is still no thorough analysis of how the historical change in the linguistic situation manifests itself in Estonian literature. The aim of our article is to draw attention to the multilingual nature of the Estonian literary field by giving a historical survey of the relations, contacts and intertwining of the languages used in Estonian poetry from the 17th century to the present. To reflect the multiple facets of multilingualism revealed in poetry we mainly use a four-level approach based on Jaan Undusk’s typology of Estonian-German cultural contacts, adding literary field as the fifth level covering whatever is left over. Thus, we treat multilingualism as a phenomenon observable within a language, text, author, and the literary field. In terms of this study, intralinguistic multilingualism means language mixing in otherwise monolingual poetry, intratextual multilingualism refers to abrupt transitions from one language to another (code switching) within a text, while author multilingualism assumes a multilingual poet. Multilingualism within the literary field covers, apart from the phenomena just mentioned, literary subfields in different language variants (e.g. literature created in South Estonian, or Russian, but on the Estonian territory). First, we will survey multilingualism in Estonia poetry before the Republic of Estonian was established in 1918, concluding that German being the major culture language up to the beginning of the 20th century, all poets, whatever their ethnicity, must have been fluent in two (or more) languages. The next period analysed spans the 20th century. The local Estonian poetry of the Soviet period stands out, with a few exceptions, for an consistent use of the Estonian language, while some of the expatriate poets would also use English or Swedish. Third, we analyse contemporary poetry, where multilingualism is manifested not only by the use of local minority languages but also by intertwinings with English, Chinese or Japanese, thus giving evidence of an open society. Based on the picture emerging from the article we can say that apart from a historical overview the multilingualism of Estonian poetry also needs a closer poetic analysis.


Saara Lotta Linno (b. 1999), MA, University of Tartu, Institute of Cultural Research, Junior Researcher in Comparative Literary Studies (Ülikooli 16, 51003 Tartu), saara.linno@gmail.com

Liina Lukas (b. 1970), PhD, University of Tartu, Institute of Cultural Research, Professor of Comparative Literary Studies (Ülikooli 16, 51003 Tartu), liina.lukas@ut.ee