Problems of standardizing the spelling of foreign words in modern Estonian

Keywords: borrowings, corpus planning, foreign words, language contacts, loanwords, standardization, variation

The fixation of foreign word spellings should rather be based on usage. If actual usage demonstrates the users’ preference for a certain variant, there must be a reason worth closer examination. According to the present study, a reasonable quota to rely on in general dictionary work could be as follows: if a non-standard variant makes up at least 20% of total usage, both variants should be deemed equally acceptable.

So far, the parallel variants due to a shift of the primary stress in a foreign word have been usually accepted by the language planners, who have expanded the standard to cover the new variants with the main stress on the first syllable. In the given sample (consisting of foreign words), no preference of the main stress on the first syllable can be discerned. In the material analysed, cases of stress shifting can reflect either the source language or an intermediary language. It is unlikely, though, that every time the example of this or that language has been followed as in most cases the spelling seems to have been adjusted just so. In some cases a more recent variant with a long non-initial syllable (kebab ‘kebab’) has not taken root, whereas in some others it is the variant with a short non-initial syllable (bistro ‘bistro’, muhamedlane ‘Muslim’) that has not been established, perhaps because of pronunciation difficulties. Some parallel variants present inflectional trouble as their paradigms get mixed (e.g. amok and amokk ‘amok’, kebab and kebaab).

The analysed sample contains examples of adaptation on the basis of both source and intermediary language. Examining the previous practice of standardization of foreign word spellings it is hard to pinpoint any unified principles: at least there has been no systematic following of the source language. The parallel variants due to reborrowing and the influence of intermediary languages should be deemed acceptable and presented as equals (e.g. adaptatsioon and adaptsioon ‘adaptation’; dublikaat and duplikaat ‘duplicate’).

So far, language planners have generally preferred more adapted spellings over less adapted ones. In the future it seems expedient to drop some old and obsolete spellings (e.g. balsam ‘balm’).

Estonian language planners seem to have assumed that pronunciation will bend to follow the spelling, which, however, has not happened. I suggest that in the future the words whose spelling diverges from the pronunciation could be presented as foreign words proper, i.e. without further adaptation (e.g. gala ‘gala’), fixing its phon­etic adaptations as parallel variants, e.g. gaala, ploff ‘pilaf’, polügon ‘polygon’, karatee ‘karate’, tsunaami ‘tsunami’, umaami ‘umami’.


Tiina Paet (b. 1974), MA, Institute of the Estonian Language, Senior Language Planner, Junior Researcher (Roosikrantsi 6, 10119 Tallinn), University of Tartu, Doctoral Student,