The Baltic-German period in Estonian language planning

Views on the development of Estonian language planning


Keywords: language standardisation, language ideology, historical sociolinguistics, history of written Estonian

An overview is provided of the conscious development of an Estonian language standard from the 17th to the 19th century. That period, shaped by Baltic-German clerics, can be considered the precursor of Estonian national language planning. The article discusses the most significant early authors and their views on standard language. Their relevant efforts are viewed as a continuous process aimed at creating an unified language variety to mediate whatever was important in society. This period of 250 years witnessed gradual shifts in the interpretation of the standard language, which was first seen as a medium of Lutheran mission, then as a vehicle of local Enlightenment and, finally, a manifestation of national culture.

From the very beginning, the development of a standard language was related to prevailing ideologies, dissemination of ideas through the written word, and the formation of a cultural language. In early grammars, Estonian was described on practical purposes as a means of spreading Lutheran ideology. The active focus was on the religious register as the main aim was to publish the Bible in Estonian. From the mid-18th century onwards, the Enlightenment brought up new themes and new registers as well. The 19th-century standard embraced even more registers. Standard Estonian began to be highly valued as a unifier of the nation and the carrier of its culture. The Baltic-German era in the standardisation of Estonian came to an end in the 1870s. By then, the language planning had transferred solely into the hands of native Estonian intellectuals. Estonian language planners, despite following the Baltic-German tradition, strove for ever greater closeness to the vernacular.

Throughout the whole period, the ideal of language development was based on actual vernacular use, striving for up-to-dateness. The intellectuals involved in the standardisation were the most competent experts of Estonian language of their time. For example, in the late 19th century, all the first Estonian linguists with a doctorate degree took part in Estonian language development. Thus the standardisation of the Estonian language can be viewed as a continuous process where principles have been constantly updated without, however, forgetting past experience.


Annika Viht (b. 1981), PhD, Institute of the Estonian Language, Senior Researcher (Roosikrantsi 6, 10119 Tallinn); Tallinn University, School of Humanities, Lecturer, annika.viht@eki.ee

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