Figurative thought during the ”Language crisis of Estonian” in 2020–2022


Keywords: figurative speech, conceptual metaphors, figurative framing, discourse analysis

The paper analyses the patterns of figurative language and thought addressing the abstract domain of “language”, which emerged in the discourse about the language norms and standardisation in Estonian public media in 2020–2022. The situation was perceived as critical by the language practitioners (editors, proof-readers, translators, teachers, etc) because of confusion and ambiguity in respect of when and in what form would the new edition of ÕS (the traditional prescriptive dictionary of Standard Estonian), appear. The ambiguous feelings were accompanied by the sense of threat to fundamental values, and the sense of urgency to act – all the substantial features of a crisis were met. The corpus of texts contained 62 texts by practitioners, journalists, professional linguists (institutional scientists), and state officials. The corpus of texts was analyzed qualitatively from the viewpoint of the Conceptual Metaphor Theory, Figurative Framing, Systemic Functional Linguistics, and Critical Discourse Analysis.

The critical situation stimulated figurative thinking by all the “voices” in discussion: language practitioners framed the Estonian language as a ‘needy’ – an image, which was amplified into an image of ‘protegee’ and further so into ‘victim’. Linguists tended to think and speak of language as a ‘living being’, borrowing vocabulary from evolutionary biology. Both practitioners and researchers also used the image of ‘building’ while highlighting different aspects: linguists talked more about language reconstruction and repair, while the other disputants referred to demolition, breaking down, and decay. Personification was also used, i.e. attributing human qualities and desires to language. The practitioners showed empathy to the language as a sufferer, while the linguists talked about well-being and health. One of the most disputable images was that of language as a social subject that could enjoy freedom. This image, originally proposed by the progressively minded linguists was sharply rejected and responded to by the journalists and the practitioners by using irony and ridiculing. One of the images used only by the practitioners was that of language as a beautiful garden in threat of getting abandoned.


Ene Vainik (b. 1964), PhD, Institute of the Estonian Language, Leading Researcher (Roosi­krantsi 6, 10119 Tallinn), ene.vainik@eki.ee

Geda Paulsen (b. 1973), PhD, University of Uppsala, Senior Lecturer/Associate ­Professor (Engelska parken, Thunbergsvägen 3 L, 751 26 Uppsala); Institute of the Estonian ­Language, Senior Researcher (Roosikrantsi 6, 10119 Tallinn), geda.paulsen@eki.ee