Martin Ehala: In search of the true Estonian

Estonians celebrating in Clark island, Sydney


The future of being Estonian doesn’t depend solely on demographic trends. Our understanding of the essence of being Estonian is important as well. Martin Ehala, Professor of Literacy Education at the UT Institute of Estonian and General Linguistics, sheds some light on the topic.

Not long ago, as I was visiting London, I spoke to a room full of teachers of Estonian language abroad. I told them that 50-90 percent of the world’s languages will probably become extinct during the 21st century. I followed with a question: if we’d line up all the languages in the world according to vitality, where would the Estonian language end up?

For about half of the listeners, the answer was: somewhere among the bottom 3,000. The online version of the Postimees newspaper conducted a similar gallup a few years ago with the results not being much better. As it turns out, a significant part of our fellow natives is peacefully going on with their lives, all the while thinking that the Estonian language is a lovely thing – but unfortunately too small and thus destined to become extinct.

“Based on the number of people speaking the language, Estonian is among the world’s largest 400, not the smallest 3,000.”

When one takes a look at the level of development of our language objectively, it takes a position among the few hundred most developed language cultures in the world. The Estonian language functions as the national language and one of the official languages of the European Union. Estonia has an Estonian language-based educational system on all levels that meets the international standard, as well as a rich native tongue-based culture (journalism, poetry, prose, TV and radio programs, film). Estonian language-related technology is steadily progressing — creating language interfaces to computer programs, speech synthesis and machine translation.

Based on the number of people speaking the language, Estonian is among the world’s largest 400, not the smallest 3,000. To put it briefly, the average Estonian considers the Estonian language to be about ten times weaker than it really is.

This evaluation is probably influenced by the fact that the birth rate of Estonians is low and the exodus has grown abruptly in recent years. As the people leaving the country are largely young single women, who are likely to form a mixed family far from Estonia, it accelerates the additional decrease in population. After just a couple of decades, the number of Estonians might not be great enough to sustain the Estonian language and culture in the world that is developing at an accelerating tempo.

The small Estonia

Still, the future of being Estonian doesn’t solely depend on the demographic processes. It has to do with how we understand the essence of being Estonian as well. Mainly, it is thought that an Estonian is a person who speaks the Estonian language as a native tongue, loves Tammsaare and feels greatly affected at the Song Festival. This definition stresses the valuable core of being Estonian. Unfortunately, for many this core is the whole Estonia. I’d call this kind of being Estonian “the small Estonia”. The small Estonia is truly becoming smaller and smaller because of the demographic processes.

But next to the small Estonia exists “the big Estonia”. Unfortunately, the big Estonia is like an unwanted child of the small Estonia, ignored for most of the time. But as the big Estonia is growing, we can’t deny its existence anymore. We have to decide what to do with it — if we’ll give it away or accept and love it. If we decided to accept the big Estonia, the future would look a little brighter.

Let’s conduct a little imaginary experiment. If a hundred young Estonian women get married to a hundred Estonian young men, resulting in 180 children, as current trends seem to indicate, the next generation is smaller than the one before. But if the same 200 young Estonian people find their spouses from the entire world or from among the non-native Estonians, resulting in 360 children, it would be a really significant growth. However, this is only in the case that those children consider themselves to be Estonians.

This wouldn’t fit the current concept of the small Estonia as such kids would inevitably exist in two cultures simultaneously and possess really different language abilities. Their Estonian-ness would not be absolute and indivisible, but mixed with some other identity.

“According to the sense of “the small Estonia”, our Russians are not true Estonians either, even if they happen to be citizens of Estonia and speak fluent Estonian.”

According to the sense of the small Estonia, they wouldn’t even be true Estonians. According to the sense of the small Estonia, our Russians are not true Estonians either, even if they happen to be citizens of Estonia and speak fluent Estonian. They just have to appreciate their Russian heritage to be excluded from the small Estonia. The small Estonia does not tolerate a double identity, not to mention double citizenships; one can only be a small-Estonian at the core, with no additional conditions approved.

The small Estonian-ness exists deep within many of us, continuously looking for a chance to exclude somebody. How else to explain the idea of banning dancing at the dance festival for senior citizens? Or, in the case of the Song Festival, to restrict the participation of choirs of Estonians abroad based on the accent? The idea that Russian choirs could perform some Russian-language songs that are important to their identity at the Song Festival is blasphemy to small-Estonians. A small-Estonian is ready to exclude from Estonians those who come up with thoughts such as these, as well as those communicating too closely with strangers.

The small Estonia is even proud of it all. It sees no fault in living in a shrinking Estonia where the nature is beautiful and there’s lot of room to be alone. The small Estonia never takes a loan, it shuts down all activities that aren’t profitable enough instead — cutting corners on schools, firefighting, police; using the shed for the fire material first, then the sauna.

The small Estonia has created an idea of an endlessly shrinking sustainable Estonia to itself, something akin to the turtle escaping Achilles forever. It could work for some time but not for long. If we cannot get free of the small-Estonian mindset, our last national achievement would be the Darwin Award for becoming extinct due to our own bigotry.

The great Estonia

Unfortunately it’s really hard to get rid of the small-Estonian mindset. The greater the national feeling of being endangered is, the stronger and more rigid the small-Estonian-ness becomes. In a situation of danger it is a natural reaction to adopt a defensive position, so the instability decreases. And during the last ten years there have been many events that have increased the feeling of danger, such as the Bronze Night, the Georgian War, or the events currently happening in Ukraine.

Still, the national convergence doesn’t help in cases of such danger; rather, it complicates the situation further. Because of the fear, the ability to distinguish between different shades of grey and to find flexible solutions decreases. There is no other way to get out of this vicious circle than to defeat the existential fear and make brave moves. There is not much left to lose.

Let’s use an analogy. If you have built a garden, you hope to have some harvest. When there’s enough rain, it’s no problem. In case of a drought, there are two possibilities: watering the garden or hoping that rain will start. But there is a time limit for the waiting. After a certain moment, the entire harvest could be lost. On the other hand, water is expensive during the drought and there are expenses necessary for watering. It’s quite likely that a loan is needed. A small-Estonian doesn’t go this route, putting the whole harvest at risk. If we wish for the great Estonia, we have to think in the great-Estonian way — if the garden needs watering, taking a loan is not out of the question, so the harvest is not lost. Afterwards, the harvest will allow the loan to be repaid.

“The first thing that needs to be done is to give the great Estonia the resources it needs to grow. Anywhere in the world where there are Estonian communities, they should get substantial backing.”

The first thing that needs to be done is to give the great Estonia the resources it needs to grow. Anywhere in the world where there are Estonian communities, Estonian Houses should get substantial backing. Money must be found for Sunday schools, choirs, dancing clubs, as well as for children camps in Estonia, trips to the Song Festival or Dance Festival and visits from Estonian singers, writers and poets – much more than right now.

Nurturing the great Estonia within the actual borders of Estonia needs probably even more money. The professional army must be increased substantially to offer an output for disappointed and disaffected young men of both nationalities. They must have the chance to make a career, gain appreciation and become blood brothers during the missions. Mixed-nationality rescue and police departments should be created in the countryside, with salaries and bonuses that would really be attractive for the local men. Country hospitals should be extended and good salaries used for attracting medical graduates. Estonian schools should offer possibilities to learn the Russian language and culture as the first language in places where there are no Russian schools, but enough interested people. There could be many other measures.

All of this together would make it possible to solve or at least alleviate many problems essential to being Estonian — demography, integration, regional development and safety. If we really want to see the rise of great Estonia, it is high time to start watering — ten years from now it might already be too late.

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This article was first published in the University of Tartu blog.

The opinions in this article are those of the author.

Cover photo: Estonians in Sydney celebrating Estonian Independence Day/Photo by Aune Vetik.

About the author: Martin Ehala

Martin Ehala is the Professor of Literacy Education at the University of Tartu Institute of Estonian and General Linguistics.

  • Artemi Ollin

    Great article, hope someone in the “Small Estonia” gets a chance to read it too. Aitäh, Martin!

  • Vanessa

    I fully enjoyed reading the article (especially as I am “one of the single women who left the country). However, some of the points really confused me and they seem a bit “off” to me, but this is based on a personal experience purely.

    The quote “If a hundred young Estonian women get married to a hundred Estonian
    young men, resulting in 180 children, as current trends seem to
    indicate, the next generation is smaller than the one before. But if the
    same 200 young Estonian people find their spouses from the entire world
    or from among the non-native Estonians, resulting in 360 children, it
    would be a really significant growth. However, this is only in the case
    that those children consider themselves to be Estonians.” for example.
    Being a person who has spent a significant time away from home as well as a person who will most likely not return back home to build a life there, I have met many Estonians who are in the same situation as I am (and this is based on my experience of living in the US, in Italy and in Hungary). What I love about the Estonian women is that the truly WANT their children to be a part of Estonia – teaching them the language, culture, etc.
    Now the ever-so-demanding inner marketeer kicks in and wants to know – what was the research behind this statement? Have you had any interviews, studies, etc. when it comes to “the kids considering themselves being Estonians?”. Just pure curiosity…

    Secondly, the statement “According to the sense of the small Estonia, they wouldn’t even be true Estonians”. Yes, shamefully we do not consider the Russians to be “true Estonians” but again I have not seen someone, for example, saying the same about the kids of an Estonian in a mixed marriage (or however you want to call it).

    Anyway thank you for shedding a light on this article. I just wanted to ask about the few above mentioned comments that I have made. As a fellow Estonian living abroad, I too hope that there will be more Estonian houses, communities, etc. for us. Even though I fully intend to keep the “inner Estonian” going strong within myself and one day in my kids, it would be nice to have the country supporting us with that.
    Cheers,
    Vanessa

  • Caleb Santos

    My wife is Estonian, I american. We were married in saint Paul’s church in Tartu. We lived in Tartu and pärnu for 5 years, now living near Chicago, USA. 2 of our children were born in Estonia, one in USA. My children spoke Estonian but now mainly speak English because my wife is lazy and won’t teach them. I was enrolled in the language department at Tartu university but I had to end my studies prematurely.

    Growing up my family was mixed and my first language was Spanish until I began learning English at age 5. Now the same sort of thing has happened to my children. My son understands Estonian but cannot speak it fluently. My daughter who is younger spoke fluent Estonian for a while (as much as a two year old can speak fluently) but now she only speaks English.

    Estonian will not become extinct. Even if I am the last man speaking it. My children are Estonian first, regardless of the progress of their language skill.

    Just some thoughts.

  • Linda Rink

    Excellent article! This is an important issue for Estonian societies all over the world. I have added it to the ongoing discussion “The Estonian American Experience” on http://www.estosite.org, the website of the Estonian American National Council. I invite other Estonian World readers to post to our website!