The many-sided Estonian language

In the 18th century and earlier, when the population of Estonia was much more sedentary than today, a speaker's speech peculiarities were dependent on his place of residence. Dialect boundaries were formed by administrative units as well as natural obstacles and connecting roads. The clearest distinction is between the northern and southern Estonian language, which consist in turn of eight dialects and 117 subdialects. The local peculiarities of the Estonian spoken language are preserved in speech samples in the dialect archive; for example, a speaker from Valjala has stated that "there are fragments of my own language everywhere". Naturally it seems to each person that the language is broken up by others and that they alone speak it most naturally. For example, a man from Palamuse is sure that “our language is the purest language, it hasn’t been broken or corrupted” ("mede kiel on kõige puhtam kiel, ei õle kianet iga vianet siden"). Yet someone from Kodavere comes forward and claims that “this Kodavere language is the purest language, no-one has broken or corrupted it at all” („sii Kodavere kiil one sii kõege pustam kiil, siäl ei õle üstegi kiänet ega viänet sides“).

The birth of the sense of Estonian national identity in the second half of the 19th century, the loss of restrictions on the movement of the peasantry, and the spread of written periodicals and books in standard Estonian weakened the position of the local dialects. In the early decades of the 20th century the written language underwent development and public life tended more and more toward normative language use, as a result of which the local dialects went into retreat. Yet even today it is possible to recognise, on the basis of a few basic features, where a speaker comes from.

For example, a person from Kodavere, on the northwest coast of Lake Peipsi, can be distinguished by the frequent tendency to the õ-sound (kõllane õrav for kollane orav "yellow squirrel"), while a person from Saaremaa will be noted for the lack of it (mönus öhtu for mõnus õhtu "nice evening") and for the Swedish-influenced sing-song intonation. In places there are variations in vocabulary too: in South Estonia the birch and the linden are called kõiv and lõhmus, while in North Estonia they are kask and pärn. A North Estonian takes care that a kõrvahark (earwig) does not crawl into his ear, while a South Estonian is not afraid of a tõrvahark (pitchfork). Actually it is often somewhat specious to tell Estonians apart by their localities, because the number of people who remain living in one place is shrinking more and more, and what is more similar between language users than locality is their sphere of activity. The media and the other aspects of literateness have their effect. No town or suburb has developed its own linguistic variant that is significantly different.

Speakers of the Võru dialect of South Estonia have taken care to preserve their own form of the language. Prose literature is published and music is made in this language. It is possible for children in schools in Võrumaa county to choose the "Võro" language as an optional subject; there is a Võru newspaper, and articles appear in it. Much of this is thanks to the work of the Võro Instituut.

Socially stratified dialects have not emerged in Estonian as they have in the major European languages, but there are differences of vocabulary in language use associated with certain professions, as well as young people's slang.

Among the most distinctive varieties of Estonian is sign language, used regularly by about 4,500 people, including the hard of hearing and their circles. Estonian sign language is listed in the Ethnologue database, with the international code ESO. It is used in teaching at the Tallinn School for the Deaf, and in television broadcasts and at meetings, though it still lacks official status and the opportunities that would bring.

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