Fr, 2.12.2022

The Language Institute is tampering with mother’s tongue but no one understands what is going on

Brita-Maria Alas
, Eesti uudiste päevatoimetaja
The Language Institute is tampering with mother’s tongue but no one understands what is going on
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In some ways, it may seem that the correct written language is burning in the most literal sense of the word - what the future of the language will be, no language enthusiast can understand at the moment.
In some ways, it may seem that the correct written language is burning in the most literal sense of the word - what the future of the language will be, no language enthusiast can understand at the moment. Photo: Mihkel Maripuu
  • It is not really clear what is going on behind the EKI doors.
  • Language editors and teachers are worried: too liberal usage is promoted.
  • EKI and the ministry: no such plans.

Many language enthusiasts have expressed concern recently - the Institute of the Estonian Language (EKI) is doing something incomprehensible with the written Estonian language. We have heard the signal: the language norms and style assessments taught in the mother tongue class may become a thing of the past and the indispensable and up-to-date “Estonian orthographic dictionary” (ÕS) may no longer be available for language editors and teachers. However, the Ministry and EKI are muddying the waters.

Although there is a great temptation to give examples of “released” words, such as “õieti” and "õigesti" or "järele" and "järgi", according to freelance editor Hille Saluäär, this is not a very good idea: it is not a fight over a dozen words. “It is actually a somewhat different problem," she said. Moreover, it seems that the most sensitive is the EKI itself, because even ignorant wording is enough to irritate them.

Saluäär explained to Postimees what has brought on contentious issue, which ended with numerous opinion articles and speeches. According to her, the people working with the language – translators, editors, native language teachers – are still unclear on which theoretical bases EKI's agile practical dictionary work takes place: refutation of previously given language advice recommendations and orthography updates. EKI's new type of communication also focuses on simply describing language issues to the people instead of providing linguistic education as previously.

"There are many, variants of Estonian words, we can say and write many words in one or another way. The editors are missing proper language usage suggestions: which word is clearer or more appropriate for the Estonian language? Which one to prefer? Now they simply say that both options exist in the Estonian language,” explained Saluäär. Broadly speaking, a situation has arisen where a person writes as he speaks (because the new online corpus-based word recommendations encourage this). Many officialese expressions, which have hitherto been recommended to be avoided, may now be freely used.

Kaja Sarapuu, head of the mother tongue teachers' association, noted that now that EKI essentially wants to give free rein to self-expression, teachers still need a word related to the norm. “It is very difficult to teach like this at school. If a pupil writes a text and creates a new word on their own or makes stylistic mistakes, the teacher must evaluate the text. I cannot imagine the amount of controversy which would arise when pupils say that they made up the word themselves. How can a teacher evaluate a text at all when the language is so free?” he asked.

Language editors in turn experience difficulties with finding reliable language recommendations necessary for their work, which so far have been received from the EKI language advisory service. A skilled editor can draw on his or her experience, but a novice editor needs something to lean on.

Not a language reform but not relaxation either

Although it has been claimed that the ÕS will no longer be published as a thick book, the language will be allowed to be freer and the norms will no longer be recognized in the known form, EKI does not want to call what is happening a reform or a relaxation and constantly refutes claims about the abolition of norms. However, the main signal is that the regulation of language will become more modernly called "language development".

Yet the EKI website states: “From now on, rules and recommendations which provide general principles are preferred, those which require memorization of individual cases are avoided”, which is why the ongoing process may confuse the uninitiated.

The use of “relaxing the norms" and “language reform” infuriated EKI's spokesperson: the request for comments received a phone call from marketing manager Gerly Tuisk, who complained that the questions are offensive, contain false information and are therefore difficult to answer. According to her, neither relaxing of norms nor reform is on the agenda. This was followed by a quick test, during which the marketing manager asked whether the journalist knew what EKI was doing.

“The whole talk of language reform is a misunderstanding,” EKI director Arvi Tavast clarified later. “I assure that nothing like this is planned either at EKI or elsewhere.” Generally speaking, all the rules of the Estonian language continue to apply as they have for decades. “Actually, the Estonian language is so strong today and its rules are so entrenched that it would not be possible to reform them centrally,” he said.

According to Tavast, EKI has started to deal with explanatory activities more than before. "We want people to better understand how their language choices affect their own intelligibility as well as the vitality and longevity of the Estonian language. We are trying to encourage as many Estonians as possible to have a sense of ownership of the Estonian language, and with it the courage and joy to use their language creatively,” the answer explained.

No round table

A few years ago, when communicating with an EKI researcher, I politely apologized for the incorrect use of the language. The researcher said optimistically that there will soon be no difference between the words "õieti" and "õigesti" – what matters is how we speak. It turns out that the process of updating the language started at that time. In the first half of 2021, the new plan was announced to editors invited to a seminar. “Everyone was confused at first,” recalled Saluäär. Sarapuu added that there was no direct coordination. “The language editors have been the ones who have kept their finger on the pulse. Written language is the tool they work with.”

At that time, a joint appeal of language associations was also published in the weekly Sirp, which received nearly 20 signatures. The associations asked EKI for an explanation about the publication of the next ÕS and the change in the language regulation. “There is still no necessary clarity and agreements with interested groups,” stated Saluäär.

The pupil: we can lose the beauty of the language

“Why do we have to let the language free?” asked Sarapuu, adding that the pupils do not like the innovation either. “They correct each other. The pupil wants the norm to exist.” The pupils' writing style has also been evaluated according to the current standards, and according to Sarapuu, this would no longer be possible in the future in the accustomed form.

According to Maria Simona, a high school student at Tallinn English College, it is justified to relax some of the rules, but if similar words are allowed to be used in the same way, sentences can be ambiguous. “However, expressions such as "läbi aegade” could be allowed. Being a pupil who is not very strong in Estonian, I constantly wish that the rules were simpler. However, I understand that if there were no rules and language norms, others might not understand what the meaning of the sentence is. In addition, the beauty of the language can also be lost,” said the girl, adding that the rules should still be clear in official texts and writings. “So that the texts would be beautiful and expressive and everyone could understand them the same way.”

“I think that certain rules in the Estonian language are rather good,” commented Kaur Tristan, a high school student at Kiili high school. According to him, the fact that teachers can no longer assess style in the same way as before has pros and cons: style and spelling give an overview of acquired knowledge and an idea of ​​how much the student has read or how wide his horizons are.

“The disadvantage of assessing style is that not all students dare or know how to express themselves, because they are afraid of making a mistake. Therefore, the students' good thoughts can be left out of the essay,” said Tristan.

The ministry seemingly does not see any innovations

The activities of the Institute of the Estonian Language are under the responsibility of the Ministry of Education and Research. “We agree that there should be more clarification work about language development and language regulation and it should be done more efficiently, so that the necessary information reaches all language users,” commented Andero Adamson, head of the language policy department.

“Currently, a new ÕS is being prepared. There will be no changes in the structure, form or language regulatory role of ÕS. ÕS is the basis of the written language norm and will remain so. As changes, we can highlight the significant increase in the volume of the ÕS and the involvement of more parties than before in the process of preparing the ÕS," explained Adamson and added that according to current plans, the new ÕS will be published in 2023.

When asked about the grading of pupils, Adamson stated that no changes are foreseen in the grading of stylistic errors.