It may not have made much of a splash, but last week Estonia’s President Penguin, er I mean Ilves, made what I thought was an interesting little speech.
It wasn’t about energy supplies, riots or recession. Its subject was something that’s much more important, though also less ‘newsworthy’ – language.
As befits the subject matter, Ilves’ speech to a language forum organized by the Estonian Language Council and the University of Tartu was clear and concise, so here’s what he said:
The Estonian language has been the… substantial part of our being, which has helped us survive, despite all the difficulties and setbacks.
For some people it is their religion, for others their territory, and yet others their values and ideals.
The cement of Estonians’ coexistence and of being Estonian is the Estonian language. If we examine our last 17 years of freedom, I would like to ask: where are our language innovations?
The principle that naturalist Charles Darwin formulated already 150 years ago is also valid for language – longevity is only guaranteed by adaptability. The Estonian language is long-lived, therefore it has been able to adapt.
During the new period of independence, new words have not been brought into our vocabulary in a volume or with a success comparable to Aavik. Only the word “lõim” immediately comes to mind and even this was a derivative of an older word.
If the Estonian language does not include the precise and necessary concepts we will inevitably be left out of many important discussions. And this means that we will be poorer.
I believe that the protection of the language, its preservation and development can only be successful if we purposefully and continually deal with the updating of the language.
Naturally, our conservative attitude is based on reasons from our language’s history. Yes, we must protect our language. But at the same time, we must also develop it if we want Estonian to survive as a language of culture and science.
Ilves makes an important point, and moreover one that is not heard often enough in the Baltic context. With their small populations, odd little languages and massive exposure to globalised culture – for good and for ill – it’s not surprising that much cultural effort in the Baltics is expended on preservation and protection.
That of course is necessary lest three distinct cultures are steamrollered by MTV, Nestle, McDonald’s and all the rest. But preservation is pointless if the thing preserved becomes so sclerotic and out of kilter with the world that it dies on contact with modernity.
Like many of today’s children, who have a high susceptibility to allergies because they have had little exposure to nature – with all its imperfections, dirt and dangers – cultures preserved in a bubble only survive for as long as they remain in isolation.
That’s why the actions of the “language police” in the Baltics often seem counter-productive as well as absurd. Technically, puns are illegal in Latvian, as a supermarket found out when it messed around with vowels in one of its advertising campaigns.
But unless the authorities allow the language to be stretched, strained and even cross-pollinated with others, it will become brittle and fragile. Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian may be small in terms of the numbers of speakers, but they are big enough to encompass the world if they are allowed to do so.
Preventing them from “going out to play with the big boys” will only stunt their growth.