17th Century Estonian Orthography Reform, the Teaching of Reading and the History of Ideas

By Poldvee, Aivar | Trames, December 2011 | Go to article overview

17th Century Estonian Orthography Reform, the Teaching of Reading and the History of Ideas


Poldvee, Aivar, Trames


1. The problem

In the Early Modern era, several universal processes took place in the history of European languages. The processes were stimulated by both religious targets and the needs of society, such as education and effective communication. Latin gradually gave way to vernaculars, the art of printing made the written word cheap and widely available, and reading changed from a privilege of the elite into a general skill, or even a requirement. The promotion of vernaculars and the widespread teaching of reading were most consistently required by the Reformed Church, one goal of which was to make scripture available to all members of the congregation in their mother tongue. Thus began the translation of the Bible into many national languages, which led to the harmonization of written languages and the standardization of spelling but, for several nationalities, the written language was only just being created (see Burke 2004).

More serious attention to the issues of orthography began to expand in the 16th century and this triggered a sharp language dispute in several countries. The issue of conformity of writing and pronunciation arose as the central problem, especially in countries where the gap between writing and pronunciation had become large and the methodology of writing followed a tradition, etymology or the writer's discretion, rather than any fixed rules. As alphabetic writing is a code, the degree of complexity of which depends not only on a particular sound system but also, to a large extent, on orthography, reading--and especially learning to read--depends on how easy it is to decode the written word. Therefore, it is understandable that orthography issues emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries, often hand in hand with the teaching of reading, and that we find so many educators among innovative linguists. Due to the conservative nature of writing and the force of habit, orthographic innovation has encountered strong opposition almost everywhere, even when proposed amendments were well founded (Tauli 1968:135144). Throughout history, one can find examples where good proposals, more efficient methods and best practices have been pushed aside and the opportune time for change has been missed. The consequences can be serious and even irreversible. This is the case, for example, in English-speaking countries, where dyslexia and other reading impairments are of an unusually broad scope and learning to read has become not only an educational, but also a social and a political problem. Therefore, the relevant literature is vast (see for introduction Stone 2004, Wood and Connelly 2009, Goulandris 2003, and Smythe et al 2004). An alarm was sounded in the United States by the book authored by Rudolf Flesch Why Johnny Can't Read, a chapter of which bears a title referring to excessive time consumption, "Two Years Wasted", and in which, among others, the Estonian language is mentioned as a positive example (Flesch 1955:5). In the US in 1980, a wide-ranging dispute erupted over the methods of teaching students how to read (whole word or whole language versus phonics), and became known as the Reading Wars. A glance at history suggests that the war was lost as early as the 16th century, when the radical attempts at modernization of orthography failed in England (see Jones 1953, especially Chapter V, "The Misspelled Language", Barber 1997:42-102).

The problems that emerged in the 16th-17th centuries are still relevant today. A study (Seymour et al. 2003; see also Furness and Samuelsson 2010) which compares the links between learning to read in thirteen European languages with orthography and the syllable structure applies well to the topic of this article. The English language is characterized by opaque (deep) spelling, as well as by a complex syllable structure, whereas on the other end of the scale the Finnish language has a transparent (shallow) spelling and a simple syllable structure. As expected, test results confirm that the effectiveness of learning to read and the scope of reading difficulties are closely linked with spelling and the syllable structure, which gives a clear advantage to those languages with a transparent orthography and a simple syllable system. …

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