Maintenance of South Estonian Varieties: A Focus on Institutions

By Koreinik, Kadri; Saar, Evar | Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Maintenance of South Estonian Varieties: A Focus on Institutions


Koreinik, Kadri, Saar, Evar, Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE


Institutions are seen as the societal rules of the game in the broadest sense. Institutions include informal norms and formal laws, which are not necessarily functional, but shape human interaction by both prohibiting and enabling it. In language maintenance, too, institutions can serve as obstacles or can provide support, for example through additional resources. In our article, both the normative and legal aspects of language maintenance are presented and discussed on the basis of the example of South Estonian. Although its varieties - Seto and Võru - are traditionally grouped into one category of sub-language, the speakers' senses of identity and different cultural practices lead to objections to this exclusively linguistic branching. We discuss how, given the similar linguistic resources the Seto and Võru speech communities possess, norms and laws concerning varieties of South Estonian have been maintained and whether they have changed.

Keywords: institutions; language maintenance; South Estonian varieties; spoken and written language; language activism

In the new-institutionalist framework, institutions are seen as the rules of the game (North, 1990); they include both informal norms and formal laws and are 'constituted in and through recurrent practices' (Giddens, 1982: 8). Institutions may provide resources for societal continuity and prevent unwanted change from happening or, vice versa, may interrupt stable development and force change. While laws can be changed overnight, it takes time to alter norms. Institutions are not necessarily functional; however, the costs of everyday trial-and-error behaviour are reduced by institutions, and this generally makes institutions resources, in terms of predicting behaviour. Institutional support is vital in the maintenance of any language, but especially of lesser-used and non-standard vernacular languages. In the context of language studies, some authors also use the word "ideology" for either a group's representations (van Dijk, 1998) or 'the norms about which language is appropriate for different settings and for use with different people' (Harris Russell, 2001: 140). For example, the ideology of standard language institutionalizes high and low varieties: 'the standard form becomes the legitimate form, and other forms become, in the popular mind, illegitimate' (Milroy, 2001: 547). In general, dominant language ideologies have (re)produced social differences by constructing some varieties as worthier than others (Blackledge, 2005; Koreinik, 2011a). The language laws, including the Language Act of Estonia, often follow simplified essentialist representations of language (c.f. Kroskrity, 2000) and the Herderian ideology of distinct languages (c.f. Gal, 2006), and strongly promote the official language (c.f. Dunbar, 2010). In this article, we seek to analyse the role of institutions, namely norms and laws for the maintenance of South Estonian varieties, and to discuss the possibility of institutional change.

Modern standard Estonian was developed on the basis of northern Estonian dialects, incorporating a number of southern linguistic features. Standardization took a while: it started in the sixteenth century with the emergence of two regional codified written varieties, which competed against each other and superimposed high languages for expanding their domains 'before an all-Estonian standard was eventually engineered' (Raag, 1999: 34). The reasons for such an "ineffective" standardization are to be found in the society's limited economic integration, and localized public administration, which lacked public compulsory education, nationalist ideologies, mass (print) media and the welfare state (Anderson, 1991; Kymlicka, 2002; Dunbar, 2010). Yet, between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries, despite prescriptive attitudes and forced uniformity, the Estonian literati wrote as they wished without being afraid of stigmatization (Raag, 1999). There were some men of letters, Baltic Germans, whose first (written) language was German but who sometimes preferred an Estonian vernacular in writing because it was 'the purest Estonian' (and hence a desirable model for their colleagues) (c. …

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