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Spring - Summer 2004

Language Policy in Estonia,
by Mart Rannut

In this article, the author presents the current ethnic and sociolinguistic situation in Estonia, and the language policy that is being implemented to restore use of Estonian. Taking this approach, Mart Rannut describes the earlier language policy of Russianisation and the replacement of Estonian carried out by the former Soviet Union, and the specific measures now being taken to achieve normalisation of Estonian, especially in education and the new technologies. The article concludes with the prospects for the future of Estonian and its underpinning language policy, in the context of integration into the European Union.

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1. Current ethnic and linguistic situation

2. History in brief

3. Soviet occupation

4. Language policy of Russification

5. Language policy since 1988

6. Language Law of 1989

7. Current status planning

8. Bilingual territorial language regime

9. Foreign language regime

10. Citizenship laws

11. Corpus planning

12. Acquisition planning

13. Current situation

14. Pre-school education

15. Schools

16. Estonian in vocational schools

17. Language Technology

18. Development strategy of the Estonian language

19. Conclusion


1. Current ethnic and linguistic situation

Contemporary Estonia harbours several ethnic groups with Estonians as the titular nation comprising the main bulk (ca 70% in 2004) of the society. Other major ethnic groups include Russians (almost a quarter of the total), Ukrainians, Belorussians (White Russians) and Ingrians (Finns), 145 altogether, according to the population census of 2000. However, most of non-Estonians residing in Estonia are immigrants and their families who have come to live here after WW2, as in 1945 Estonians formed 97. 3% of the population. Autochtonous ethnic groups are small in size, comprising Russians mostly of Old Orthodox roots on the shore of Lake Peipsi (ca 39,000), Jews, Germans (1700) and Swedes (300-1500). To these traditional minorities Ingrians, Rom (600-1500) and Tatars (3000) must be added.

Two ethnic groups, the Võro (estimated number of speakers ranging from 70,000 by the Võro Institute, to 30,000) and the Seto (from 7,000 to 2,500) form a special historical case. The forefathers of the current Estonian nation moved into the Estonian territory at least from two different directions in different waves (cf. Viitso 2001), both groups speaking similar, however considerably differing Balto-Finnic vernaculars. This laid the basis for two different Estonian languages, North and South Estonian, in use during medieval times, even in print (both became literary languages in the 17th century). The role of the South Estonian literary language began to wane in the 18th century in conjunction with the publication in 1739 of the Bible in North Estonian and with the introduction of compulsory reading skills in 1729, based on North Estonian. In the 19th century South Estonian was devalued to a low variety vernacular without accepted literary norms; however it has been in continuous oral usage in Southern Estonia. The revival of Southern Estonian took place in 1990s, when a modernised literary form was created. On this language form two ethnic groups, the Võro and Seto base their ethnic identity, differing from each other mainly by denominational affiliation (Võro peple are Lutheran (Protestant), while Seto are Orthodox).

According to the census data from 2000, the number of persons belonging to third nationalities (neither Estonian nor Russian) has dropped during the last 10 years considerably, comprising 81,000 persons. Only less than 40% have retained their language of ethnic affiliation, with most others shifting to Russian and, during recent years, to Estonian. Thus, the number of Russian mother tongue speakers is 407,000, which is considerably higher than the number of ethnic Russians, at the cost of third nationalities. According to estimates based on choice between Estonian and other-medium schools by students, non-Estonians will comprise one-fifth of the population in Estonia in the next generation. The non-Estonian population is mainly concentrated in towns (91% of all non-Estonians live in urban areas), the principal centres of concentration (for 80% of the total) being six major Estonian cities: Tallinn, Tartu, Narva, Kohtla-Järve, Pärnu, Sillamäe.

Knowledge of the Estonian language is increasing at a slow rate. According to the results of the census of 1989, 18% of ethnic non-Estonians could speak Estonian; the knowledge of Estonian among Russians was 15%, among Ukrainians 8.1% and Belorussians 6.8%. Among this population group, the share of non- Estonians, who are able to speak Estonian has been steadily increasing during last years, from 14% in 1988 to 37% in 1995. The same share was reported also during the census of 2000.

2. History in brief

After the October Revolution in Russia, the Estonian state was founded on 21 February 1918. Estonia was an independent nation-state until 16 June 1940. On 17 June 1940 the Soviet Union annexed Estonia and on 6 August 1940 Estonia was incorporated into the Soviet Union. The Soviet occupation lasted until Estonia regained sovereignty on 20 August 1991.

Major immigration flows into Estonian lands have always accompanied and followed wars and arrivals of new conquerors: in the 13th century, mainly Germans and Danes; in the 16th and17th centuries, Swedes; and in the 18th and 19th centuries – Russians. However, up to the beginning of Soviet occupation in 1940 the population of the Estonian lands was quite homogeneous in its ethnic composition: with the predominance of Estonians, other ethnic groups made up no more than 7.11% altogether. It was only after the great wars, in the 17th century, that the proportion of non-Estonians reached the highest level of about 15% (representing about a dozen different ethnicities). During the high tide of Russification in the 80s and 90s of the 19th century, Russians made up, according to respective censuses, 3.3% in 1881 and 4.0% in 1897.

In medieval times the language used in the municipal administration was Baltic German, based on Low German (Niederdeutsch); the clergy used Latin for their sacred liturgy; and the language of the land supervisor depended on the language of the conquerors, i.e. (Low) German, Swedish, Russian, and, in places, Danish and Polish.

Between the two World Wars Estonia was an independent, mainly mononational state, whose minorities (Russians, Germans, Swedes, Jews) enjoyed ample cultural autonomy, adopted in 1925. Germans and Jews lived mostly in towns, Swedes in the Estonian coastal region and on the islands. In response to an appeal from Hitler, most Germans left Estonia in October 1939.

Following the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact and its Secret Protocol (known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact), the Soviet Union occupied the independent states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in June 1940. Estonia was proclaimed a part of the Soviet Union (6 August 1940) and named the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, and fell under the rule of the Soviet governmental apparatus and the Communist Party. The annexation of Estonia by the USSR in 1940 entailed disastrous changes in the population, including its ethnic composition, resulting from killings (altogether over 180,000), mass deportations (altogether over 20,000 people) and imprisonment (ca 75,000) of autochthonous inhabitants and simultaneous in-migration of population from the occupying country. All schools, societies and clubs of the ethnic minorities were closed, and the system of cultural autonomy was terminated. Their journals and newspapers were closed down.

World War II overrode Estonia twice. Germany conquered Estonia in 1941, and in 1944 the country was again occupied by the Soviet Union. At the end of 1941 Estonia was claimed to be judenfrei by Nazis. Many factors contributed to a further decrease in the Estonian population, particularly war damage and losses, imprisonment and executions, as well as deportations and waves of refugees. During the years 1939-1940 ca. 22,000 Baltic Germans left Estonia for Germany. In 1943 Estonian Swedes (ca. 7,500) left their homes in the Estonian coastal region and islands for Sweden, in conformity with a German-Swedish treaty, in order to get out of the war. In 1944, before the arrival of the Soviet army, around 75,000 Estonians left as refugees (mainly for Sweden and Germany), in fear of a return of the Soviet terror. The result was that by 1946 the Estonian population had decreased by one-fifth (200,000) to 854,000. A mere 23,000 (2.7%) of non-Estonians remained as minorities in Estonia (the figure of 97.3% is disputed by Tiit (1993), who proposes 95-96%).

3. Soviet occupation

During the first decade of occupation, under Stalin’s totalitarian rule, oppressive methods were used to create favourable social and demographic conditions for the destruction of Estonians and their language as well as of the remnants of indigenous minorities, replacing them with Russian-speaking, imported, "trustworthy" personnel. To make conditions more acceptable for the non-Estonian newcomers, several functional areas were russified, and for the sake of keeping their jobs Estonians had to learn the Russian language. Russian was made the second language in education (not a foreign language!), and in several areas, the first. The knowledge of the local language in occupied Estonia was not found necessary by newcomers, hence the low percentage of the knowledge (13-20%) among non-Estonians. No stimuli were left for newcomers to respect local language and culture.

The illegitimate transfer of Estonian territory (2,235 sq. kms, the town Petseri/Pechory and ten counties around it and beyond Narva river, with an ethnically mixed population of 56,000, from which Estonians comprised 19,000) to Russia at the end of 1944 changed the population almost to monoethnic. The area was linked to Pskov and Leningrad Region (Anderson 1990). These areas had mixed indigenous population of 56,000, consisting of ethnic Estonians (setud, 19,000), Russians and beyond the Narva River, Ingrians, living compactly in their villages. In Petseri, Estonians even formed a majority, according to the 1934 census.

For non-Russian minorities in Estonia, no possibilities were left to promote and maintain their ethnic culture and language. All their institutions were abolished, including media, schools, clubs and associations, etc. In fact, the same rules applied to Russian minority in Estonia, with the difference that the network of Russian-medium schools and clubs enlarged considerably, although not promoting local ethnic culture, but rather the all-Union socialist culture with a heavy ideological component.

Estonia was rearranged as one ethnic unit (republic) in the Soviet Union, with no ethnically based sub-units. Consequently, all other ethnic non-Estonian groups in Estonia, with the exception of Russians, had to give up their ethnic maintenance systems and linguistic human rights.

In addition to the implanting of the Soviet occupational army (it had 505 bases in Estonia, see Hallik 1994:57) Russian workers and collective farmers were sent to Estonia by the USSR government through the orgnabor system. As the number of Estonians did not rise to its pre-World War II level, remaining at less than a million, the proportion of Estonians in the overall population fell from 97.3% in 1945 to 61.5% in 1989.

Together with the influx of newcomers territorial and functional language shifts took place. In several functional domains, Estonian was replaced by Russian, due to Estonia's direct subordination to Moscow, for example in banking, statistics, the militia (Soviet police), railway, naval and air transport, mining, energy production, etc. The reasons for moving to Estonia were a better standard of living (there was famine in Russia), organised recruitment (construction work, oil shale industry), privileged positions in certain trades where Estonians were not trusted, e.g. navigation and aviation (an opportunity for Estonians to flee abroad), the railways (the risk of sabotage), communications (state secrets), etc. Some functional activities were completely new in Estonia, having no corresponding Estonian terminology and were therefore carried out in Russian, e.g. Gosplan (state planning) and the KGB. Some were recreated in Russian, e.g. everything connected with military purposes. An ancient Estonian profession, off-shore fishing, was forbidden, the boats broken up and burned. Instead, the Russian-medium marine fishing and transport system was created, with special attention to ideological awareness. As a result, at the beginning of 1980s Estonians made up less than half of those employed in industry and transport.

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