30 May 2008

Estonian Written Language Conference

One hundred years ago - on May 30, 1908 - learned individuals from Tallinn and Tartu met in Tapa to agree on how the Estonian language should be written. By the beginning of the 19th century, two forms of Estonian had evolved: a Tallinn Estonian in the north and a Tartu Estonian in the south. So the Estonian Literary Society (Eesti Kirjanduse Selts) in Tartu and the Literature Department of the Folk Education Society of Estonia (Eestimaa Rahvahariduse Selts, Kirjanduse Osakond) in Tallinn convened a conference (Eesti kirjakeele konverents), the first of four held from 1908 to 1911, to decide which of the two forms would be used.

The first conference was held in Tapa, because it was in the middle of the country, more or less, and because it was easily accessible by train from both Tallinn and Tartu. The meeting took place from 9.00 to 18.00 in the Harmonie room in what is today Tapa Music School (Tapa Muusikakool).

On this 100th anniversary of the conference, the municipality of Tapa organized its own conference with esteemed representatives from the Mother Tongue/Native Language Society (Emakeele Selts, which obviously doesn't translate well literally into English; something more like the Society for the Preservation of the Estonian Language might be a little easier on American ears), the Estonian Language Institute (Eesti Keele Instituut), the Language Inspectorate of the Estonian Ministry of Education (Keeleinspektsioon), the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research (Haridus ja Teadusministeerium), Tartu University's Estonian and General Linguistics Institute (Tartu Ülikooli eesti ja üldkeeleteaduse instituut), and the Estonian Writers Union (Eesti Kirjanike Liit). The theme of the conference was - my translation - Language Grows from Me Myself (Keel kasvab minust enesest).

The day began with a little music from the Tapa Municipal Orchestra and ended with my to-do list and bald head on the 9 o'clock news. A plaque to commemorate the first conference of the Estonian written language (Tapal toimus esimene eesti kirjakeele konverents) was dedicated in front of the music school with a few words by Kuno Rooba, Tapa's mayor. Then Marika Rajur of the Tapa Literary Club hosted the distinguished speakers and the general public inside Tapa's cultural center. After a 20-minute lunch break, for which the Hagar Bakery furnished meat (Am.) pockets (liha ampsukas, literally, "bite-size meat") and sweet pockets (sotsnik kohupiimaga, a (Am.) pocket with sort of a cream cheese filling), we returned to the auditorium to hear youth from Tapa read poems written by youth from Tapa about "home". After the conference, I went shopping in Tallinn for a new backpack and didn't get back in time to see myself and my Harris Bank appointment book on ETV (beginning at the 14:22 mark).

What was so different about what the Estonians in the north were writing and what their fellow countrymen just 240 km to the south were writing? Well, as the ETV clip briefly showed, the spelling of some words was a little different because (I think I understood) the pronunciation of the words was different in the north and south. For examle, the word pea (meaning head) in the south was pää in the north; hea (good) in the south was hää in the north; and seal (there) was sääl. Similarly, the õõ (diphthong?) at one end of the country was written õe at the other end, õuu was õu, and the -gi ending was written -ki. Also, in both the north and the south (I think I understood) the h sound at the beginning of a word, like hõbune (horse) and hoidma (to hold), was spoken very softly. So why write h when you really don't pronounce it?