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2018 | 70 | 13-38

Article title

Meenutatud keel ja unustatud kiri: rahvalikud keelekorraldajad J. Hurda rahvaluulekogus


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The article focuses on the writings of two men who participated in the folklore collecting campaigns organised by Jakob Hurt. These campaigns started in 1888 and encouraged all people to collect and write down folklore in their area. Texts created by those non-professional (or local) folklore collectors constitute interesting research material language-wise. On the one hand, these texts represent the oral world, on the other they reflect their writers’ wish to participate in the public literary sphere of their time. For Estonians the 19th century was a time of modernisation and national awakening. One part of these processes was the rise of Estonian language in the public sphere and with this the urge to establish the norm of written Estonian (spoken language was divided into very many dialectal variants). Though the main principles of written language were formulated in 1872, when the newly established Society of Estonian Literati started to use the so-called new spelling system in their publications, the lively (and heated) discussions about details continued for several decades. Also the issues of writing ‘correctly’ were quite often a source of quarrels between different newspaper editors – which means that even the least educated newspaper readers knew that written language was a matter for debate. However, these debates about the Estonian language were something Estonians held themselves, as the Estonian language was not used in the official sphere. Estonia was part of the Russian Empire and local power was exercised by the Baltic Germans – so Russian and German were the two official languages. In the middle of the century there were some lower official posts that used Estonian (e.g. village courts), but starting with the Russification reforms in the 1880s everything was converted to Russian. This concerned also education – up to 1887 two lower levels of the educational system (village and parish schools) worked in Estonian, after that Russian became the language of tuition in the entire system. Thanks to the well-established village school system, the literacy rate of Estonians of the period was quite high; according to the 1881 census, 60.9% of adults Estonians could only to read, and 34% could both read and write (Palli 1998: 21–22). These figures refer to their ability to read and write in Estonian – but, as a result of Russification, there were really few opportunities for them to use these skills. Apart from the use in the private sphere, there was a possibility to send short writings to Estonian-language newspapers, or to participate in the folklore collecting campaigns. Language-wise participation in these campaigns put the collectors in a really ambiguous position. On the one hand, they saw it as a possibility to participate in written communication, on the other hand, they were asked to write down the collected material ‘the way it is told’, i.e., to retain the dialectal features. For the people who had received only minimal schooling it was quite a challenge, as it meant writing in a way they were taught not to write. But, as a result of these efforts, these people often started to ask questions about the norms of writing and make suggestions in regard to the development of written language. By analogy with the notion of vernacular literacy, I call this phenomenon vernacular language planning. In the article I analyse two folklore collectors’ (or two vernacular language planners’) ideas about language and writing; both of them had received only minimal schooling (three years at a village school), but were ardent readers and interested in personal development. Hans Anton Schults (1866–1905) was born in Järva County and spent almost his entire life there. All his folkloric writings were put down in the local dialect, and it seems that the dialect was rather viable at the time. However, Schults is quite in trouble while trying to convey the dialect in writing and complains about missing letters. Although these kinds of complaints are quite usual among folklore collectors, his explanation to the matter is rather peculiar. He states that the reason lies in the fact that Estonians do not have their own alphabet. Throughout his writings, Schults tries to find evidence that ancient Estonians had viable literary culture, and hopes to reconstruct the alphabet they used for that. Jaan Pint (1843–1922) was born in southern Estonia, and in 1863 he and his family migrated to Samara. There they lived in the village of Estonka, inhabited by Estonian migrants. So, at the time he started to collect folklore, he had been away from Estonia already for two decades. In his letters to Jakob Hurt he complains that it is not possible to record genuine dialects in this village anymore – the inhabitants originate from different areas of Estonia and in the course of time all the dialects have merged. But after some years of collecting he starts to make attempts to convey different dialects. The most notable of these are the tales he states to have written down in his home dialect, i.e., the one that was spoken in the parish where he was born. These texts are purely the work of his own memory – he admits that he rewrote them several times before he was content with the result. But after describing this memory work he starts to contemplate the language situation of Estonians and make suggestions about how to create the most beautiful language out of different dialects.


  • Department of Folkloristics, Estonian Literary Museum, Vanemuise 42, Tartu 51003, ESTONIA


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