Language Life After Life

Rigby 3-dThe current estimated population of Estonia is 1,315,819, of whom about one third (about 439,000) live in the capital, Tallinn. The weekend of 4–6 July 2014 saw the celebration of the five-yearly song and dance festival of which 2019 will see the 150th anniversary. On the afternoon of Saturday 5 July, a five-hour procession of the singers and dancers took place, from the centre of the city to the song festival grounds 5 kilometers away, down one of the main roads, lined with cheering crowds in wonderful sunshine.

The procession consisted of 42,000 people, ages from 6 to 97, and the audience for the opening concert was about 100,000 ­– so at least one tenth of the country’s population was involved.

The Song Festival grounds, with the dome for the chorus

The Song Festival grounds, with the dome for the chorus







There were about 1500 participants from Estonian communities abroad, but this was in no sense an international festival like the Welsh National Eisteddfod. Rather, it was an expression of nationhood which made no concessions at all to non-Estonian-speakers. Nor was it competitive, except in the sense that the participating choirs and dance groups have to audition, and the standard is ferociously high.

The quality of singing from the massed choirs was amazing. Complex harmonies, sustained pianissimi, and the most disciplined note-endings you could wish to hear. The programme moved from traditional songs (including ‘Mu isamaa’, the national anthem of the republic, banned during 50 years of Soviet rule) to modern pieces, all composed by Estonians and sung in Estonian.

I don’t normally pretend to enjoy dancing of any sort, and the idea of folkloric dancing in costume was particularly grim, but on Sunday I found myself moved to both laughter (at a wonderfully self-parodic dance for men) and tears (at one of the touching dances for couples, and at the enchantingly serious children). I was also intrigued by the gusto with which the participants attacked their roles, completing set after hugely intricate set of moves in 30-degree heat wearing costumes of wool and linen, topped in the case of the men by a heavy woollen coat and felt hat.

The Baltic states have had the misfortune to be endlessly fought over, occupied and reoccupied for at least the last two millennia. If it wasn’t the Danes, Swedes and Russians carving up the land in war, it was the German merchants, backed by the political power of the German military orders, establishing themselves at the top of the social pile in the cities to such effect that ‘Baltic Germans’ became a recognised ethnic group, and the German language has had a massive influence on Estonian in terms of loan-words, though barely at all upon the fiendishly complicated grammar.

When Elizabeth Rigby (Lady Eastlake) was staying in Estonia in 1838, the educated classes spoke (Baltic) German, French, and Russian: the servants spoke Estonian. But in the next generation, Estonian intellectuals (who previously had got their further education in St Petersburg or one of the German universities) came together in a nationalist movement, focusing on the status of the Estonian language and native culture, in rather the same way that enthusiasts in Britain took up the cause of Irish, Welsh, Scots Gaelic, Manx and Cornish, and the Breton nationalist movement began in France. (Are Old Cornish and Old Breton the same language? Discuss, using examples.)

There appear to be four stages in the decline of a language: from ‘Healthy’ (all generations use language in all contexts), to ‘Weakening/Sick’ (older generation only speaks language), to ‘Moribund/Dying’ (only a few speakers remain; no longer mother tongue for children) to ‘Extinct/Dead’ (no longer spoken or potentially spoken). The crucial factor in saving a language on the brink appears to be linked to prestige of some sort: give the language social or economic status, and more people will be impelled to learn it. It appears that the compulsory teaching of Irish in Irish schools has not worked too well, as pupils don’t see the point: it’s irrelevant to their prospects in life, and very often to their home background as well.

From that point of view, Estonian had it (relatively) lucky: it may have been thought the language of peasants, but for that very reason, nobody wanted to suppress it. In Poland, where intellectuals used Polish and French, and Russian was thought eastern and uncouth, there were fierce efforts to impose the Russian language by force in the nineteenth century. But the fate of the ‘Celtic fringe’ languages in Britain was rather different: universal primary education in English, the higher social status of English, the position of English as, increasingly, the language in which the world did its business, were the drivers which pushed them all to the brink.

In the case of Cornish, it is a moot point whether it actually became extinct, but it has certainly been revived. Its death was in fact foreseen as early as the seventeenth century. The Boson family of Newlyn were instrumental in translating parts of the Bible and prayer book into Cornish, as well as describing its grammar and vocabulary, but its revival seems to have been impelled in part by centenary memorial of the death of Dolly Pentreath, which took place in 1877 at the splendid gravestone erected to her memory by Prince Louis Lucien Bonaparte (though this was later discovered to be in the wrong place).

Dolly Pentreath, by an unknown engraver, c. 1781, reproduced from Jago's 'The Ancient Language, and the Dialect of Cornwall'

Dolly Pentreath, by an unknown engraver, c. 1781, reproduced from Jago’s ‘The Ancient Language, and the Dialect of Cornwall’

Dolly's house in Mousehole, sketched by Henry Jago's daughter Minnie in 1882

Dolly’s house in Mousehole, sketched by Henry Jago’s daughter Minnie in 1882

Dolly, of Mousehole (1692-1777) became famous as the last monoglot native Cornish speaker, though some accounts say that she could speak English but chose not to. (Some of her contemporaries were known to have learnt Cornish as their second language, and became fluent, but by the middle of the nineteenth century, all had died.)

In 1882, Frederick Jago, a local physician, published The Ancient Language, and the Dialect of Cornwall, with an Enlarged Glossary of Cornish Provincial Words, following it up with An English–Cornish Dictionary in 1887, while in 1904, Henry Jenner produced A Handbook of the Cornish Language, in which he claimed, interestingly, that ‘There has never been a time when there has been no person in Cornwall without a knowledge of the Cornish language.’ Since then, enthusiasts have revived the language, argued about orthography, and produced new material (books, films, songs) to keep – it’s hoped –  the drowning language’s head above water.

So, a great long weekend for me, and I’m looking forward to the 2019 Laulupidu. The only problem I have is that I can’t get the Estonian national anthem out of my head…


This entry was posted in History, Language and Linguistics, Linguistics, Music, Travel and Exploration and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Language Life After Life

  1. Pingback: Laulupidu! | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

  2. Pingback: The Feast of St John | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

  3. Pingback: Plant of the Month: March | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

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