Keeleküsimus Õpetatud Eesti Seltsis


  • Kersti Taal



The Language Question in the Learned Estonian Society
Kersti Taal
University of Tartu Library

The purpose of the Learned Estonian Society (LES) established in
1838 became to promote knowledge about the past and future of the
Estonian nation, its language and literature and the lands settled
by Estonians. Thus, studying and developing the Estonian language
was one of the most important tasks of the Society. In this article,
the language question is viewed from two perspectives: researching
the Estonian language in the 19th century and the transition from
German to Estonian in 1928/1929. LES started its activity at a time
when even the first Estonian intellectuals, the founding members of
the Society, were not yet certain whether Estonian would develop
into a cultural language or whether the language of this small nation
would fade away. Both the Estonians and German Estophiles
thought that the language should be studied at least for the benefit
of the future generations. In addition to the lecturers of the Estonian
language at the University of Tartu, D. H. Jürgenson and Fr. R.
Faehlmann, language studies were conducted by German pastors in
the first decades. The most important linguistic undertaking became
the compilation of an Estonian-German dictionary. The work progressed
slowly and the dictionary was completed by F. J. Wiedemann,
a member of LES and an academician at the St Petersburg Academy
of Sciences as late as in the 1860s. The Ehstnisch-deutsches Wörterbuch
was published in 1869 by the St Petersburg Academy of
Sciences since LES lacked money for it. In the second half of the 19th
century Estonian was studied by the Estonians J. Hurt, M. Veske,
and others. Villem Reiman was involved in publishing examples to
commemorate the Old Written Language and, thus, LES published
Georg Müller’s sermons, Joachim Rossihnius’s catechism and sermons
dating back to the 17th century.
Although Estonian was not spoken in LES in the 19th century,
the Society received letters in Estonian: they were not considered
untoward since some of the German members of the society were also
fluent in Estonian in addition to the Estonian members. In the 19th
century, only a tenth of the Society members were Estonian.
When LES recommenced its activity in 1919 in the Republic of
Estonia as a German-language organisation, the Germans still held
the majority (in 1921 only 36 of the 164 members were Estonian).
The first Estonian-language presentation – “The water deity Noova
of the Livonians” – was made by Lauri Kettunen, a Finnish professor
of the Estonian language on 1 March 1922. In 1928, just before the
tenth anniversary of the Republic of Estonia, most of the lectures in
the University of Tartu were held in Estonian and the public was
increasingly asking the question of how long would the Learned Estonian
Society, which was supported by the state, continue to be a
German-language organisation? During the 1928 March session, the
Society started to discuss the proposal of Henrik Koppel, rector of the
University of Tartu, to make Estonian the official language of the Learned
Estonian Society.
Although the Germans did not agree with the decision, they had
to accept the situation, as theirs was a minority opinion. The Germans
specifically opposed that the Society’s publications would be in
Estonian. The yearbook and transactions remained in German since
they were meant for knowledge exchange and introducing Estonian
research abroad. The Letters publication series in which works on
folk poetry and ethnography were published was started to be issued
in Estonian. The Germans reacted to the LES turning into an
Estonian-language organisation with withdrawal; Professor Walter
Anderson resigned from the position of the Society chairman and no
longer edited publications. A new, mainly Estonian board was elected
as late as on 4 December 1929, as the Estonians did not hold the majority
in the previous year. Julius Mark, professor of linguistics, was
elected the chairman. The transition to Estonian was accompanied
by great changes in the entire activity of the Society. The new management
succeeded in getting more financial support for the Society
and its publications developed into more extensive works. Since LES
turned into an Estonian-language organisation, it did not meet the
fate of many other German-language societies (E(h)stländische Literärische
Gesellschaft, Pernauer Alterthumforschende Gesellschaft),
which ended their activity in 1939 as the Baltic Germans left.


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