Keeleliste elulugude uurimisvõimalusi: Dagmar Normeti mitmekeelne lapsepõlv Eestis. Possibilities of Research on Linguistic Biographies: Dagmar Normet, a Multilingual Childhood in Estonia


  • Anna Verschik Tallinna Ülikool Helsinki Ülikool



Recently the investigation of linguistic biographies has become popular among linguists for several reasons. Instead of studying formally-oriented, traditional approaches to second language acquisition and language learning, such research focuses on an individual’s conceptualisation of languages, language acquisition and living with and among multiple languages. Linguistic biographies can be either oral or written narratives, elicited by a researcher or produced by individuals. This includes language-learning memoirs as well. As some studies have demonstrated, a closer look at a linguistic history of a particular individual helps to discover new aspects that generally remain unnoticed in formally-oriented studies, such as the speaker’s personal attitudes, emotions attached to his/ her languages, self-expression in different languages, and instances of multilingual speech (for example, cross-linguistic influence, code-switching, etc.). However, a multilingual person’s narratives, either in written or oral form, should be treated with caution. It has been demonstrated in recent studies that grounded theory approach (i.e., coding and establishing emergent categories) and content analysis alone cannot present a full picture of a linguistic biography. As Pavlenko (2007) argues, at least three kinds of reality should be considered: subject reality (how the narrator sees his/her life with multiple languages), text reality (that is, how the text of narration is structured, in what order events are presented) and life reality (biographical facts). As in fieldwork in general, a researcher should be prepared to face discrepancies between the picture presented by the informant and other types of reality. From a methodological point of view, an informant should be interviewed several times in his/her different languages or, at the very least; a researcher should be familiar with the languages. In this sense, the European tradition of linguistic biographies research is more rooted in social, cultural and historical context than the American tradition. The former views linguistic biographies not as isolated narratives but as narratives situated in certain sociolinguistic and cultural situations. Thus, a linguistic biography can be a source for historical sociolinguistics when a researcher cannot obtain naturalistic spoken data any longer, and all evidence is therefore indirect. One can ask, to what extent are linguistic biographies unique? It is clear that a certain socio-cultural context produces certain (linguistic) biographical templates, for instance, immigration and learning a new language or a possible feeling of dislocation and language learning anxiety. Thus, a comparison of linguistic biographies would be necessary in a longer perspective. Linguistic biographies research is a new field in Estonia. So far historians and scholars in literary history/theory have studied autobiographies. Dagmar Normet’s (1921-2008) memoirs, although not language learning memoirs per se, provide an intriguing view into a multilingual childhood of the 1920s-1930s. The narrator starts from the first childhood memories of studying German in addition to Estonian and Russian that she already knows, proceeds through the school years with occasional leaps into the future, the Soviet occupation, and ends at the moment of escape from Estonia in 1941 before the Nazi occupation. This memoir is unique because the author is probably the only Estonian writer of Jewish decent. Life in and with several languages in Tallinn appears to be something extremely natural and it seems there is no anxiety attached to this. Learning a new language or transfer to a school with a different language of instruction is described in detail, but without a feeling of detachment or dislocation. This presents extremely valuable information concerning the “linguistic climate” of the time, multilingualism in Tallinn, the dynamics of former Baltic German elite and the author’s personal shift from German to Estonian as a preferred language of communication. Jewish topics, although present in the narrative, are by no means dominant (i.e., the struggle between Yiddish and Hebrew, Jewish secularism and tradition, Jewish and non-Jewish world). The memoir differs radically from East-European Jewish memoirs (for instance, the series by Isaac Bashevis Singer) in the sense that the outside world is not perceived as antagonistic and hostile to Jews in general and to the author in particular, and there is no identity conflict. As the narrative contains text in other languages (for instance, the author’s childhood poetry in German, and some extracts from her diary are provided with the explanation that the diary was initially in German), a problem of the original, translation and self-translation arises. A written memoir inevitably has to keep a potential reader in mind and long prose excerpts in German would be confusing to a modern Estonian reader. Yet in some places the author employs stylisation by introducing dates of diary entries in German, accompanied by the German name of Tallinn (Reval). We can never know for sure at which point the author switched to Estonian and whether this transition was abrupt or smooth. Thus, connections between the original language, the narrator’s goals, and self-translation poses a problem for interpretation because one cannot be sure in what language what events took place. Self-translation becomes especially significant in written linguistic biographies because written texts are more premeditated than oral ones.


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