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The Yearbook of the Estonian Mother Tongue Society cover
The Yearbook of the Estonian Mother Tongue Society

XIX sajandi eesti kirjakeel – vahekeelest sulandkeeleks; pp. 111–140

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Helle Metslang, Külli Habicht


19th century written Estonian – from interlanguage to amalgam

While in Western Europe the period from the French Revolution to World War I is regarded as the long 19th century − the time of the development of nationalism and the modernization of society, in the countries forming the western part of Czarist Russia similar developments emerged a bit later, from the beginning of the 19th century. Estonia entered the 19th century as a class society, in which the upper class was formed by Baltic Germans and the lower class by Estonians. Germans were also the developers and primary users of the Estonian written language. In the 19th century, the Enlightenment reached the Baltics, societal reforms took place, and the economic situation and educational opportunities of the native population improved. In the second half of the 19th century, the Estonian national awakening began, and the status of Estonians and Estonian in society gradually rose. Beginning from the mid-19th century, Estonian-language texts were written primarily by native Estonian speakers, although their language of education and culture was German.
As in neighboring countries, the linguistic situation in Estonia was characterized by double diglossia (cf. Nordlund 2007). Both German and Estonian were in use, and there were different varieties of Estonian, standard written Estonian and spoken vernacular Estonian – the former bearing high status (H-variety), the latter lower status (L-variety) (see Rutten 2016).
The article examines the variation in usage of three morphosyntactic indicator features in 19th-century Estonian texts written by influential authors (J.W.L. von Luce, F.R. Kreutzwald, C.R. Jakobson, E. Vilde) in different decades, exploring the reflection of sociolinguistic conditions in the dynamics of language usage. The research material comes from the University of Tartu Corpus of Old Written Estonian.

The three indicator features examined are 1) the partial vs. total object opposition, which exists in Estonian but not in German, 2) the complexity of verbal structures, which is generally higher in German, and 3) the saama ‘get, become’ future construction, which was introduced into written Estonian by 17th-century Germans as a calque of the German werden future.
Our previous research results have shown that the form of written Estonian developed by German scholars (for whom Estonian was an L2) in the 16th – 18th centuries can be considered a sort of collective interlanguage. It is characterized by the excessive preference for the total object form, overuse of complex verbal structures and the use of a future construction foreign to Estonian. The first of these we regard as a qualitative feature of interlanguage, the second and third we regard as quantitative features.
Our research shows that the overuse of the total object form declines over the course of the 19th century, but the opposite extreme can also be observed, overuse of the partial object. By contrast, the quantitative features are preserved and even broadened in texts by Estonian authors (in comparison to the texts of the German author Luce from the beginning of the century). Therefore, the written language of the transition period beginning in the mid-19th century can be regarded as an amalgam (L3), wherein native speakers partially adopt the interlanguage of L2 speakers (see Thomason 2001).
The authors’ linguistic choices reflect different strategies and their changes over time. Kreutzwald, writing in the middle of the century, shows many interlanguage characteristics, and some amalgam features even become more pronounced in his writing over time (complexity of verbal structure, saama future). Jakobson also frequently uses interlanguage-like verbal structures, but shows a strong preference for the partial (partitive) object. In the texts of Vilde, from the end of the century, the overuse of these complex verbal structures is reduced, but saama future constructions are very common. He too is somewhat inconsistent in object case usage, which indicates that a stable system for object case had not yet developed in the written language by the end of the 19th century.
The amalgam phase in the history of the development of written Estonian continued beyond the beginning of the 20th century. In further studies, we plan to analyze the rest of the long 19th century until World War I and Estonian independence.


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