The Estonian „Spelling War”: Background and Rhetoric Cover Image

Eesti "tähesõja" taust ja retoorika
The Estonian „Spelling War”: Background and Rhetoric

Author(s): Aivar Põldvee
Subject(s): Language and Literature Studies
Published by: SA Kultuurileht
Keywords: Estonian language; language history; language contacts; history of ideas; 17th century

Summary/Abstract: The reform of literary Estonian (in two varieties) at the end of the 17th century was most influenced by the linguistic ideas and prejudices dominating in Germany and Sweden. A distant parallel to the Estonian aspirations for a more phonetic orthography can be found in the 16th-century England; the origins of some innovative ideas can be traced to the Netherlands. The University of Tartu served as a meeting place of the relevant ideas and languages, even though Estonian did not belong to the subjects taught there at the time. More than one Swedish scholar connected with Tartu pointed out the affinity between Estonian and Finnish – and even Hungarian. The scholars with a Swedish or Finnish background had a different yardstick for Estonian than the German clergymen who had set the then current norms of literary and ecclesiastical usage. Bengt Gottfried Forselius, an ethnic Swede, came to feel the necessity for a language reform due to his experience of the local bilingual (Swedish-Estonian) peasant school in 1683/84. His ABC-book launched a violent linguistic debate called the war of orthographies. The rhetoric of that „war” echoes the linguistic debates in other parts of Europe. The local German pastors interpreted the main language not as the genetically original language, but as the normative one. The belief that Estonian should take after German is a repercussion of the idea (Justus Georg Schottelius a.o.) of High German as a main language. The Estonian spelling reform was also influenced by attempts to reform literary German (Philipp von Zesen a.o.). In Livonia the rational tendencies of linguistics were supported by the General Superintendent Johann Fischer, who administered Bible translation into the local languages. Although it was the ABC-book by Forselius that induced the linguistic debates in Estonia, the true reason behind the „spelling war” was the spelling system to be used in the Bible. The resulting orthography was current until the mid-19th century.

  • Issue Year: LII/2009
  • Issue No: 08-09
  • Page Range: 642-667
  • Page Count: 26
  • Language: Estonian