Voru is a language without an army

  • 2000-04-20
  • By Virve Vihman
VORU, Estonia - The Estonian government recently confirmed plans to develop a curriculum for teaching Voru language in Voru County's schools, with the vaguely worded intent to "eventually require" Voru schools to offer Voru classes as an elective. Voru is the southeasternmost county in Estonia, jutting into Latvia and bordering on Setu Russia, and has over 40,000 inhabitants.

Olav Kruus, press officer for the Ministry of Education, says the government has yet to pledge any funding for implementing Voru classes, and curriculum development is in the early stages. The Voru Institute has received 370,000 kroons ($23,125) from the Ministry of Culture to develop teaching materials and train teachers of Southern Estonian language and culture.

Voru is already taught in 26 schools, on local initiatives, mostly in elementary classes with singing and storytelling. In older grades, Estonian literature is supplemented with Voru writers. Nele Reimann at the Voru Institute explained that Voru is not taught in the first grade, because children must first learn to read standard written Estonian.

An incendiary topic

On March 24, the Estonian daily Postimees ran an article claiming that Voru language classes were to become required for students in Southern Estonian schools, along with a vituperative editorial about the idiocy of such a move. The article cited opponents to the program, including Voru mayor Robert Lepikson (not a Voru native), who called the proposition nonsense and named Voru a "non-existent language."

Managing editor Toomas Mattson's editorial contained inflammatory language and compared speakers of Voru to hobbyists "like stamp collectors and sado-masochists," saying the government might as well fund whips and chains for S&M. What Mattson seemed to miss was that after a century of vilification and suppression, many speakers of Voru themselves are not sure that teaching a disappearing language is a useful endeavor.

The next day, Postimees acknowledged that the plan thus far is merely to create a curriculum for an elective, not required, Voru class, but the fire was already ignited. Over the subsequent few weeks, a flurry of vehement letters and opinions were written, containing such phrases as "a language destined to die." Linguistic diversity is as much an ongoing casualty of the past century as biological diversity.

A dialect is a language without an army

Voru is the most alive of the languages traditionally spoken in Southern Estonia. According to linguist Mati Hint of the Pedagogical University, Southern Estonian is a language entirely distinct from Northern Estonian, and Voru is one dialect of Southern Estonian. Voru has vowel harmony, lacking in Northern Estonian, and the differences in syntax, morphology and vocabulary are substantial.

Mutual intelligibility is arguable. Northern Estonians, for instance, invariably mistake the present tense for the past tense in a pop song by Voru band Ummamuudu, according to Hint. For simplicity one can refer to Voru as a language, in order to distinguish it from the Northern Estonian language rather than from other Southern Estonian dialects.

Many of the first Estonian books were published in Southern Estonian. An important reason for Northern Estonian becoming the standard written language was the burning down of printing presses in Riga, the capital of Livonia, during the Northern War of the early 18th century. All Southern Estonian books had been printed in Riga, and when Estonian publishing was carried over to Tallinn, Northern Estonian received a serious boost toward dominance.

Until the end of the 19th century, Voru was used in courtrooms, schools and churches. Southern Estonian writers were leading figures in the National Awakening of the late 19th century.

In the 20th century, with the birth of the independent nation, unifying political goals overruled regionalist sentiment, and a policy of teaching standard written Estonian was enforced. The political solution to Estonia's linguistic differences dictated that Estonia is too small for several languages. Voru shrank from the public sphere, becoming a language of the home and of literature.

The Soviet Union only furthered this policy, which reached its apogee in the 1960s. Speaking Voru in school was cause for physical punishment. The policy's aims were achieved. As Voru was relegated to the private sphere, it also became stigmatized, signifying backwardness and provincialism.

The pay off of language politics

The results of these policies are clearly audible in the current rhetoric on Voru language teaching. Not only do knee-jerk reactions such as that of Voru's mayor seem aggressively negative, but even people who speak Voru at home react variously to the issue of teaching the language in school. Many parents do not speak the language with their children, but only between themselves. Most Voru children have a passive knowledge of the language, but use it only with grandparents.

Many teachers' attitudes are counterproductive to children gaining a sense of regional pride. Most of today's teachers learned pedagogy while the party line was opposed to teaching local dialects or languages. The most commonly cited reason is the understanding that Voru interferes with learning standard Estonian "properly."

However, linguist Karl Pajusalu of Tartu University claims that bringing an awareness to children of the regional elements in their speech equips them better to grasp and differentiate the standard language. Others add that knowledge of two languages improves the memory and verbal skills.

The Voru Institute began compiling a Voru primer and reader in 1995. Five teachers tested it in second to fourth grades with very positive responses. The primer's success sparked a boom of interest in the project.Thirty teachers were involved by 1999.

For the last several decades, the biggest tool for standardizing language has been the media. Radio and TV broadcast in Northern Estonian with only a handful of programs in any local dialects. Those who have grown up knowing that their home language is outside of the public domain often have difficulty accepting the language re-entering the realms of education and media, particularly when a stigma accompanies the minority language in a majority context.

The ubiquity of media ensures there is no longer any issue of castigating students who speak Voru at school. For generations, Voru children have been brought up knowing where speaking Voru is appropriate. Voru is a bilingual county, but its linguistic demographics reveal signs of a dying language. In the city, only people over 30 speak Voru among themselves. Youngsters speak Voru mostly with people two generations older.

Still, though use of Voru is decreasing, it is far from nonexistent. In a survey conducted by the Voru Institute in 1998-1999, about 50 percent of respondents between the ages of 25 and 64 living in Voru County said they speak Voru all the time, and 40 percent speak it occasionally.

A last chance

Karl Pajusalu spells out the usefulness of Voru classes beyond the sentimentality of keeping a language alive and celebrating cultural roots. He notes the large sums of money Finland has spent trying to develop its northern areas. The programs were fruitless until "they realized that the cheapest path to get fringe areas on their feet is to make these areas attractive for young people with skills and potential, including valuing the local language and culture." One hour a week of Voru language in the curriculum is a cheap start to enhancing an underdeveloped region.

The program for creating a Voru curriculum is based on similar projects in Western European countries. However, the European Union has not looked at the issue of Southern Estonian. As Voru writer Kauksi Ulle says, "as far as the EU is concerned, the only minority language in Estonia is Russian."

The last few decades have shown that it is possible to bring back languages headed for extinction. Languages like Welsh and Catalan are on the upswing, with younger children speaking more fluently than their older siblings. As the last generation of fluent Voru speakers grows old, this appears to be Estonia's last chance to reverse the trend.