teisipäev, juuli 26, 2011

multilingualismo

Down, down, down into the belly of the whale, through the looking glass, down the rabbit hole, out the keyhole, out into the sunlight of a Pärnu street scene where a young woman is playing an accordion, another is selling ceramic mugs, and a third is drinking beer before noon, calling out to her friends in Finnish, that archaic northern tongue that sounds so ridiculous to Estonian ears.

I don't know why it surprises me to see signage in Finnish in Estonia. They are Estonia's second largest foreign investor, one of its greatest sources of tourists, and, let's not forget, its fourth largest minority, weighing in at just under 1 percent of the total population. But to actually see their language in windows and on menus and basically everywhere, that's a different story, especially when the Estonia I read about is supposedly so bent on eradicating Russian and every other foreign language from public eye.

It's just not true. Horseshit, is what it is. In reality, the Estonian public space is a free-for-all of languages. Just the other day I walked into Rademar in Viljandi and was astonished to see a sign in Swedish, with the Estonian printed in smaller lettering below. How was this possible? Okay, I have two Swedish friends in Viljandi, make that three, but do they really deserve their own signs at Rademar? It doesn't add up. I have deduced after many cappuccinos that the sign was acquired from Sweden, and the Estonian text was added later. That's the only plausible explanation, right?

Russian goes without saying. Every train station I enter in Estonia, every water park, every menu I pick up has some of those eye-tickling Cyrillic letters below the Estonian language. English is often there too. But there are others. Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, and German. Italian, French, and Spanish. Danish and Norwegian. You can even find Icelandic on the plaque on Iceland Square. In fact, I'm trying to think of languages I haven't seen in Estonia on signs or menus or products. I'm sure there are a few. Irish is one, sure. Haven't seen any Thai recently. Or maybe they are out there lurking somewhere. Maybe there is a shop window somewhere in Otepää that displays the store's contents in the Estonian, Irish, and Thai languages. You never know.

And so it happened that I went to a handicrafts seller in the basement of the De la Gardie shopping center near the Viru Gate in Tallinn looking for some ceramic plates with bees painted on them. A birthday gift for my dear wife. The seller was an upper middle-aged woman, creases at the eye, gray hair pulled back into a pony tail. I conversed with her in Estonian, and everything was done in the national language, effortlessly, politely. Then when she went to get a cardboard box from a neighboring merchant, the neighboring merchant made a remark about her accent.

"These Estonians are always making fun of my accent," the seller said to me in Estonian, returning with the box.

"What accent?" I asked.

"You don't know? I'm not Estonian, I'm Finnish."

"You are?" I squinted at the woman, at her high cheekbones, pouting lips, studying her. Yes, aha, mmhmm, definitely Finnish, like Kekkonen, now I see it, now I see it. "Well, if it makes you feel any better, I'm American," I said.

"You are?" she stepped back. "Well, then, why the hell aren't we speaking English?" she asked in English.

"I don't know," I said in English.

Her English was pretty good, but she said that she spoke Italian even better. "It's my home language," she said.

"So you are a Finn living in Estonia who speaks Italian at home."

"My husband is Italian. Was Italian. He's dead," she said. "But I speak to my children in Italian. We used to live in Rome before we moved here."

"Come va?" I asked her.

The woman's eyes narrowed again. "Bene, bene. You speak Italian too?"

"Just a little," I said. After she finished packing the ceramic dishes with the bees on them, she handed it to me. "Kiitos," I thanked her in Finnish.

"And Finnish!" she was surprised. "You speak Finnish too! Amazing!"

"I only know two words," I told her. "Kiitos and perkele."

"But those are very important words," she said, nodding. "Maybe the most important words."

On the way out of the center I got into an elevator with two Brazilians wearing identical Ronaldinho t-shirts, mumbling away in Portuguese about feijoada or João Goulart or whomever or whatever. They were still beside me when we stepped back into the sunlight of Tallinn street scene in July, girls playing accordions, processions of German tourists floating by, Finns sipping beers and calling out to each other from cowboy bars. What a crazy country.

29 kommentaari:

Taavet ütles ...

I'm afraid Sportland is running some kind of campaign built around interlingual wordplay, that's why the Swedish bit is larger;)

Giustino ütles ...

Are they a Swedish company?

Lingüista ütles ...

those eye-tickling Cyrillic letters

:-)

I wonder how you feel about Greek letters? (Isn't Greek, by the way, another language you haven't seen much in Estonia? Or have you?)

By the way, the day two 21st-century Brazilians will be talking about João Goulart in the elevator I'll drink water and say it's guaraná. If they were talking politics at all (which all by itself would be surprising), it would be about (ex-)President Lula or about now President Dilma Rouseff (the first woman ever! In Brazil!...)

After reading your piece, I'm not sure if you think it is good or bad that there should be so many 'visible languages' in Estonia. As a lover of all languages, and having come from a boringly unilingual country (Brazil), I tend to see it as good.

Here in the Netherlands, the words in English are always written in bigger or darker letters than the words in Dutch (when there are words in Dutch at all, that is). At the airport in Schiphol, I was already surprised by how English is everywhere more visible. I guess the Dutch and the Estonians are similar in that respect.

Russian is probably still associated with the trauma of the Soviet Union. Finnish hails from the modern world, so it's kosher. I wonder if the Estonians would mind if the Finnish minority were as big as the Russian minority; maybe they would, maybe they wouldn't.

Allan ütles ...

Bizarre almost to think what a sort of vicibly multicultural society Estonia has become. Similarities can be found with the taiwanese who take a second english name for themselves when talking to foreigners.
We like others to feel comfortable and understand that it's unlikely people will learn Estonian, much easier to us to learn English and put that and other languges to open display.
And the part of the Russian languages is very true. When going to Tapa you may find an old bookshop and there is a sign RAAMATUD but you can also notice that there used to be a sign KNIGI(spelled, well you know to write it) which was taken down. And the weirdest thing is in Narva which is de facto a Russian city - All the signs are in Estonian and it's hard to find Russian anywhere. Estonia is a weird place indeed when to think about it.

Sharon ütles ...

It was standing in the Open Air Museum near Tallinn that I decided to learn German.

I had been trying to learn Estonian and Russian ahead of my trip, and making little progress with both, but the signs on every display in the museum were in English, Estonian, German and Russian.

For some reason I took it as a challenge and decided I'd try to learn every language represented on those signs.

German is much easier to learn in Australia than Russian, so I'm afraid Russian has taken a back seat. I'm still powering on with German and Estonian, and for some reason I keep gravitating towards Italian, even though I know I should be looking at Russian (or at least French).

It's like a big game, really, but so hard to play where I live. The more "regional" you get in Australia, the more they like to pretend other languages don't exist.

Enjoy the lingual mish-mash while you can.

sofie ütles ...

The Sportland's Swedish sign: was it Rademar's campaign "det lilla priset?" And was the sign itself bright violet colour?
Pun intended: "lilla" means "small" in Swedish and "violet" in Estonian :)
Well, actually, "lilla" might be anything between blue and red. I don't even know, wether you would call the sign colour violet or purple; an Estonian knows at once it is "lilla".

Giustino ütles ...

Yes! It was. Sorry, I'm used to seeing Seppälä advertisements in shops that haven't changed in four years.

Giustino ütles ...

But again ... so much for ultraconservative language laws ...

Giustino ütles ...

I wonder how you feel about Greek letters? (Isn't Greek, by the way, another language you haven't seen much in Estonia? Or have you?)

I don't remember the last time I saw Greek here. I'm sure I have.

By the way, the day two 21st-century Brazilians will be talking about João Goulart in the elevator I'll drink water and say it's guaraná. If they were talking politics at all (which all by itself would be surprising), it would be about (ex-)President Lula or about now President Dilma Rouseff (the first woman ever! In Brazil!...)

They were also talking about Castelo-Branco ... JUST KIDDING!

After reading your piece, I'm not sure if you think it is good or bad that there should be so many 'visible languages' in Estonia. As a lover of all languages, and having come from a boringly unilingual country (Brazil), I tend to see it as good.

I like it.

Here in the Netherlands, the words in English are always written in bigger or darker letters than the words in Dutch (when there are words in Dutch at all, that is). At the airport in Schiphol, I was already surprised by how English is everywhere more visible. I guess the Dutch and the Estonians are similar in that respect.

Of the western Europeans, maybe the French are the only ones with any pride left. If there are 10 people in a room, and nine of them are Dutch and one is American, they'll all speak English to each other.

Russian is probably still associated with the trauma of the Soviet Union. Finnish hails from the modern world, so it's kosher. I wonder if the Estonians would mind if the Finnish minority were as big as the Russian minority; maybe they would, maybe they wouldn't.

The Russian is less there for minorities than it is for genuine Russians -- tourists. A lot of Russians visit Estonia as tourists. In a way, this benefits the local Russians because, who can tell if they are foreign or local? If they are foreign and they order in Russian, no problem. Unless the server doesn't speak Russian, which probably happens quite a bit. Then it's pidgin English. The universal language.

Reine ütles ...

Of the western Europeans, maybe the French are the only ones with any pride left.

I believe that the Italians are the right after French with their pride. Urgh, the French! Last year our French host got pissed at our Californian friends, because they weren't speaking Shakespeare's English and he started to respond in French, of course.

Some days ago, when I was still walking the streets of Antsla, I wondered why they don't add some other languages here and there...but it seems like they don't have many tourists there (?)

And if you ask help from the locals and you don't speak Estonian or Võru dialect, they'll respond to you in Body Language. I love it!

Temesta ütles ...

If there are 10 people in a room, and nine of them are Dutch and one is American, they'll all speak English to each other.

That's not lack of pride, that's courtesy.

Temesta ütles ...

If the American doesn't speak Dutch.

Säss ütles ...

Ah, but it's highly likely the American won't speak Dutch or any of the other European languages (except maybe a smattering of Spanish) and, in a way, that's the result of a systematic lack of courtesy.

A strange thing happened in the English colonies in the late 19th/early 20th Centuries. Someone invented leisure time for the working classes. They wanted to go out and explore, and they wanted to do it with the education they already had (thank you very much) and that didn't usually include a foreign language.

And all civilised countries should speak English anyway, right? And if everyone who is anyone is speaking my language, why should I learn any other?

English became the universal language that it is because the sons and daughters of the Empire put their hands on their hips and said "Speak English, dammit!" and everyone said "okay".

Everyone except the French, that is, who said something very rude (in French) and have been reviled ever since as stubborn rude people.

But, you can't really blame them. English became the powerhouse language that it is because of stubborn rude people. The French are just trying to achieve the same result using the same methods.

Säss ütles ...

Of course, this wasn't something particular to working classes. It was part of the psyche of the Empire at the time. Even those who could afford to have an education which included foreign languages regarded every language other than English as an inconvenience.

That's why I live in an area with a massive Italian population, but no signs in Italian (apart from in the Italian restaurants).

Giustino ütles ...

I confess here that French is one of the few languages I do not translate when I am writing articles. It's the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, not the National Center for Scientific Research. The latter sounds tacky.

Giustino ütles ...

Maybe it's because we have so many French borrowings in English.

Liivimaa parim ratsutaja ütles ...

English. Yeah.

But thank God that the Chinese did not start the computer age.

We'd be so screwed.

Lingüista ütles ...

I'll bet a lot more in the spread of English has to do with the economic success of English-speaking countries... The French were always just as stubborn, they always demanded that others speak French, their colonies are to this day French-speaking (I've been to French Guyana... it's the country where one talks about "L'Amazonie française" and "did you know the European Union has a border with Brazil"?). Yet they're all, grudgingly or not, learning English.

I'm of two minds in this question. Any threat to the existence, health, and development of other languages makes my heart ache. I would hate it if Estonian survived Russian only to fall prey to English. But then again, to see one language spread throughout the world like English has also a certain 'wowy' feeling to it.

Maybe it's because English is not my mother tongue, and I did have to learn it (at the Cultura Inglesa at first, then at the Centro Cultural Brasil-Estados Unidos, then later on in Houston, Texas...).

Giustino, just kidding about João Goulart. (He's one of my favorite historical figures, by the way. A misunderstood guy.) I hope you didn't mind :-)

Ward ütles ...

"Of the western Europeans, maybe the French are the only ones with any pride left. If there are 10 people in a room, and nine of them are Dutch and one is American, they'll all speak English to each other."

I am a Dutch-speaking Belgian (or rather a Flemish-speaking Belgian), and I must admit that I asked a Dutch co-worker in Estonia to speak English on the phone, because I couldn't understand him otherwise. The Dutch' English is way better than their Dutch!

Troels-Peter ütles ...

In my experience the Italians aren't that monolingual (or proud) after all. Many speak French surprisingly well and are eager to use it.

English as a lingua franca is very practical in the (Western) world. It only bothers me when speakers of related dialects switch to it to communicate, because that way they won't get used to hearing their neighbouring dialects.

Living in Copenhagen, I'm sometimes asked the way by Swedish or Norwegian tourists. Occasionally they do it in English which annoys me immensely (this would be the same with any other lingua franca of course).

Although I'm usually not that good at insisting, I answer in Danish anyway, since, as a Scandinavist, I consider it three dialects.

Christine ütles ...

Troels-Peter ütles...
In my experience the Italians aren't that monolingual (or proud) after all. Many speak French surprisingly well and are eager to use it.

*Perhaps they speak French in the Northern regions of Italia but it is my personal experience that Italians are less likely to speak English well.
My feelings about this is that much like food, language and the use of it is so very personal and the Italians talk alot to each other, the conversation is so ongoing, and dramatic, leaving most little time or need to learn another language.
A facinating exception was my walking tour guide in Capri, surprisingly he a man well into his 60's spoke 14 languages and used 3 of them during our 2 hour walk about.

Asehpe ütles ...

Ward, I have a similarly bad time understanding Vlaams speakers (don't tell me it's the same as Nederlands...). The one I can really understand quickly is Mega Mindy. :-)

Asehpe ütles ...

Troels-Peter, my Swedish is pretty reasonable: I can watch TV without problems, and therefore I can also read Danish. But any attempts at actually understanding it tend to fail after the first few words, unless I'm dealing with a very careful speaker. I'd probably pretend I don't speak Swedish and use English instead in Denmark -- and I've heard the same from at least one Swede. You guys seem to have done some terrible things to the consonants and vowels of your language over the last hundred years or so...

Martin-Éric ütles ...

Finns' insistence on speaking English with anyone non-Finnish never ceases to amaze me. Your example baffles me even more, since you're both living in Estonia and you both know how to speak Estonian.

Troels-Peter ütles ...

Actually I would hardly expect anyone who spoke one Scandinavian language as a foreign language to understand the other ones. It's another matter if it's your first language, I think. If I'm in Sweden and I estimate that a bus driver or kiosk owner doesn't speak Swedish as a first language I also don't speak Danish but attempt at a Swedish pronunciation.

Right now I'm in New York, trying to get used to American English with Spanish and Chinese accents. Whew...

Giustino ütles ...

I wonder how you feel about Greek letters? (Isn't Greek, by the way, another language you haven't seen much in Estonia? Or have you?)

I bought a jar of kalamata olives the other day, and the language on the label was Greek.

Toivo Ellakvere ütles ...

signs in Latvian?

Spawnie ütles ...

Lingüista ütles...
I would hate it if Estonian survived Russian only to fall prey to English.


I don't think there's any danger for that. In my personal experience, when dealing when Estonians on a daily basis, I was actually surprised and frustrated to see that a lot of them don't speak English at all, or very poorly. But they all offered help in Russian, which only added to the frustration.
And OK, I don't expect all shop-assistants to be fluent in English, but when you are looking to rent an apartment and you call brokers and they only speak to you in Russian and tell you that they don't speak ANY English, it's quite depressing.
I have to add that I live in Tallinn, it's possible that things are different in other areas and I also had to deal with all issues by myself, without any intermediate help. And often times,it wasn't their knowledge of English, but my very limited knowledge of Estonian that made communication possible.

Nele ütles ...

"And OK, I don't expect all shop-assistants to be fluent in English, but when you are looking to rent an apartment and you call brokers and they only speak to you in Russian and tell you that they don't speak ANY English, it's quite depressing."

Don't worry, estonians have the same problem. That means some of them doesen't speak Englist or Estonian, they speak only russian.

For example if you travel more south (like Tartu, Pärnu), you hardly hear any russian. I was in Tartu in last New Year's eve and heard russian only once.
I'm also shop-assistants in Tallinn and don't speak russian. Most of under 30 speaks English.