neljapäev, jaanuar 03, 2008


It happened to us again. Asked to explain where we lived in the US, the anxiety of telling them, "Estonia" crept in the back of our minds. I have been there, others have too -- one old acquaintance has actually done business there on behalf of big pharma -- and yet, I must confess, I feel like I am pulling their leg every time I say it, because to Americans "Estonia" sounds like a made-up place name.

Not that they know much about other places. We are frequently asked what language is spoken there, to which we reach for the common sentence, "Estonian, it's like Finnish." But the truth is, unless you are from Minnesota or North Dakota, you probably have no idea that Finnish is different from Swedish. The real nerds will acknowledge that they know Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian are related. That's true, except Hungarian is quite distantly related to the Finnic languages. So don't try using Hungarian in Estonia.

Maybe proponents of renaming Estonia "Estland" in the English context were right to some extent. There's nothing bad about "Estonia", but for some reason it sounds uncomfortable to English-speaking ears. As a weird thought, maybe it's because English, under its Latinate skin, is a rich Germanic language, a language of Jutes and Angles and Norsemen who did not defecate but skīta, who did not "consume" but etan, and who preferred a good fukka to "intercourse."

To our English ears, "lands" sound familiar -- a known quantity. Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, Scotland, Holland -- these are places we intuit more easily, even if we don't have a drop of English blood in our veins. Placenames that end in "ia" -- Bulgaria, Slovenia, Albania -- these are rendered in the Latin-based form, a language brought over by the Norman aristocracy that has become the manner of all sophisticated speech for most discourse, yet at the same time lacks the intimacy of the Anglo-Saxon and Norse vocabulary.

The distance in how we understand and react to language may have its root in those handful of politicized centuries where French-speaking Normans and English-speaking inhabitants of Great Britain slowly created a new tongue. "Lands" were places of antiquity that the common people knew. "___ias" were far-off provinces that only the upper classes concerned themselves with. Or maybe I am just full of crap. What do you think?

19 kommentaari:

Ly Kesse ütles ...

Well, when I was in college and Estonia was still behind the Iron Curtain, my roommate thought I was telling her lies that my parents came from Estonia.

I've spent my entire life explaining to Americans where my family comes from. It's a little easier now that it is again Vaba Eesti.

I don't think the problem is the name so much as that Estonia is far, far away with a very complicated history.

Ironically, the Normans (9th Century Vikings)who brought French to England in 1066 were orginally German speakers too!

plasma-jack ütles ...

I think the word "Disneyland" might give a clue ;-)
I know that Turkey is a country, but Hungry?

Colm ütles ...

Cool geo-politics-language post there! :-) Exactly to my taste. Then being hopelessly a language nerd I would say that! :-)

Before I got myself my Nordic girlfriend my family and extended-family hadn't a notion that such a place existed. Now I am slowly but surely educating people about the country, one mind at a time. It's a tough work but some Eesti-phile has got to do it! :D

Yes, what's so much French doing in English Let's get more Saxon words back! :-D. It annoys that when I look up a French word I don't understand in a French-English-French it gives me the exact same word, just slightly Anglisized. *argh* :D

Giustino ütles ...

Before I got myself my Nordic girlfriend my family and extended-family hadn't a notion that such a place existed.

The word "Nordic" is loaded as well and I am not sure how to appropriately use it when describing Estonia. I do use it with Americans because it seems to describe the country best.

And yes, Estonia does have relatively accessible health care and education, so the "welfare state" exists to a level that Americans are unfamiliar with.

When I told people I paid virtually nothing for our daughter's birth, they cursed the fact that I live in some "Scandinavian welfare state."

I feel that Estonians are quite like Finns and Icelanders in that they live in republics, have a deep reverance for nature and a rich, pre-christian history.

Danish and Swedish identity though seems to have undergone some kind of modernization in the first half of the 20th century. Their identity seems to be more urban and modern.

So when you say "Nordic", I think more like Finns, Sami, Faroese, and less Swedish and Norwegian.

Estonian, and also Finnish and Icelandic identity though, seems to function a bit better in a post-modern environment where we can freely mix and match themes from all eras -- 9th century and 19th century and make them accessible via tehnology.

You can therefore have a singer like Björk who expresses national identity through references to nature and by using ancient cultural imagery, yet uses modern technology and sounds to communicate that message to listeners.

This is something that I feel is much easier for a country like Estonia or Ireland to do, rather than a country like Germany, Sweden, or the UK.

Wahur ütles ...

Sometimes it works, sometimes not.
Followind dialogue from Paris 1993, originally in French.
- Where do you come from?
- d'Estonie.
- ???
- Estland.
- Aaah, Islande! Oui je sais!

Wahur ütles ...

Oh, and that trip to Paris left one more memorable dialog. Trying to explain to a French taxi driver where Estonia is, I explained that Russia was to the East, Sweden to the West and Finland to the North. Driver was obviously more geography-savvy than most of his fellow countrymen: "But there is nothing but sea!"

Unknown ütles ...

I remember being little (in the States) and someone asking my mother where she was from. She answered "Estonia" to which the reply was, "Oh, Estland". It was explained to me at the time that this was the way Germans referred to the country -- and that the reply somehow referenced the earlier days German barons. Does it have that connotation to anyone else?

klx ütles ...

I know that Turkey is a country, but Hungry?


LPR ütles ...

The less these pimpled Brits and thick necked yanks know about Estonia and its vast natural resources (that being the blonde pussy of course), the better for all of us. Trust me.

Jens-Olaf ütles ...

The world is changing and the view from America and Western Europe is one. See what one single Estonian can do:

'Wonderboy Baruto

It is quite customary that Estonians visiting Japan are asked if sumo is our national sport. Behind this is Baruto who with unexpected speed rose into elite'

from Wikipedia.

space_maze ütles ...

I have experienced various English speakers being uncomfortable with the name Estonia here, and saying Estland instead.

Is this due to the -land vs. -ia issue, or does the cruise ferry play a role here too?

In any case .. I personally don't quite get why "-land" should sound more Nordic/Germanic/whatever, in any language .. when the set of countries ending on "-land" includes Poland in English, and the dear eastern neighbour of "Russland" in German. While -ia countries include such capital Germanic nations as .. Austria!

plasma-jack ütles ...

I was referring to


drEsolve ütles ...

My grandfather, who lived 25 years in the Bronx and speaks with an Estonian accent, had a stock answer to the question, "Estonia, where is that?"

His answer, which would pretty much end that line of questioning:


Pierre ütles ...

"Yes, what's so much French doing in English Let's get more Saxon words back! :-D "

That's what happens when you get nonchalant about your language! :-0

Colm ütles ...

"That's what happens when you get nonchalant about your language! :-0"
Ouais je sais, cé complètement terrible! 'Y a le parking, le hamburger, le talk-show, le camera-man, le week-end, l'e-mail, le lifting, le bowling, le tracksuit, le living, le training..." :D

Ya I know, it's really bad! There's...

Unknown ütles ...

You do know that the original serious discussion on Estonia/Estland started when Eerik Niiles Kross read a hilarious article from The Onion. Methinks that is more than the editors of that fine paper ever hoped for.

Oudekki ütles ...

And Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Australia and China doesn't sound like a names at all? And what the hell is united states of america, in liguistic idea? And, Arizona, this is somewhere in Brasil, right, it sounds like Amazon...

I guess, it is not so much about the name, but what we do or are.

Unknown ütles ...

I don't understand why some people are uncomfortable with Estonia... it's a fine name. People would confuse Estland with Iceland too much. And Estland doesn't really sound natural, even though it's more Germanic sounding. Estonia is nice and unique, the only -onia, one of the few -nia's. The real issue isn't changing the name, it's informing the people who ask you about Estonia about Estonia.
About name confusions, I lived in Taiwan for a year and about 80% of people I know in the U.S. think I went to Thailand, no matter how many times I remind them that those are two very different places.

KRISTIN ütles ...

LOL at 'dresolve' and 'tatsutahime'.. What about EESTI?

("kirjastage oma kommentaar" kõlab täiesti lollakalt! =)) =))