Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Curious Correlation of FennoSwedes and EstoRussians

Here's a bit of a controversial thought for you. This gets really tangential, so try to keep up.

One uniquely Estonian experience is that of two native Russian speakers meeting outside Lasnamäe and talking to each other in Estonian. It's been twenty years; there's plenty of people in my generation who have grown up, gone to university, and gotten office jobs in Estonian-speaking teams. People who have no problem defaulting to Estonian.

But this is a very difficult language, and even if you're fluent, it's incredibly hard to lose an accent. I'm told that my accent in Estonian is not that of Russian, rather an odd and indistinguishable blend, but it's there; with anything more substantial than a conversation with a Selver cashier, people will realize I'm not a native speaker. There is also the issue of names. There is very little overlap between Estonian and Russian namespaces; with the exception of a few universal copouts, once you learn a person's name, you will know whether they are Estonian or Russian.

This is not a hard & fast rule. I've known people with Russian-sounding names who spoke no word of Russian and looked about as Nordic as you can get, and I've seen people with Estonian names born & raised in Ida-Virumaa, struggling to make themselves understood. I've also seen Russians who get married and take the Estonian spouse's last name. This can result in two kinds of hilarity: a girl with a Russian family name that stays in its masculine form, against the rules of Russian grammar, or a guy who took his wife's last name because he thought it might help him succeed in the workplace. (People who think this is a significant factor tend to underestimate the importance of actual competence, and as a result, fail.)

Anyway, as a native Russian speaker in Estonia you will occasionally find yourself in the very awkward position of speaking to somebody else in a language that is foreign to both of you, trying to figure out a non-offensive way to switch to the language that is far more comfortable. The difficulty is that if you just switch to Russian outright, you may end up being perceived as one of those assholes - the ones who go through life with a massive butthurt about linguistic discrimination. The people who actually have an opinion about the Language Inspectorate.

The interesting thing I've noticed is that these encounters have been getting a lot more frequent, and more importantly, people will often not bother switching to Russian any more. Yes, we both know that we can express ourselves more clearly in a different language, but the difference isn't that great any more, and there is a social penalty to switching away from Estonia. That social penalty is higher than the comfort.

You can call it conformism. But there's a more interesting parallel.

One of the enduring memes of Estonian minority politics is the status of the Swedish language in Finland. It's an official language, even though only about 6% of the population are native Swedish-speakers; all the street signs are in both Finnish and Swedish, and so is all the communication with state agencies. This is trotted out as an example to Estonia, proof that a nation state can be accommodating to a national minority, and that Estonians should try not to dislike the stubbornly Russian diaspora so much.

Previously, my reaction to this was that Sweden is not to Finland as Russia is to Estonia. Russia is to Finland as Russia is to Estonia; and Sweden is to Estonia as Sweden is to Finland. Sweden has conquered Finland at some point in the distant past, true; but this is now pure history, not the experiences of any living person. Hell, it would be quite difficult to find a Finn today who was alive before 1917 - the last time that Finland was not a sovereign nation! Finnish society, as it is today, is not threatened from within. It can accommodate the Swedish majority with little effort, and feel good about itself doing it. Just as the 9%-strong Russian community in pre-WWII Estonia enjoyed a broad cultural autonomy - broader than it's been since 1991, despite the fact that Päts's republic had every reason to expect trouble from eastwards. Travel today to the countryside around Haapsalu, and you will find road signs with village names in Swedish; the same will happen in Jõhvi fifty years from now, when Estonia is full of people for whom Russia is a land of St. Petersburg schoolteachers, coming over for a cheap coach tour of medieval castles, or filling up Old Town hotels in the mid-January off season because that's when they celebrate Christmas, the weirdos.

What I've discovered recently is that Finns actually don't like their Swedish population very much, and will not be particularly welcoming (even by Finnish standards) to a tourist attempting to engage them in the Swedish tongue. I've seen it happen, in the Academic Bookstore in downtown Helsinki, of all places: a younger saleswoman pretended to not know Swedish at all, but spoke it passably when chided by an older colleague.

Furthermore, the FennoSwedes - native Swedish speakers living in Finland - are quite actively disliked and distrusted by the general Finnish public. Not just because they speak a different language, but - and here is where I get to the point - because they tend to be the most wealthy, accomplished and happy demographic in Finland.

And the native Russian speakers who no longer care about switching away from Estonian? Maybe it's my own selection bias, but they tend to be yuppies. In the good, original sense: Young Urban Professionals, educated, with above-average incomes, and proud to be self-made. I'm not claiming causation; to say that just learning fluent Estonian is enough to succeed would miss the point completely - in fact, that's exactly what the discrimination paranoids would say. But perhaps there is a correlation. Perhaps the people who have it in them to become proficient in a foreign language or two, to improve their skills and work on their own careers, and to stop caring about nationalities, seeing the Estonian nation as a culture instead - perhaps they will evolve into the natural, meritocratic upper class of EstoRussians that will come to be despised by Pets from Väimela for a completely new set of reasons.

Personally, I can't wait.

6 comments:

Giustino said...

One uniquely Estonian experience is that of two native Russian speakers meeting outside Lasnamäe and talking to each other in Estonian.

You are not alone. Sometimes I accidentally slip into Estonian with other foreigners. Has it happened to you, that you can't remember in what language you were speaking?

I'm told that my accent in Estonian is not that of Russian, rather an odd and indistinguishable blend

You've got a Staten Island accent.

There is very little overlap between Estonian and Russian namespaces; with the exception of a few universal copouts

Hey!

One of the enduring memes of Estonian minority politics is the status of the Swedish language in Finland. It's an official language, even though only about 6% of the population are native Swedish-speakers

That's a legacy of Swedish administration. Swedes were a larger minority back in 1917 (about 13 percent) and the language was co-official in the duchy. It's not, as you pointed out, because the Finns love the Swedes so much. But it does show you how hard it is to change an official language. Once it's set, it's set.

all the street signs are in both Finnish and Swedish, and so is all the communication with state agencies.

Is this true? There are some monolingual municipalities in Finland. Helsinki (and Turku) just happen to be bilingual municipalities. I think there are monolingual Swedish municipalities too.

This is trotted out as an example to Estonia, proof that a nation state can be accommodating to a national minority, and that Estonians should try not to dislike the stubbornly Russian diaspora so much.

Estonia's problem is that *officially* everything is supposed to be in Estonian, but in *reality* things proceed bilingually, or even monolingually. And if I were to draw for you a map of Estonia and shade in the municipalities where Russians were in considerable number, you'd basically wind up with a few districts in Tallinn, a few parishes along the Peipsi coast, and then the eastern cut of Ida Virumaa. So it's kind of a regional issue, as much as it is a national issue. It would be kind of hard to offer Russian services in, say, Hiiumaa, where there are (yes, I just checked) 103 Russians, 17 Ukrainians, and 9 Belorussians. There are 14 Finns there too. Out of 10,000 people.

Previously, my reaction to this was that Sweden is not to Finland as Russia is to Estonia. Russia is to Finland as Russia is to Estonia; and Sweden is to Estonia as Sweden is to Finland.

A really good point.

Travel today to the countryside around Haapsalu, and you will find road signs with village names in Swedish; the same will happen in Jõhvi fifty years from now, when Estonia is full of people for whom Russia is a land of St. Petersburg schoolteachers, coming over for a cheap coach tour of medieval castles, or filling up Old Town hotels in the mid-January off season because that's when they celebrate Christmas, the weirdos.

I agree.

Furthermore, the FennoSwedes - native Swedish speakers living in Finland - are quite actively disliked and distrusted by the general Finnish public. Not just because they speak a different language, but - and here is where I get to the point - because they tend to be the most wealthy, accomplished and happy demographic in Finland.

Yep. Filthy rich.

And the native Russian speakers who no longer care about switching away from Estonian? Maybe it's my own selection bias, but they tend to be yuppies. In the good, original sense: Young Urban Professionals, educated, with above-average incomes, and proud to be self-made.

They also tend to speak English quite well and be more familiar with American/Western culture than a lot of Estonians.

perhaps they will evolve into the natural, meritocratic upper class of EstoRussians that will come to be despised by Pets from Väimela for a completely new set of reasons.

Pets just called me, by the way. He said he hates you.

Giustino said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Flasher T said...

Has it happened to you, that you can't remember in what language you were speaking?

Oh yes.

There are some monolingual municipalities in Finland.

By definition, an official language means any citizen can talk to any government agency anywhere in the country and expect a response in that language. Maybe there's a street sign exemption for very monolingual municipalities (although with 93.4% native Finnish speakers, any reasonable observer would excuse a monolingual policy), but they'd need to have a capability to proceed in Swedish.

Of course, the Swedish street signs in Helsinki generate a lot of goodwill from Stockholm tourists, which can't hurt.

And Pets can kiss me on the lips that don't speak Flemish.

Doris said...

Has it happened to you, that you can't remember in what language you were speaking?
------
yes. not so bad when switching between English and Dutch but when Estonian gets thrown in, things get complicated.

about that Finnish shop assistant: maybe she was self-conscious about her Swedish? I know I am very self-conscious about my Russian. I know I'm making mistakes and that makes me not want to try.

I agree with you: the Estonian Russian minority is speaking better and better Estonian. Just a few months ago I needed my passport renewed so I headed to the Tallinn KMA office that used to be next to the bus station. Used to be... the website didn't list it but it had been there forever... Anyways, while there I met this Russian lady (maybe 40 years old?) who was also looking for the KMA, so together we headed to an office in the city centre that I'd checked online as an alternative option. She spoke Estonian really really well - with an accent, sure, but her vocabulary was very good and there were no pauses where you can hear the brain going "oh god what's the word I need?". In other words, she was fluent. Turns out she failed her citizenship language test by 1 point :( When I commented on her good Estonian, she said it was a written test. Which was quite a lightbulb moment for me, I'd never put it together like that. duh.

Colm said...

Nice piece! I disagree that Russian-speakers however see Estonian as a 'foreign' language. As you said yourself, as the years go on, Russian-speakers increasingly see themselves as bilingual-Estonians whose parents and grandparents identified as Russian. Estonian will become their language too, but in a cultural and a practical sense.

From Wiki:

Under the present regulations, valid until 2012, of 342 Finnish municipalities, 19 are Swedish-speaking (including 16 in Åland). 31 municipalities are bilingual; of these, 13 have a Swedish-speaking majority and 18 a Finnish-speaking one. The remaining 289 municipalities are monolingually Finnish-speaking.

Members of the Swedish language minority have the right to communicate with the state authorities in their mother tongue.

On the municipal level, this right is legally restricted to municipalities with a certain minimum of speakers of the minority language. All Finnish communities and towns are classified as either monolingual or bilingual. When the proportion of the minority language increases to 8% (or 3000), then the municipality is defined as bilingual, and when it falls below 6%, the municipality becomes monolingual. In bilingual municipalities, all civil servants must have satisfactory language skill in either Finnish or Swedish (in addition to native-level skill in the other language). Both languages can be used in all communications with the civil servants in such a town. Public signs (such as street and traffic signs, as illustrated) are in both languages in bilingual towns and municipalities the name in majority language being on the top.


The official bilingualism only extends to mainland municipalities where Swedish-speakers make up at least 6-8% of the population. The rest of mainland Finland is mono-lingual Finnish and Åland is monolingual Swedish.

Anita Kalmane said...

Nice post! :)

Also amount of Russians who speak fluent Latvian is increasing, but unfortunately all of them - as far as I have encountered - are young people. Those who are 40+ still do not give a shit, including some politicians... :(

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