- Languages in development ed. by Helle Metslang, Mart Rannut
This book contains a selection of papers presented in Tallinn in 2001 at the international conference on language development entitled ‘Estonian in Europe’. Eighteen papers were contributed by twenty authors, twelve of whom are from Estonia. The majority of papers discuss the Estonian language and use it as the source of examples. Although this makes the collection somewhat specialized, Estonian is one of the lesser-known European languages, and information about it and its use should be welcomed.
The papers are divided into three parts. Part 1, ‘Language and society’ (11–62), is somewhat disappointing. In ‘The ecology of languages’, Östen Dahl briefly reviews the speaker size of the world’s languages (the table he refers to is missing) and then discusses the factors that determine the development of various types of speech communities, using hunter-gatherers, agriculturalists and pastoralists, civilizations, and industrial societies as the factors. Unfortunately, the paper contains little that has not been dealt with by others in greater detail. In the next article, Mart Rannut continues in a similar vein, making a distinction between languages used by native speakers and supranational languages (‘languages of wider communication’), and devotes several pages to language survival and death. After discussing the shift of the cultural paradigm from modernity to postmodernity, the author applies some of his general points to Estonian.
Hannu Tommola asks ‘What happens to our languages?’ and wonders how long some of the languages spoken by small nations (Finnish and Estonian in particular) can withstand the pressure of languages such as English and Russian. In ‘The Latvian language in the 21st century world’, Ina Druviete lists both positive and negative factors that may influence the future prospects of Latvian. Concluding Part 1, Birute Klaas provides an overview of the Estonian communities in southern Sweden and Lithuania and their attitudes toward ethnic identity, bilingualism, and language maintenance. He compares the use of Estonian by Estonians in Sweden by age groups—children, young people, people of early middle age, late middle age, and the elderly.
Part 2, ‘Language and technology’ (63–100), may be of some interest inasmuch as it deals with topics not frequently encountered in linguistic literature. According to Einar Meister and Haldur Õim, human language technology (HLT) deals with the application of knowledge of languages to the development of computer systems capable of recognizing, understanding, interpreting, and generating language in all its forms. The techniques and language resources of HLT are then discussed, and the authors proceed to report on the current status of Estonian HLT. The next two articles deal with an evaluation of the quality of Estonian text-to-speech synthesis and automatic extraction of Estonian phrasal verbs from a text corpus. Part 2 concludes with Thora Tenbrink’s ‘Communicative aspects of human-robot interaction’. She sums up some of the reasons why communication between humans and robots fails and makes suggestions as to how such failures could be avoided in the future.
Finno-Ugricists will be pleased with Part 3, ‘Language and structure’ (101–90), with seven of its nine papers dealing with various aspects of Estonian (including its orthography): the syllabic basis of old (before the 1860s) and modern Estonian orthography; variation in the pronunciation of Estonian as a consequence of the close contact of its speakers with speakers of Indo-European languages; morphology of borrowed verbs; back-formation of verbs and its potential effect on the structure of Estonian; the acquisition of Estonian by a monolingual child (and the difficulties of applying a linguistic theory based on one language to data obtained from another); recent English loanwords and the ways in which they become assimilated; and the changes in the meaning of the terms for ‘smell’ during the past two centuries.