Estonian in a world context

Estonian is the mother tongue of 922,000 people in Estonia and 160,000 abroad, mostly in Sweden, Finland, Germany, the USA, Canada and Russia. A further 168,000 or so people are able to speak Estonian. This puts Estonian among the top two hundred of the world's thousands of languages, and among the Uralic languages in third place after Hungarian and Finnish. However, in the beauty stakes, Estonian is right up at the top. There are older people who can say that at one time the Estonian language took second place after Italian in a beauty contest, with the sentence Sõida tasa üle silla (Go slowly over the bridge).

The Estonian language is not only beautiful but strong too. It is, after all, one of the national languages with the fewest speakers in the world, and yet it is able to hold its own in every area of social life. Among other things, Estonian is the language of general and higher education, science, journalism, legislation and local government, of Internet environment and software. Thereby the range of uses of Estonian is broader than ever before, and it has more students as a second-language than it has ever had. And in post-modern society, it would not survive on anything less. If a relatively small language is unable to meet the ever-changing needs of its speakers, and does not have the status of a national language, it will soon go into retreat. The problems known to many other languages are also seen as the greatest threats to Estonian: a drop in the number of mother-tongue speakers, a blurring of the norms of the language, excessive influence from foreign languages and difficulty in keeping up with the bigger languages in terms of linguistic technology.

The Estonian language can rejoice in the national language strategy, the language awards and the Mother Tongue Day. These things are worth noting, because the Estonian language, people and nation are closely bound together. At the end of the 19th century the rural people speaking the common language felt themselves to be the Estonian people, who read, wrote and acted in the Estonian language. Ever since, the Estonian language has been at the centre of Estonian identity.

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