Mäetagused vol. 70


Orality, literacy, and digitality in culture and research

Tiiu Jaago
Assistant Professor, Department of Estonian and Comparative Folklore, Institute of Cultural Research, University of Tartu

Keywords: Introduction

The introductory overview provides a more general framework for understanding the articles published in this special issue. The discussions presented from the folkloristic point of view dwell upon the writing practices followed by Jakob Hurt’s correspondents in the late 19th century. The authors highlight the multilevelness of the writing experience and style manifest in the contributions of Hurt’s correspondents, which draw partly either on oral speech, reading, dialects, or unified spelling system. Also, in this period folklore was regarded as a phenomenon of oral culture, and therefore folklore collectors eliminated the idea of these stories being related to written culture. However, this approach did not correspond to reality. According to the 1881 census data, 34% of Estonians could both read and write, and 60.9% could only read.

For an easier understanding of this situation in a historical perspective, this introductory overview presents, drawing on history research, the development features of Estonian peasants’ writing culture in the Reformation and Enlightenment eras (16th–18th cc.) and data about literacy in 19th-century Estonia. It is shown how Estonian-language writing turned from a means of communication (local Germans needed Estonian-language texts to communicate with the peasantry) into a language of education. It is also possible to follow how different information and diverse spheres of culture are related to either oral or written texts (e.g., religious and legal literature, which differed from oral lore based on experience). Further studies into orality and literacy discuss their dissimilarities on both linguistic and communicative levels. Late 20th-century research, however, moved to studying the connections between orality and literacy in comparison to digital presentations. On the one hand, scholars discuss the issues of environmental influence on text creation, on the other hand, the novel ways and boundaries of communication spaces.

Recalled language and forgotten literacy: Vernacular language planners in J. Hurt’s folklore collection

Asta Õim
Researcher, Department of Folkloristics, Estonian Literary Museum

Keywords: folklore collection, Hans Anton Schults, Jaan Pint, vernacular language planning

The article focuses on the writings of two men who participated in the folklore collecting campaigns organised by Jakob Hurt. These campaigns started in 1888 and encouraged all people to collect and write down folklore in their area. Texts created by those non-professional (or local) folklore collectors constitute interesting research material language-wise. On the one hand, these texts represent the oral world, on the other they reflect their writers’ wish to participate in the public literary sphere of their time.

For Estonians the 19th century was a time of modernisation and national awakening. One part of these processes was the rise of Estonian language in the public sphere and with this the urge to establish the norm of written Estonian (spoken language was divided into very many dialectal variants). Though the main principles of written language were formulated in 1872, when the newly established Society of Estonian Literati started to use the so-called new spelling system in their publications, the lively (and heated) discussions about details continued for several decades. Also the issues of writing ‘correctly’ were quite often a source of quarrels between different newspaper editors – which means that even the least educated newspaper readers knew that written language was a matter for debate.

However, these debates about the Estonian language were something Estonians held themselves, as the Estonian language was not used in the official sphere. Estonia was part of the Russian Empire and local power was exercised by the Baltic Germans – so Russian and German were the two official languages. In the middle of the century there were some lower official posts that used Estonian (e.g. village courts), but starting with the Russification reforms in the 1880s everything was converted to Russian. This concerned also education – up to 1887 two lower levels of the educational system (village and parish schools) worked in Estonian, after that Russian became the language of tuition in the entire system.

Thanks to the well-established village school system, the literacy rate of Estonians of the period was quite high; according to the 1881 census, 60.9% of adults Estonians could only to read, and 34% could both read and write (Palli 1998: 21–22). These figures refer to their ability to read and write in Estonian – but, as a result of Russification, there were really few opportunities for them to use these skills. Apart from the use in the private sphere, there was a possibility to send short writings to Estonian-language newspapers, or to participate in the folklore collecting campaigns.

Language-wise participation in these campaigns put the collectors in a really ambiguous position. On the one hand, they saw it as a possibility to participate in written communication, on the other hand, they were asked to write down the collected material ‘the way it is told’, i.e., to retain the dialectal features. For the people who had received only minimal schooling it was quite a challenge, as it meant writing in a way they were taught not to write. But, as a result of these efforts, these people often started to ask questions about the norms of writing and make suggestions in regard to the development of written language. By analogy with the notion of vernacular literacy, I call this phenomenon vernacular language planning.

In the article I analyse two folklore collectors’ (or two vernacular language planners’) ideas about language and writing; both of them had received only minimal schooling (three years at a village school), but were ardent readers and interested in personal development.

Hans Anton Schults (1866–1905) was born in Järva County and spent almost his entire life there. All his folkloric writings were put down in the local dialect, and it seems that the dialect was rather viable at the time. However, Schults is quite in trouble while trying to convey the dialect in writing and complains about missing letters. Although these kinds of complaints are quite usual among folklore collectors, his explanation to the matter is rather peculiar. He states that the reason lies in the fact that Estonians do not have their own alphabet. Throughout his writings, Schults tries to find evidence that ancient Estonians had viable literary culture, and hopes to reconstruct the alphabet they used for that.

Jaan Pint (1843–1922) was born in southern Estonia, and in 1863 he and his family migrated to Samara. There they lived in the village of Estonka, inhabited by Estonian migrants. So, at the time he started to collect folklore, he had been away from Estonia already for two decades. In his letters to Jakob Hurt he complains that it is not possible to record genuine dialects in this village anymore – the inhabitants originate from different areas of Estonia and in the course of time all the dialects have merged. But after some years of collecting he starts to make attempts to convey different dialects. The most notable of these are the tales he states to have written down in his home dialect, i.e., the one that was spoken in the parish where he was born. These texts are purely the work of his own memory – he admits that he rewrote them several times before he was content with the result. But after describing this memory work he starts to contemplate the language situation of Estonians and make suggestions about how to create the most beautiful language out of different dialects.

Orality in the era of written culture

Tiiu Jaago
Assistant Professor, Department of Estonian and Comparative Folklore, Institute of Cultural Research, University of Tartu

Keywords: folklore, oral and written in folklore research, oral history, oral literature

The article focuses on the question of the orality and literacy of folklore on the example of Estonian folklore research. When folklore is defined in academic and popular-science papers, its orality has a significantly more prominent role than in practical studies. For instance, in the period when folkloristic standpoints were modernised in the 1930s, orality was a requisite in the definition of folklore. At the same time, folklorists also studied the written forms of folklore (e.g. works by Walter Anderson). When assessing the authenticity of earlier folk songs and tales, the decisive aspect was the oral origin and spread of the texts. However, older folk songs as well as folk tales were mostly written down in the era when the performers of these songs or tales were literate. It was common that newer folk songs spread in writing, but researchers nevertheless used them to the same extent as archival texts that had been written down based on oral performance. They argued that the texts which were spread in manuscript songbooks could also be performed orally, and this justified their treatment as folklore even though they were written texts.

In parallel with the development of folkloristics, the question of the relationships of folklore and literature and folklore and (oral) history has continuously been on the agenda. In both cases, folklore opens up from the viewpoint of written culture. The topic of the orality and literacy of folklore also emerges in connection with the recording of oral performances, as well as creating and organising archives of manuscripts. It similarly extends to research: written records of oral presentations were analysed, using the methods for the analysis of written texts.

In the second half of the 20th century, however, the question of the orality of oral sources was increasingly raised. In these cases, orality is important from the aspect of performance and the creative process, differently from the earlier notion, which saw the oral creation, origin, and spread as the prerequisite of folklore. It is also significant that orality studies are interdisciplinary (involving, for example, the research methods of linguistics, anthropology, history, etc.).

Seto fairy tales written down in Cyrillic

Kärri Toomeos-Orglaan
Junior Research Fellow, Estonian Folklore Archives, Estonian Literary Museum, Estonia

Keywords: Jüri Truusmann, monk Arkady, multilingual, Seto heritage, Stepan Dimitriyev, writing culture

In the folklore collection of Jakob Hurt there is a manuscript containing Seto songs and tales written in Cyrillic. The texts were sent in 1887 and comprise material written in different languages (Estonian, Russian, Seto) and character systems (Cyrillic, Latin). The texts in the Seto dialect that were written in Cyrillic alphabet belong to two Seto men – Stepan Dimitriyev and monk Arkady (Andrey Yakovlev). Those texts are probably the first written examples of Seto folklore written by Setos themselves. At that time, and also later on, Seto folklore was collected or forwarded majorly by Estonian and Finnish researchers and collectors. Setos in numbers started to collect their folklore on their own only as late as in the 1920s.

The manuscripts were sent to J. Hurt by Estonian Jüri Truusmann, the vice president of the Society of Estonian Literati at that time. J. Hurt’s collection also contains his collection of Seto fairy tales (written in Russian) and several songs in the Seto dialect. The letters of Stepan Dimitriyev to J. Truusmann, and J. Truusmann’s letters to J. Hurt present the context to the materials.

At the end of the 19th century the majority of Setos were illiterate, as was also the general perception about them among researchers. But there were a number of self-taught people who had received primary education in Russian, increasing their social mobility, and therefore acquired a dual national identity. This dual identity could be the reason why such people have been largely ignored by Seto culture and heritage researchers. From the perspective of writing culture research, however, it is highly important to pay attention also to their texts, as they represent the writing culture of the people for whom writing was not an everyday activity. By discussing the manuscripts of Stepan Dimitriyev and monk Arkady, I would like to show that illiteracy was characteristic of only one (albeit the larger) part of Setos, but at the same time there were literate people among them, who should also be included in the research. These two men’s writings illustrate the writing culture of the 19th century Setos.

Naming constructions in Estonian dialects: dialectal differences or spoken syntax?

Liina Lindström
Associate Professor, Senior Research Fellow in Estonian language, Institute of Estonian and General Linguistics, University of Tartu, Estonia

Maarja-Liisa Pilvik
Junior Research Fellow in Applied Dialectology, postgraduate student, Institute of Estonian and General Linguistics, University of Tartu, Estonia

Helen Plado
Lecturer in Estonian language, Research Fellow in Estonian language, Institute of Estonian and General Linguistics, University of Tartu, Estonia / Research Fellow, Võru Institute, Estonia

Keywords: dialect syntax, Estonian dialects, naming construction, spoken syntax, variation

This article discusses naming constructions in Estonian dialects, which express what something, linguistically realized as an object argument, is called. The construction consists of a naming verb in the impersonal voice, an object, which is named somehow, and a complement, which expresses what the object is called (i.e., Something [OBJ] is called [V] something [COMPL]). All the three elements of the construction can vary in spoken dialect material, where the object argument and the complement can also be omitted in some cases. The goal of the article is to ascertain whether the variation in the naming constructions is influenced by dialectal differences or rather by intraconstructional factors, which in turn may be linked to the spoken form of communication.

The dataset, consisting of 905 naming constructions, was extracted from the Corpus of Estonian Dialects, annotated for verb, object, complement, the occurrence of the connector et ‘that’, and the dialect area, and analysed by using conditional inference trees (Breiman et al. 1984; Hothorn et al. 2006) and correspondence analysis (Greenacre 2006, 2007). The combination of the two methods was chosen to reveal as many of the associations and interactions between the variables as possible.

The results showed that a surprising amount of the variation can be explained by the dialect area in which the construction is used. The lexical variation in the construction, i.e., the choice of the finite verb, displayed the clearest link to areal distribution: the southern dialects (Mulgi, Tartu, Võru, Seto) and the adjacent Eastern dialect showed a clear preference for the verb kutsuma ‘to call; to invite’, whereas the northern dialects preferred the verb hüüdma ‘to call; to shout’. The verb hõikama ‘to call (out); to shout (out)’ was almost exclusively used in the Mulgi dialect (spoken in southern Estonia), and the verb nimetama ‘to call, to name; to mention’ associated more with Alutaguse dialect (the dialect spoken in the north-easternmost part of Estonia, next to the Russian border). Not surprisingly, lexical variation is where the traditional division of Estonian dialects to northern and southern group applies.

The choice of the object argument marking was also primarily dialectally determined, but the dialects were divided rather on the eastern-western axis: the eastern dialects (Alutaguse, Coastal, Eastern, Võru, Seto) were more prone to mark the object in the translative case, which is also the canonical case for the object in the naming construction in standard written Estonian, whereas in the western dialects (Insular, Western, Mid, Mulgi) and in Tartu dialect, the most frequent case for object marking was the nominative. This is in accordance with previous studies on Estonian dialects (Lindström forthcoming), according to which in the western dialects the nominative tends to acquire the functions of the partitive case in the contexts where the opposition of the two cases is not semantically relevant. The omission of the object argument does not depend on the dialect area, but is rather connected with information structure and the universal principle, according to which the information that is known and/or can be predicted does not need to be explicitly expressed (Givón 2017: 3).

Complement marking does not show clear dialectal differences, but is instead affected by the choice of object argument marking. Although it is the nominative case that is, somewhat surprisingly, by far the most frequent option for complement marking in the dialect corpus data, the expected translative case is slightly more prominent, when the object is also marked as one would expect it to be in standard Estonian, i.e., in the partitive case. The abundant use of the nominative case can be explained by the specifics of spoken language, where the complement is typically used as a citation and is therefore less integrated to the verb’s argument structure. Compared to the omission of the object argument, the omission of the complement was rare, which is not surprising: the complement entails new and therefore the most important information and omitting it is only possible in somewhat exceptional cases, such as self-repairs.

It is up to future research to determine whether or not the variation in the form of the naming constructions is also tied to additional factors not taken into account in this study. Such factors include word order (i.e., the position of the complement and the object in relation to the finite verb), and the principles of information structure, which might have an even greater effect also on the omission of the arguments.

Orality and literacy in spring lore on the example of Emaläte at Taevaskoja

Kristel Vilbaste
Postgraduate student, School of Humanities, Tallinn University, Estonia

Mikk Sarv
Folklorist, MA in educational sciences

Keywords: Emaläte at Taevaskoja, landscape discourse, landscape memory, revaluation of a sacred place, spring lore

The working hypothesis of the article is that in a real life situation environmental awareness based on oral heritage is more appropriate than acting based on the knowledge of written heritage. An opportunity to check it out was provided by the collapse of the Emaläte (Mother’s Spring) at Taevaskoja, southern Estonia, on 27 June 2013, and the subsequent discussion on whether and how to liquidate the consequences of the collapse, not losing respect for the natural sacred traditions of a variety of users and stakeholders associated with the place.

We used the case study method with semi-structured interviews conducted with representatives of various parties of the discussion: a school teacher whose family had lived at Taevaskoja for four generations, a village elder, a researcher of natural sacred places, a representative of a nature conservation organisation, and regional manager of the of State Forest Management Centre.

A large part of urban Estonians have obviously moved so far from folklore that it does not play any role in their life. But another part of the population still needs it.

Old stories include environmental behavioural guidelines concerned with sacred places and nature conservation. Legends associated with sacred places have a number of environmental awareness-raising restrictions, commands, and warnings: one should not scrape the sand next to the sacred spring, the Neitsiläte (Virgin’s Spring) can be visited only by innocent virgins, one should not step into the spring. Other holy springs have abundant references to avoiding pollution and impoundment of the spring flow. Members of the community were taught through stories about behavioural habits in the holy places. Today, the behavioural regulations concerned with sacred places are written down in the laws and established penalty rates. However, it does not work as effectively as the immediate oral history in the community.

We can discuss environmental issues on the basis of the Emaläte case. The authorities want to expose the sacred objects to the public, but this increases the ecological footprint and may damage the object. The traditional nature conservancy manifests itself in the oral heritage – legends about sacred places.

None of the parties that participated in the discussion knew what others had done at the holy spring. Those who did not visit the place very often thought that everything that had happened after the collapse of the cave was a natural process. In fact, many people had been cleaning up the vicinity of the sacred spring for the past three years. What can be concluded is that natural sacred places can be put in order so that the majority of people do not even notice it. This provides an interesting reference to the information about other sacred springs in Estonia, which says that the springs must be regularly cleaned up. This is somewhat different from the reports on sacred groves, which state that “not even a branch could be allowed to cut from the trees”. Sacred springs are not only meant for performing religious rituals at a beautiful place, but they need to be cleaned up and the water has to be accessible to visitors. To ensure this, the sacred springs were periodically cleaned, in order to keep their natural balance and to preserve the purity of the water. Consequently, one might conclude that, after the collapse of the cave of the Emaläte, the removal of the rubble from the collapsed cave should seriously undermine neither people’s religious beliefs nor the environment. The local people who had acted according to their oral heritage and cleaned the spring again, had demonstrated environmental awareness based on traditional spring lore.

Extreme right echo-chambers and auto-communication

Mari-Liis Madisson
Research Fellow, Institute of Philosophy and Semiotics / Junior Research Fellow of cultural communication, Institute of Social Studies, University of Tartu, Estonia

Andreas Ventsel
Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Philosophy and Semiotics, University of Tartu, Estonia

Keywords: auto-communication, echo-chamber effect, extreme right online communication in Estonia, phatic communication, refugee crisis of 2015, semiotics of culture

This paper concentrates on the online communication of the Estonian extreme right that seems to be characterized by an echo-chamber effect and enclosed meaning-making. The discussion mainly relies on the theoretical frameworks based on semiotics of culture.

One of the goals of the study is to widen the scope of understanding of auto-communicative processes that are usually related to learning, insight, and innovation. The paper demonstrates the conditions in which auto-communicative processes result in closed interactions, based on reproducing stereotypes and redundant content. We explicate antithetical meaning-making, an orientation towards normative (“correct”) texts and the prevalence of phatic communication as the main dominants that guide the closed auto-communication. Our case study is about the discussion that emerged in the context of the European refugee crisis that started in spring 2015.

News, overviews   

In memoriam

Elisabeth Piirainen
December 25, 1941 – August 26, 2017.

Obituary by Anneli Baran.

Jubilee year 2017 of the EFA

Ave Goršič writes about the events of the 90th anniversary of the Estonian Folklore Archives.

Autumn conference of the Academic Folklore Society, “Fieldwork on value scale”

An overview by Reet Hiiemäe.

Collection work at the Estonian Folklore Archives in 2017 and President’s Folklore Collection Awards

An overview is given by Astrid Tuisk.

“Does gender matter?” Folklorists’ 13th winter conference at Nelijärve

An overview of the conference is provided by Airika Harrik.


A brief summary of the events of Estonian folklorists from December 2017 to March 2018.

Spells of ancient Mesopotamia.

Amar Annus. Muistse Mesopotaamia nõidustekstid.. Bibliotheca Antiqua. Tallinn: TLÜ Kirjastus, 2017. 204 pp.

Book review by Mare Kõiva.

Once again about Arhippa Perttunen

Jukka Saarinen. Runolaulun poetiikka. Säe, syntaksi ja parallelismi Arhippa Perttusen runoissa. Akateeminen väitöskirja. Helsinki: University of Helsinki, 2018. 417 pp.
Book review by Mare Kõiva.