Võro language


By Evar Saar

Linguistically, the Võro language is the central part of the South Estonian language. It has often been called the Ugandi language because the language was spread over the territory of old county of Ugandi up to 1220s (and further). South Estonian was one of seven Balto-Finnic ancient dialects (Western Finnic, North Estonian, South Estonian, Livonian, Votian/Votic, Old Karelian, Old Vepsian) and is for comparative linguistics one of ten contemporary Balto-Finnic languages. Those ten include Finnish, Estonian, South Estonian, Livonian, Votian/Votic, Izhorian, White Sea Karelian (North Karelian), Olonets Karelian Ludian, and Vepsian. According to sociolinguistic criteria there are even more Balto-Finnic languages (e.g. Tornedalian Finnish, Kven), but the distinction of those ten is reasonable in terms of lingua-historical developments.

The Võro language has all the typical characteristics of South Estonian and all the features distinguishing it from other Balto-Finnic languages. The same may be said about the Seto language, which has been traditionally looked at as a part of Võro dialect. The situation of the Tartu and Mulgi (language) area on the border of North Estonian has been determined by the greater proximity of these variants to North Estonian. Nevertheless, the South Estonian language historically serves as a basis for both the Tartu and Mulgi dialects.

If two hundred years ago the South Estonian language was represented in its written form by the Tartu dialect and its popular name was the Tartu language (‘tarto kiil’), then today the gravity of action for their own language has carried to Võromaa. Metaphorically, in the 11th hour the Võro people have come to see that the local language/dialect has value and the undergoing language shift should somehow be reversed. Contemporary South Estonian is for its users primarily an emotionally close language of the home and local landscape, which cannot be forced upon other South Estonians. In general, it makes sense to talk separately about the Mulgi language, the Tartu language, the Võro language and the Seto language, to determine the language of the text with one of those four words, even the difference between two neighboring languages/codes may be insignificant. The need to use/speak, develop and teach one’s native place tongue has to originate from within the in-group and to the emancipation of the Mulgi and Tartu languages should not set any obstacles.

The unique features of the Võro language

What are those linguistic traits, which make the variety spoken in historic Võromaa a separate language, no matter how it is considered by language policy? We list below the differences that have been present in the entire old area of South Estonian and those which do not exist in North Estonian dialects. Some features characteristic to the Võro language are unique even in the whole Balto-Finnic language area.

On the primary level of the language – the phonetic (sound) level – the Võro language has sounds, which do not exist in North Estonian: the affricate, which may be either a strong (e.g. tsiga, leibä kütsäq) or weak stop (e.g. köüds, tä küdsä), the glottal stop, in the Võro standard q, like in the word of mõtõq, and the raising õ-sound, marked as y in the Võro standard, like in the word sys ‘then’.

In South Estonian, there have been sound changes that locate according to the sequence of phonetic laws to the earliest period and by which South Estonian differs from all other Balto-Finnic languages: *koktu > kõtt: kõtu, cf. Estonian kõht: kõhu and Finnish kohtu. The similar is ‘foam’ vatt (Nom), ‘the second’ (Gen) kattõ and ‘the second’ (Part) katõ (). Another ancient change is ‘one’ üts (Nom): üte (Gen) against the rest of Balto Finnic üks (Nom): ühe (Gen). Only South Estonian and Livonian have instead of a dipthong ei-> ai: hain (‘grass’), saisma (‘to stand’). On the basis of those and other old changes, the researchers of historical phonetics have constructed genealogical trees, where a distant ancestor of South Estonian splits from the rest of Balto-Finnic varieties at least two thousand years ago.

There are numerous newer regular sound changes in both North and South Estonian, whereas in the core of South Estonian, in the Võro language, many changes of analogy, which have occurred in North Estonian, did not happen. The i-plural and i-past and the preservation of common Balto-Finnic word-stock create the impression that the Võro language is closer to Finnish than North Estonian. Every sentence in Võro has words, which reveal the language’s vocal harmony – a phenomenon lost in North Estonian. Actually, the similarity of Võro and Finnish linguistic phenomena is determined by the relative conservatism of those languages, compared to North Estonian, which has changed faster. However, the vocal harmony of Võro differs from Finnish: ö does not occur in successive syllables (nägo ‘face’, käro ‘barrow’), the front vowel e determines successive ones (kellä Gen ‘clock’, segämä ‘to mix’, ‘to disturb’) and the successive vowels of the word with a back vowel have turned õ-like (panõ ‘put’), hõbõhõnõ ’silver’).

If one moves to the next level of the language, to morphology, then the use of verbs in the Võro language is especially unique.

In the old South Estonian, verbs are divided into two major conjugation classes, the first, where the Present of Third Person Singular is without ending: saa (‘is getting’), süü (‘is eating’), tege (‘is doing’), tulõ (‘is coming’) – as is common in Balto-Finnic languages – and the second there is an exceptional ending of s: jutustas (‘is telling’), virisäs (‘is crumbling’). The same continues also in Third Person Plural: jutustasõq, virisäseq. The infinitive of all verbs with three or more syllables ends in s, but this also includes jääs (‘is staying’), eläs (‘is living’), kasus (‘is growing’), istus (‘is sitting’) and other verbs with two syllables. Different verbs came to bear the ending s in the Present for different reasons, but the beginning of this phenomenon is probably hidden in the idea that the suffix *ksen, similar to the third person personal pronoun of *sen, was added to verbs, which signified the subject-centered action (i.e. that kind of action, where the subject is entirely invloved, takes place with him/her or which is important to him/her). The South Estonian personal ending s has been compared to and identified with the initial category of mediality existing in many world languages (incl. Latin). The reflexive facet of this category is undertandable for today’s Võro-speaker: murd ‘((s)he is) breaking smth’, murrus ’it is breaking’, küdsä ’((s)he is) baking’, küdsäs ’(the cake) is baking’. In a few cases, there are parallel options – with s and without an ending (e.g. makas and maka, opis and opp) – however there is no special meaning or speakers have lost their ability to perceive it. Anyway, it concerns a rather old, complex phenomenon, which in the circle of cognate languages can be studied only through South Estonian.

The South Estonian verb paradigm resembles Finnish in its archaity, but there are large, principal differences. The conjugating negation verb is absent in Võro (cf. Finnish en, et, ei), but there is the Present negation word ei and Past negation word es. If in Northern Balto-Finnic languages and even in the Saami language the difference between negation in the Present and in Imperfect is the contrast between the verbal stem without ending and past participle (Estonian: ei tee: ei teinud), then in Võro the verb stem remains the same in both forms: ei tiiq: es tiiq. Thus, a typical error of someone learning Voru is ma es *tennü impressing instead negation in conditional mood.

The different case endings from other Balto-Finnic languages are the most striking (examples) in the morphology of nominals. Especially interesting and various is the morphology of the Illative. The ending –he of Illative, which exists only in Võro and Seto, and –de, which is common to the Võro and the Tartu language, correspond to the Estonian ending of –sse. The ending –le of Allative is a local innovation marking the Illative. Thus, the observation, that people en route from Võro to Tartu will buy their bus tickets to Põlvahe, Põlvalõ and Põlvadõ, corresponding to their point of origin, holds true. The Inessive ending in Võro is either -h or -n. The ancient case ending of *-sna has turned into -ssa or -s in other Balto-Finnic languages, only in South Estonian and in a few (single) Finnish dialects has it first changed to *-hna and then to -hn, -h or –n exceptional to South Estonian: mõtsahn ~ mõtsah ~ mõtsan.

The other unique case endings are the –s, sporadically –st, of Translative, like in the expression võtt´ naasõs ~ võtt´ naasõst ‘took a wife (married), and the endings with a glottal stop in the Terminative, Abessive, and Comitative, like huunõniq, huunõldaq, huunõgaq ‘building’. In the Võro language, the nominative plural is not marked with a –d, but instead a glottal stop – kala : kalaq, illos : ilosaq. In the genitive plural and the cases, which have been made up by this model, (in the Võro language) de-chracteristic is used to add to the independent plural stem (often made up by i-characteristic), but not to the stem in the singular like in North Estonian: naisi, kallo, ilosidõ.

The Võro language differs a lot from the north Estonian in its vocabulary. One encounters suprising differences in the most basic vocabulary. Newer cultural vocabulary is common and when “loans” are taken from the common Estonian language significant limitations do not occur in spoken language. In a comparison of the three, Võro, North Estonian and Finnish, it becomes clear that only a part of the vocabulary is common in Võro and Finnish, e.g. kooldaq (‘to die’), sysar (‘sister’), lämmi (‘warm’), kõiv (‘birch’). There are a similar number of South Estonian words, which differ completely from both North Estonian and Finnish, e.g. mõskma (‘to wash’), kaema (‘to watch’), kesv (‘barley’), hahk (‘grey’). There is no exact parallel to the distribution of meaning of demonstrative pronomens seo, taa and tuu in any of other Balto Finnic languages.

It is not possible to demonstrate big differences between Võro and North Estonian on the syntax level. The differences are concentrated on the level of government: vanaimä murõhtas vas´kat – *vanaema muretseb vasikat ‘the grandmother is worrying because of the calf’, käve seeneh ja mar´ah – *käisin seenes ja marjas ‘I went to pick mushrooms and berries, ma pakõ sinno – *ma põgenen sind ‘I am running away from you’. One of the most well known differences is that the negation word comes after the verb in Võro: olõ eiq ‘do not, ütle es ‘did not say’.

The Võro language area

The South Estonian language area, with few exceptions, is clearly defined: the border of the North and South Estonian traditional dialects proceeds from Mõisaküla to the closest surroundings of Viljandi, from there to the northern point of Võrtsjärv and further on to the north of Tartu to the mouth of Emajõgi. This was the situation in the beginning of 20th century. Today South Estonian has receeded the northern part of its historic territory, so that Tartu and Mulgi speakers in this area do not form a speech community in the usual sense.

Historically, the Võro dialect area of South Estonian was limited using a rather simple method: it was agreed to include in the Võro dialect all the subdialects which were spoken in historical Võromaa, Petserimaa and linguistic enclaves, and in the Tartu dialect all South Estonian dialects spoken in historical Tartumaa and Luke parish of Valgamaa. When dialectology has reached to its generalizations, it became clear that the distinction based on previous work and probably on the self-identification of South Estonians in the beginning of 20th century has justified itself well: a rather large part of isoglosses in the South Estonian language have concentrated next to the border of Võromaa and Tartumaa. At the same time, however, there are few differences, for example, between the Räpina subdialect (Võro) and Võnnu subdialect (Tartu), thus the border of old Võromaa has been not a very important language border. The administrative borders that have changed several times throughout modern history have influenced language attitudes and the language itself. For example, the South Estonian language environment has been preserved everywhere in Põlvamaa, be it historical Võromaa or Tartumaa.

Instead of drawing distinct borders, it should be concluded that the Võro language is, by large, spoken in an area the same size as historical Võromaa, whereas some areas of Tartumaa have been turned into the Võro-speaking and some areas in Võromaa (towns and bigger settlements) have changed to mostly Estonian-speaking. Known linguistic enclaves in Latvia and Pskov area have disappeared, but Võro-Latvian bilinguals can be found to some extent close to the Estonian-Latvian border in Korneti, Hopa and Alūksne. There are a number of Võro-speakers in the bigger Estonian cities of Tallinn and Tartu. The most ancient Võro speech can be found in Siberia in the villages of immigrant Võro people.

The eastern border of the Võro language parallels the border of the old western and Eastern Church, the border of Livonia and Pskov guberniya. The South Estonians originating from the eastern side are known as the Seto people and they name their own language definitely as the Seto, not the Võro language.

Due to the clearly distinct identity of Võro and Seto people, the members of those ethnic groups notice the minutest differences in neighbors’ speech. This trend applies especially to the Võro people. Although the main structure of eastern dialect of the Võro language and the Seto language spoken in the first half of 20th century has been similar, one can observe a now well-established renewal of the language on the basis of identity: the Setos preserve and stress linguistic units perceived as Seto-like, the Võro people from eastern part ignore those and adjust their language to western Võro speech (e.g. the ending of Elative case -n instead of earlier –h, the spread of strong grade in the types of kerik (Nom) : kerigu (Gen.) and kants (Nom) : kands (En)). According to the popular view, it is possible to perceive a difference between the Võro and Seto languages on the basis of pronunciation, but that statement may hold true only in some phrases when the basis of articulation has shifted. The speech of the Võro people on old records has a more recognizable rearward articulation than middle-aged Setos today – in the environment of Estonian standard language, the basis of articulation is necessarily shifting towards “Estonian average”.

Võro speakers

Among today’s Balto-Finnic languages, the Võro language has a medium number of speakers: according to different estimations, between 50,000 to 70, 000 people speak the language. The figure 70,000 is calculated on the basis of a South-eastern Estonian inquiry conducted by the Võro Institute (1998) and the share of respondents, who claimed using the Võro language either on everyday basis or in some established situations. The share of people living near the old borders of Võromaa has been added to an estimated number of Võro-speakers in bigger Estonian towns. In some way or other, the number of 70,000 is the most optimistic estimation of Võro-speakers. Having in mind that people tend to overestimate their language command, the realistic number of Võro-speakers in 1998 might have been 50,000.

In spite of this rather big number of speakers, the Võro language is also an endangered language because almost all Võro-people are bilinguals and the bulk of them try to speak Estonian to their children. This means a decline in the number of speakers of Võro as a mother tongue with every leaving generation by a factor of ten.

The learning of a language in this situation, where the will of transmission of the language is weak, but the language is a majority language for older generations, differs in some respects from other situations. Usually parents speak Estonian when communicating with children, but use the Võro language between adults; in this situation, a child develops early a passive command of Võro. In school, the child does not use Voru in communicating with peers, but when starting her/his working career, one frequently finds her/himself in a Võro-speaking environment. In a situation like this, s/he often turns her/his passive knowledge into an active one, with skills that gradually gain steadiness with years. In many work environments, the use of Võro is a rule not an exception. This phenomenon has differently influenced the acquirement of the language by gender: teenage boys are more interested in the world of adult men than the school and life expectations, accordingly the “adult men’s code” has a considerable prestige among boys. For girls the after school perspective has been traditionally either continuation of education or creating a family, and in both alternatives do not have considerable place for the Võro language. In such families, Estonian becomes the means of communication and children’s possibilities to hear the Võro language will become even more occasional.

The current information society excalerates the language shift of the Võro people, because mass media occupies with Estonian and English even this part of the day, which earlier remained untouched from societal pressure. On the other hand, the ability of the Võro people to notice and value their own language has grown thanks to the information society. Toady there are families who have consciously chosen the Võro language as their home language, avoiding the road of being monolingual Estonian-speakers. Thanks to the fact that using contemporary Võro language does not create any barrier of understanding in the Estonian society, it can be used as an expression and distinguishing mark of local uniqueness. In continuation of contemporary developments, the Võro language may become a Kulturdialekt, which is used on the stage (theatre), and literature, anniversary speeches and advertisements, with the bulk of its users consisting of those who consider common Estonian as their mother tongue.

The conscious learning of the Võro language at an adult age will become a significant possibility to acquire it and interactive media will become the significant arena of communication. The natural transmission of the Võro language from parents to children occurs only in those families who have consciously made that choice. The growth of prestige in the public use of the language should enforce that choice in any case.

The status and domains of the Võro language

The Võro language does not have any official status at the moment. The Võro people, who are, as a rule, Võro-Estonian bilinguals, do not consider themselves a minority, but primarily as ethnic Estonians, belonging to the majority. At the local level, they consider themselves the Võro people and recognise the Võro language as the main bearer of the Võro identity. However, a feeling of belonging to a linguistic minority does not emerge on this basis as well today – the Võro language is used in its living environment and because of its proximity to Estonian the consistent use of it or – on the contrary – its incomprehension does not create any communication problems.

Thus, the claim for an official status of minority language is not congruent with the identification of this variety. The Võro language has had the socio-cultutural (not legal) status of dialect for a long time and the Võro people together with other South Estonians have had a significant role in building the Estonian state, in its cultural, economic and social development. For the better recognition of today’s, developing Võro language, which has gained sympathizers across Estonia, it is reasonable to give up the old myth of dialect, saturated with contradictions and to make use of the notion of a regional language. Many languages, which have their own history as literary languages, have users who are characterized by bilingualism and multiple identities, and are similar to state languages are included among regional languages in Europe (e.g. Kashubian in Poland and Low German in Germany). In Estonian society, the discussion of it has yet to be robust, therefore, giving politicians the chance to ignore it.

Missing legal protection/law acts have not set obstacles in the establishment of R&D activities on the state level. Instead of primary education in South Estonian (the Tartu language), which stopped in 1890s, the formal education is now conducted in Estonian. However the school is not any more the organization, which is cultivating inflexible switching into North Estonian-like, but the Võro language in the status of dialect has its on position here. Under the guidance of enthusiasts-teachers there are optional and hobby classes of the Võro language, it is used in the instruction of local cultural history in 26 schools of old Võromaa.

It is possible to study the Võro language in the University of Tartu for two semesters; there have been courses for adult learners in Võro Institute, too.

The state supports the publication of the Võro-language newspaper, “Uma Leht (‘Our own paper’), which, according to media research done by Saar Poll, is read by over 30,000 people. There are radio and TV programs in Võro on a project basis, which targets not only local Voru speakers but other Estonians and Võro people living outside Võromaa. There are computer programs and games on the internet, and it is common to find internet comments made using the Võro language.

On average, the five books of fiction (belles lettres) are published annually. Remarkable is the role of young authors in the newer production of the Võro literature and the phenomenon that the Võro people have always played an important part in shaping Estonian literature, writing in Estonian in the beginning of 20th century, but lately more and more in Võro.

The publishing of the Võro-Estonian dictionary in 2002 has been the most important event in the corpus planning of the Võro language. There is ongoing work on compiling the Estonian-Võro dictionary, which role in enforcing the written usage of the language could be times bigger. The entire/thorough descriptive grammar is not yet published.

The important role of South Estonian in the Lutheran church, which was one of the last protectors and users of the Tartu language, has not been restored/re-established. The potential of the Võro language in geriatrics has also yet to be recognized – the communication with the seniors in hospitals and elderly homes in their mother tongue may definitely improve their life quality. At the same time, the pop culture in Võro in the form of music and poetry is successful and has popularity across Estonia. Both the Võro and Seto people have the equal role in the stererotypes which play with uniqueness and anciency and in the domain of self-myths the whole Estonian anti-globalising wing gets support from the Võro language.