ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2010 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 56, No.2 - Summer 2010
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas

Book review:

Common Roots of the Latvian and Estonian Literary Languages. Edited by Kristiina Ross and Pēteris Vanags. Peter Lang: Frankfurt am Main, etc., 2008. ISBN 978-3-631-56344-1.

The co-editors Kristina Ross and Pēteris Vanags write in the preface (p. 7): “The history of the Estonian and Latvian literary languages reflects the process of how Estonians and Latvians were integrated into Christian Europe, how these people gradually developed from Baltic pagans into distinct members of the common cultural sphere of medieval and modern Europe […] Although the paths of Estonian and Latvian cultural development have been remarkably similar, contrastive historical studies of their literary languages have not been forthcoming, probably because Estonian and Latvian belong to different language families.” And it is certainly true also, as the authors state, that the cultural histories of Lithuania to the south and Finland to the north were vastly different from those of Latvia and Estonia in between, which were under the influence of German speakers. The preface also includes a very helpful chronological table (pp. 11-13) showing the dates of appearance of the earliest writings in Estonian and Latvian beginning with the common Henrici Chronicon Livoniae, the Chronicle of Henry of Livonia (1224-1227) and concluding with the Estonian Piibli Ramat (the first printed Bible in North Estonian from 1739) and the Latvian Biblia (second revised edition of the Bible, also from 1739). 

The first article, “Cultural context of the formation of written (literary) Estonian” (pp. 15-44), is by Toomas Paul, who notes first that East Prussia, Latvia and Estonia were Christianized in the 13th century and Lithuania only in 1386. He writes (p. 17) that the Chronicle of Henry of Livonia “…contains numerous Estonian place names and personal names and even a few Estonian words and phrases...”. In footnote 1 (p.17) he writes: “…the longest phrase being an ironical shout of mock (sic!) by inhabitants of Saaremaa to priest Frederic, as they tortured and killed him: Laula, laula, pappi ‘Sing, sing, pope’.” Since Frederic was a Cistercian he must have been a Catholic cleric, and as far as I know in Western Christianity (and certainly for most Americans) the English term pope under ordinary circumstances denotes only the bishop of Rome. Note the English translation by Brundage (2003: 141) “Sing, sing, priest” and the Italian translation by Bugiani (2005: 228) “Canta! Canta! Prete.” Both of these latter translations seem to me to be more acceptable than Paul’s. The Estonian word pappi and the English word pope certainly derive from the same source, but for contemporary translators they are “false friends.” 

According to Paul (p. 21): “The first incontestable information about a wider use of the Estonian language in spiritual life dates from the start of the 15th century. At the end of the century, all the churches in Tallinn had …pulpits or undudesche prediktstole designated for the preaching for Estonians…” 

Paul is certainly right to emphasize the importance of the Protestant Reformation and the invention of the printing press as the two most important developments in the evolution of the European national languages into literary languages. 

In 1525 the Council of Lübeck confiscated a “...barrel that was full of Lutheran, also of Estonian, Livonian and Latvian vernacular masses (vas plenum libris lutterianis, eciam missas in vulgari Livonico, Lettico ac Estonico),” which were to be sent to Riga (p. 25). The Council ordered the books to be destroyed and we don’t know whether this order was carried out or not, since none of the books have come down to us today. According to Paul eleven damaged pages of the first known book in Estonian, a Lutheran catechism from 1535 by two clergymen from Tallinn, Simon Wanradt and Johan Koell, have survived by pure chance. 

Paul speculates that in the middle of the 16th century there was another Estonian catechism, basing himself on an estate inventory of 1549 and the fact that in 1576 a non-German catechism was bought for a poor schoolboy. Paul writes further that the Estonian texts of the second half of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century remained largely as manuscripts, but they still laid the foundations for the beginning of the evangelical literature. 

The first North Estonian grammar (Reval 1637) was written by Magister Heinrich Stahl and the first South Estonian grammar was published by Johannes Gutslaff (1648). It was necessary to publish religious works in the two different dialects because there were two bishoprics, one in Riga and another in Tallinn. According to Paul, “During the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century the printed word in ABCbooks, hymnals, manuals, catechisms and New Testaments thus began to penetrate the world of the peasants” (p. 38). Probably, however, the most important event in the development of the Old Estonian literary language was the publication of the Bible in 1739, although its spread in the 18th century was rather moderate and its impact on the development of Estonian was not great. The influence of the Herrnhut movement, an extreme form of pietism, which destroyed the old pagan Estonian culture and at the same time gave the peasants self-confidence and promoted the spread of literacy, was very important. Active figures in this movement were the village teacher, Adam Koljo, and the clergyman Johann Christian Quandt, the latter of whom wrote the first story book for the peasant reader. Paul concludes that the Herrenhut writings: “…by the end of the 18th century, established the ground for initiating the language creation bearing the ideals of the national movement beginning in the 19th century” (p. 44). 

The second article, “Early modern textuality: A Baltic perspective,” by Janis Krēsliņš (pp. 45-60) begins by bemoaning the lack of comparative studies of Baltic linguistic culture. With good reason he considers it important to define the borders in which Latvian developed, a region which enveloped the Baltic Sea. According to Krēsliņš, “The southern tiers of this region included the Lutheran universities of Königsberg, Rostock, Wittenberg and Jena as well as the Catholic institutions of higher learning in Vilnius and Braunsberg, and indirectly even other centers of education in the Commonwealth of Poland” (p. 50). The author traces the development of Latvian from a completely oral language to a written codified language, from a language primarily translated from German sources, to a language in which original poetry was written. 

Alvar Põldvee’s article, “Peasant schools in Estland and Livland during the last quarter of the 17th century” (pp. 61-99), presents the role of Sweden in the creation of peasant schools in areas the latter power considered Lutheran outposts against the influence of Catholicism and Orthodoxy. The author discusses in detail the roles of the superintendent general Johann Fischer in Livland, Johann Ernst Glück in Livland, and Bengt Gottfried Forselius in Estland in the creation of peasant schools in their respective areas. By the end of the 17th century peasant schools, the wider spread of literacy and religious literature had become so entrenched that not even the results of the Great Northern War could stop the Baltic lands from becoming the most literate area in the Russian empire. 

The article “Latvian poetry in Livland and Courland in the 17th century and beginning of the 18th” (pp. 101-146), by Mara Grudule, begins with the Swedish conquest of Riga in 1621 and of Tartu/Dorpat four years later. The author includes hymns in her discussion of poetry, and she gives a handy table (pp. 109-112) with complete information about all the Latvian hymnals published between 1587 and 1732. Grudule discusses in careful detail the work of the various authors/translators of the hymnals and changes in the style of translation in the course of time. One thing that amused me was the fact that hymnals were so expensive that they were frequently stolen from Lutheran churches. According to one newspaper account of 1839, a peasant’s wife stole 10 hymnals, sold one for money, gave one as pay to the hired help, etc. Grudule concludes “…Latvian literature, especially in Livland, was developed on the base of religious literature, which predominated in published works as a whole during the initial phases of the development of a national literature, the first half of the 19th century” (p.146). 

In the article, “The literary background of early Estonian secular writing: the current situation and future perspectives in research” (pp. 147-163), Kristi Viiding writes that it is mainly the linguistic aspects of early secular writing that have been investigated, but that the literary aspects also deserve to be studied. She writes that secular poetry began in the 1630’s, and only about a century later secular prose. The first Estonian secular poetry was published in collections of occasional verse along with Latin, German, Greek, Swedish, and Latvian poetry. Since there were many fewer secular than religious texts, the influence of the former on the development of the Estonian language was much less marked than that of the latter. Non- Estonian secular verse, written by non-Estonians followed the classical rules of rhetoric, emulated antique poetry and intertwined motifs from ancient paganism with those of Christianity. Viiding writes that of 33 Estonian occasional poems, 16 are nuptial poems, nine are dirges and eight are various kinds of dedicatory poems. 

Traditionally the beginning of Estonian prose coincides with the date of publication (1732) of the textbook Kurtzgefaszte Anweisung Zur Ehstnischen Sprache by Anton Tor Helle. This book contains grammar, vocabulary, proverbs, riddles, and sayings, followed by ten dialogues Colloquia esthonica Oder Einige Gespräche von Unterschiedlichen Sachen auf Ehstnisch und Teutsch (Estonian and German dialogues printed in parallel columns). 

A comparison of humanist school dialogue with the earliest Estonian prose dialogues reveals a number of common features, e.g., there are two interlocutors, one of whom is the questioner and the second of whom gives all the answers; female characters, rare in humanist school dialogue, are never encountered in Estonian dialogues, etc. Viiding concludes “the writing of dialogues in Estonian… owes its beginning to the spread of humanism and Evangelical Lutheranism” (p. 163). 

A brief article by Liina Lukas, “Baltic-German literature and Estonian literary studies” (pp. 165-171) discusses the reasons for the lack of studies in this domain and gives a brief description of the EEVA project… “a digital literary history launched by the Department of Literature and Folklore at the University of Tartu and Tartu University Library…” (pp. 170- 171). This corpus, on the web, will include not only texts in Estonian, but also texts in German, Swedish, Russian, Latin and Greek, and thereby documents the “…historical multilingualism of the Baltics” (p. 171). 

Pēteris Vanags’ article “Latvian texts in the 16th and 17th centuries: beginnings and development” (pp. 173-197) begins with the statement that: “…there is no firm proof of texts written in Latvian until the Reformation.” The first possible reference to a book with a Latvian text is the mention of a barrel of books confiscated by the Council of Lübeck in 1525. According to Vanags (p. 174) the barrel full of books “…was a vat filled with Lutheran books as well as missals in the vernacular Latvian and Estonian languages of Livland.” Vanags quotes the original as: vasz plenu[m] libris lutterianisz ecia[m] missis in vulgari liuonico lettico ac estonico and writes further that scholars are not agreed as to the meaning of liuonico. Toomas Paul (see above) and Pēteris Vanags transcribe and interpret the Latin phrase in slightly different ways, although the similarity of purpose is clear. 

The first Latvian writings include “parts of the Lutheran Church’s handbook – the catechism, collection of pericopes, and hymnal” (p. 175). In an effort of the Counter-Reformation, a Latvian translation of Petrus Canisius’ Catechismus Catholicorum was published in Vilnius in 1585, but according to Vanags the translation was rather poor since the translator did not know Latvian very well. A manuscript translation by Andreas Getzel of Luther’s High German version of the Book of Psalms and the Book of Proverbs survives, but this translation, dating from about 1624, is so literal that it is often incomprehensible. Vanags also gives a brief overview of 17th century Latvian grammars and dictionaries, and then proceeds to a discussion of the publishers and readers of Latvian books. An overview of the establishment of a suitable orthography for Latvian, a long and complex process, is also discussed. Vanags writes that one must distinguish two levels of German influence in Latvian: (1) the influence of German on spoken Latvian and (2) the direct effect of the original text on the language of translation. Sometimes it is extremely difficult to distinguish these two. The primitive translation method is expressed on the title page of the 1586 catechism which is said to be translated von wort zu wort ‘from word to word’ (p. 196). In my view the problem with translations of religious texts in general is that nobody is really quite sure what the original means, and to avoid being accused of heresy the translator usually stays as close as possible to the original. 

“The language of Tartu and Tallinn in 17th-century Livonia” by Heli Laanekask and Kristiina Ross (pp. 199-210) begins with an explanation of the origin of the difference between these languages, viz. differences between South and North Estonian dialects. The authors write that the language of Tallinn developed on the basis of the central dialect, whereas the language of Tartu, in addition to the expected South Estonian traits, contains also North Estonian elements. A table (p. 206) gives the number of books produced in the respective Tartu and Tallinn languages during various periods. During the first period (1525-1629), nine books were produced; six in the Tartu language and three in the Tallinn language. The larger number of books in the Tartu language is possibly a result of Jesuit activity during the Counter-Reformation, when the area in question was under Polish rule. On the other hand, during the first fifty years of Swedish rule (1630-1679), 90 books were produced in the Tallinn language as opposed to only ten in the Tartu language. 

In the article “The beginnings of written Latgalian” (pp. 211-233), Lidija Leikuma writes that since the 18th century (and in part since the end of the l7th century) Latvians have used two traditional forms of writing, viz. standard Latvian and Latgalian. “Written Latgalian as it had developed in the mid- 18th century was the means of communication for the Catholic Church in Latgale and to a certain extent in Selonia…” (p. 211). A table compares the dates of the first works to appear in Standard Latvian with those in Written Latgalian, e.g., the first book mentioned in Standard Latvian is a Lutheran missal (1525), whereas in Latgalian it is a Catholic hymnal of 1730. Following this table there is a careful and fairly detailed discussion of the history of the Latgalian language and the various early texts in it. The first surviving Latgalian book is the Evangelia toto anno (Vilnius 1753), which contains various religious texts translated from Latin and a few from Polish. The orthographic system, the same as that in Old Lithuanian texts and traditionally called the Polish system, laid the foundation for a second tradition of Latvian writing. 

Kristiina Ross, author of the article “Estonian Bible translations” (pp. 236-252), writes that the first complete Estonian translation was published only in 1739, although the earliest Bible citations in Estonian occur in a sermon manuscript by Georg Müller. Most of the translations reflect a morpheme-for-morpheme translation from German, although occasionally from the Vulgate and even more occasionally from Hebrew. 

Everita Andronova’s article, “Research on the earliest (16th -17th c.) Latvian texts: the past twenty years (1985-2005)” (pp. 253-284), focuses on the period from the middle of the 1980s, when there were calls to reevaluate the contribution of the Baltic Germans to the development of Latvian. Particularly important are Trevor Fennell’s studies of Latvian grammatical descriptions and his publication of manuscript dictionaries, and Pēteris Vanags’ research on the orthography and the phonetic and morphological systems of early Latvian. The first book in Latvian, the Catechismvs Catholicorum, published in Vilnius in 1585 and presented as the work of Canisius, has been studied in detail by Guido Michelini, who suggests several hypotheses concerning its origin. Andronova mentions also Toshikazu Inoue’s 2002 critical edition of the 1586 Der kleine Katechismus of Martin Luther. Curiously enough, the bibliography (p. 358) lists this book under his first name – as Tosikadze, in an apparent transliteration from Russian – and gives the impression that Inoue is his first name, although on the title page of his book the western order of his two names is given, viz., Tosikazu Inoue. 

Andronova gives a good survey of the many studies of the phonetics, grammar, and lexicography of early Latvian texts, and concludes that it is most important that researchers have an interest in the history of the language in relationship to their Lithuanian and Estonian neighbors and the historical, cultural, literary, theological, and sociological aspects. 

In her article “Estonian studies of old literary Estonian” (pp. 285-304), Külli Habicht writes that if we assume modern Estonian is defined as the language of the 20th century up to the present, then “…’old’ literary Estonian would span about 370 years, beginning with the first texts written in Estonian in the early 16th century” (p. 285). She discusses various attempts at periodization of Estonian and concludes that “…its periodization largely depends on the needs and viewpoints of the scholar.” She also mentions a number of source surveys that introduce new findings concerning Old Estonian texts. Interestingly enough, old Estonian manuscripts are being dis90 covered in libraries even today, as shown by Jüri Kivimäe’s recent discovery of a text which might date from the 16th century. Habicht briefly discusses the orthography, vocabulary, grammar, and lexicography of Old Estonian. She also mentions translation, where she writes that lexical matters stand out more than grammatical matters because: “…the sentence structure of O(ld) L(iterary) E(stonian) practically never fails to imitate that of the source text” (p. 295). Finally Habicht sees two important desiderata: (1) the compilation of electronic corpora of old Estonian texts and making them available on the internet, and (2) detailed studies of certain periods, authors, or linguistic phenomena. 

One really good feature of the book is the extensive bibliography (pp. 305-365) and the Index of Persons (pp. 367-377). However, their alphabetization, in which the letter z immediately follows s rather than occurring at the end of the alphabet after y, as is customary for English speakers, is surprising. 

In spite of the minor criticisms mentioned above, it seems to me that the editors and authors are to be congratulated on achieving their main goal of describing the progress made in the study of Latvian and Estonian and the cultural relationships between the speakers of these languages and German. 

William R. Schmalstieg 


Brundage, James A. The chronicle of Henry of Livonia. New York, Columbia University Press, 2003. 

Bugiano, Piero. Enrico di Lettonia, Chronicon Livoniae, La crociata del nord. Livorno, Books & Company, 2005.