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Estonian dialects in the mirror of the last Estonian census

The article addresses the results of the Estonian 2011 population and housing census which was the first census to record Estonian native-speaking residents’ self-reported capacities of Estonian dialects. While the census data cannot be perhaps interpreted as the comprehension or regular use of traditional Estonian dialects known from the end of XX century and earlier, the enumeration can still be a valuable source for investigating how the variation of Estonian is perceived in the new Millennium. Informed by perceptual dialectology (Preston 1989, 1999), our main focus is to observe the spread of less prominent dialects which are linguistically closer to Standard Estonian. After reviewing the literature on language shift to common Estonian, we briefly outline some theoretical considerations of sociolinguistics and perceptual dialectology, both of which depart from social constructivist epistemology. Then we map our main findings: firstly, how self-reported capacities of Estonian varieties are geographically spread, and secondly, which (sub)dialects were not reported in the census, and then try to interpret on reasons behind it. Finally, we examine two traditional sub-dialect areas – Lüganuse and Jõhvi – and what particular varieties were reported there.

The analysis revealed that the residents of the peripheries of Estonia (the Western islands and South-East Estonia) marked local dialects more often than the residents of the Northern, Western and central parts of Estonia. Besides migration, the spread of the well known dialects with a strong and perhaps cultivated identity can be described by the radiation effect (see Fought 2002), which explains the expansion of prominent dialects from their traditional areas into other parts of the country, in some rare cases dominating other dialects almost entirely. That is especially the case of the Võru dialect but also of the island dialect that radiated across the sea to the inland parishes. Part of it has to do with people themselves moving but it may very well be that dialects with more dominant identities tend to suppress the awareness of other nearby dialects. All in all, dialect differences are as real as people believe them to be and these beliefs may have a great impact on the present and future of dialects. People may endorse the use of local dialects or abandon them entirely.