Wednesday, June 4, 2008


It’s the orange color that gets you first. The signs are orange, the shelves are orange, and the sales people are orange. In amongst this orange you can buy all the things Home Depot sells – garden stuff, hardware, lights, lumber, and on and on. The store is BauHof, in Tallinn, but it could just as well be Home Depot in Woodsville NH.

Except for one glaring difference. The signs in the store here are all in Estonian. Only Estonian. It would be difficult to find anything in this store written in Russian. Although almost everyone in the store, both customers and clerks, speaks Russian, there is no presence of the Russian language.

There are good historical and sociological reasons for why in this country Estonian is now used exclusively. During the Soviet time, Russians (and other ethnic groups) came to Tallinn because the city offered a better place to live than most other places in the USSR. The better quality of life was enhanced by the fact that TV signals from Helsinki, Finland, were available, and thus there was a window to the West. The Russian population of Tallinn increased to where perhaps half of the people here now would not consider themselves native Estonians. It is thus all the more interesting that the written signs and the working language in the shops and the city is purely Estonian.

Part of this is a reaction by Estonians who, during the Soviet time, were watching their language and culture rapidly being Russified. There was every reason to believe that Estonia as a culture would someday just disappear. Independence in 1991 allowed them to counter this by removing all vestiges of Russian from everyday life and by emphasizing their own language.

A second reason for the exclusive use of Estonian is that there is a genuine desire on the part of Estonians to build a new nation based on principles and values -- a nation that can co-exist peacefully with its neighbors. A national slogan says it best: “Ühiselt ehitatud riik”, or roughly, “A home-built nation.” And Estonians recognize that the building of this new nation requires the use of a common language. The majority of Russian-Estonians in Tallinn have bought into the ideal, and want to be part of this nation building. They understand well why the signs in the BauHof are only in Estonian.

Constrast this to what is happening in the USA. In America, we seem to be saying that it is no longer necessary to have a common language. We are suggesting that Spanish can be used just as well as English, and we seen to accept the fact that eventually we will have a nation with two official languages.

But history does not treat well nations that do not have a single language. With very few exceptions, multiple official languages in one country has always led to tensions, conflict and discrimination. What the Estonians understand, and what the Americans seem to have forgotten, is that it is language that makes both a nation and a nationality. If we Americans value our nation, we need to take a lesson from the Estonians and be ONE nation, …. indivisible.

-- Aarne


pamela said...

Sometimes, I think that the U.S. has a serious self-confidence problem. Sure, we assert military and policy influence all over the world, yet still we lack the sense of legitimacy that would validate the idea of ONE national language.

For Estonians, there is no question that the country deserves cultural self-protection. But every bully secretly loathes himself, and I'm afraid that until the U.S. grows up and appreciates how truly good we could be, we will never be confident enough to insist on protecting our culture the same way.

Sandra Sohard said...

thanks for teaching marketing!