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  • Estonia contest will determine world's most beautiful language. Will it be Estonian?

    The Estonian Minister of Education, Tonis Lukas, has announced a contest to determine the world’s most beautiful language.

    Lukas is asking children from around the world to send in recordings of no more than seven words in their local language, to be compared with recordings of Estonian. The winner will be crowned the world's most beautiful language. It’s all part of Estonia’s 90th anniversary jubilee, commemorating the nation’s first independence from Russia after the overthrow of the tsars. Estonia’s second independence came after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    Official Jubilee logo 
    Official logo for the 90th anniversary of Estonia’s first independence from Russia

    Each month of 2008 will showcase a different aspect of Estonia’s proud history: January celebrates the national War of Independence. Though Estonian Independence Day actually falls in February, that month is dedicated not to independence but to the country’s president (hardly surprising for a former Soviet satellite). The former Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, or Eesti Nõukogude Sotsialistlik Vabariik, in beautiful Estonian, went capitalist and joined the EU in 2005, so June will be “the month of the Bank of Estonia.” And July is “Local Governments Month,” celebrating free and fair elections in this formerly one-party state, which now has more than a dozen political parties scrambling for power, much like post-war Italy.

    And speaking of Italy, according to Lukas, there’s a story that Estonian once came in second to Italian in a language beauty contest. The Estonian sentence that won the silver (or lost the gold, depending on your point of view) was “soida tasa ule silla” which means 'go slowly over the bridge,’ not exactly a phrase that screams out “winner.”

    There’s no record of who took bronze in that contest, or if there even was a third contestant. And Lukas didn’t say what the golden words were, but according to wikipedia.it, the winning phrase was “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate,” a bit of Italian trash talk that means, “My entry will beat your entry so you might as well give up.”

    But Minister Lukas clearly hopes that this time around Estonian will win, beating out not just Italian in what has clearly become a grudge match, but all the other traditional beauty pageant contenders like French, Portuguese, Latvian and Lithuanian.

    Miss Estonia 2007 
    Miss Estonia of 2007, shown in this AFP photo relaxing on a Baltic ferry, spoke seven words of Estonian for the talent portion of her beauty pageant competition, beating out the first runner-up, who spoke Russian and posed for her picture on a tractor.

    There are no international standards for judging language beauty, but while Estonian has only about a million speakers, most of them still in Estonia, it is now an official language of the European Union and it has several linguistic features which odds-makers think could put it in the winner’s circle: a member of the very select Finno-Ugric group of languages (the only other members being Finnish and Hungarian), its nouns have 14 cases and each verb has two infinitives.In contrast, Italian, also an EU language, is weak on cases, infinitives, and suffixation, though it comes from a larger language family and has way more speakers, not just in Italy, but also in New York. Plus, Italian appears on menus more often than Estonian. But even though the beauty contest entrants are limited to only seven words apiece, Estonian words, which can have up to six suffixes, can be very, very long, giving the Estonians a clear advantage over their Indo-European opponents. On top of this, Estonian is expected to pick up extra points from the Eastern bloc judges, who tend to be stingy when awarding points to Western languages. Of course there will be many entrants in the Estonian language beauty pageant. Children in China, Russia, and even tiny Jamaica, are already training hard, and in the United States, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is considering a requirement to force American schools to enter their students in this global competition as part of the administration’s “No Child Left Behind” initiative.

    But it’s not likely that there will be any Yiddish speakers competing in the Estonian language beauty pageant. The Baltic was once home to many Yiddish speakers, but Estonia’s Yiddishkeit was completely wiped out early on in the Holocaust through concerted efforts of the Nazis and their Estonian collaborators, and after Estonia’s Jews were killed, the Nazis set up concentration camps in Estonia and sent Jews there from other parts of Europe. Prosecutions for crimes committed during the Holocaust have been rare in Estonia, and while Estonia finally did erect a monument to the victims of the Holocaust, there currently are no plans to dedicate a month of 2008 to re-examine Estonia’s clouded Holocaust history.

    The 3,000 Jews currently residing in the capital city of Tallinn all came to Estonia after the war, and while October, 2008, will be “the month of Nationalities in Estonia,” honoring Estonia’s 121 different historic ethnic communities, and Jews are thought to have lived in Estonia as early as the 14th century, it’s not yet certain whether today’s Estonian Jews -- most of them from the former Soviet Union, which Estonia is celebrating its independence from -- are to be included in the October festivities. But even if they were, and even if the country’s Jewish immigrants actually spoke Yiddish, they’d never get high marks from those former-East German judges.

    Rabbi Kot and the new synagogue in Tallin 
    Shmuel Kot, the first rabbi in Estonia since World War II, stands in front of Estonia’s newest and, in fact, its only synagogue in Tallinn, the nation’s capital. Entering a language beauty contest is the last of his worries

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