Dr Martin Ehala

Institute of Estonian and

General Linguistics

University of Tartu

Ülikooli 18

Tartu  50090







A personalised view to my life

My professional development started at then Tallinn Pedagogical Institute at the specialty of teacher of mother tongue and literature in 1985. Initially, I was interested in literature; the study of language did not attract me because of the dry orthography and grammar drill I was subjected in the high school. This prejudice was broken by professor Mati Hint’s splendid lectures already in my first year of study. Nevertheless – until the end of my undergraduate studies, I was not sure whether I would continue in linguistics or literary studies.

Finally, I made the decision on methodological grounds. Literary studies enabled boundless theorizing, but provided little criteria to test the hypotheses. Such a lack of restrictions seemed to me a bit frustrating, and to restrict myself, I choose linguistics where real and undeniable empirical data do not allow theoretical thought to fly too high and bold. My research interest concentrated on language change that I viewed as a self-organizing process.

In 1991, I managed to get a Cambridge Trinity College Eastern European Bursary for M.Phil course in linguistics. The competition was tight and it must have been a bit miracle to be one of the chosen. The Western society was initially quite a cultural shock for a person who had lived his life in the closed soviet society, but I discovered quite soon that the education I had got, gave me quite a solid background for succeeding in Cambridge. I defended my M.Phil in 1992 and continued for PhD under the supervision of Prof April McMahon. I defended my PhD dissertation „Self-organisation and language change: The theory of linguistic bifurcations” in 1996 (the examiners were Profs Peter Matthews and Nigel Vincent).

Maybe I would have liked to stay in Cambridge a further 3 years as a post-doc, but was not elected a fellow. Thus, I returned to Estonia and started to work as an associate professor at the Tallinn Pedagogical Institute that was soon renamed as Tallinn Pedagogical University and recently as Tallinn University. As there was not many people who had got educated in Western society in the transitional Estonia, my educational background gave me a plenty of career opportunities that a post-doc in Cambridge could not dream of. In 1996 I was elected a dean of the Philological faculty and soon thereafter the editor in chief of a newly established international journal of humanities and social sciences Trames at the Academy of Sciences of Estonia. Both positions assumed innovations, and that was something a young angry man was full of. Both in the faculty and journal, my main goal was to promote scholarship meeting the international standards. Partly because of this, I was nominated (and accepted) as a member of the European Generation at the European Academy of Sciences. This is a nice title, but I must admit that I have not participated in the activities of this organization at all.

In parallel with active engagement in academic administration, I started to write mother tongue textbooks for schools. Partly, it was a fulfillment of a promise I had made on my study years to save the schoolchildren from boring grammar drill and show them the beauty of language. Maybe I got a bit carried along, as I wrote as many as 6 textbooks and even established my own company Künnimees to publish my books. By now, Künnimees has published around 20 titles, but does not intend to expand. In 1998 I was elected a professor of mother tongue and didactics at Tallinn Pedagogical University. My goal in this position was to develop a modern functionally oriented teaching approach to mother tongue study and its dissemination to future teachers. In 2003, all these activities brought me (besides other interesting and useful things) the Educational Prize of the President of Estonia.

In 2000, my period as a dean ended, but I remained very closely tied to the reorganization of the Tallinn Pedagogical University until 2008 – I was the head of the academic committee of the university, participated actively in the establishment of Tallinn University and was a member of  several other committees, from 2004, also a the chair of the department of Estonian Philology.. All this period from 1996 to 2008 was a time of a very rapid growth and rearrangement of the university: the number of students doubled, the university started to offer paid education, the Bologna system was introduced in organization of curricula. Active participation in these processes gave me an experience that I value very highly.

On the other hand, all this had a price, too. Quite understandably I was not able to develop my theory of Language change actively while I was writing textbooks and administering university. In 1996, when I completed my PhD, the ideas I developed were quite unknown. Now, 12 year later the same general principles I advocated have become very influential in diachronic linguistics. Although I feel happy that my field shares the ideas that I expressed 12 year ago as one of the first ones, It still regret a bit that my work has hardly contributed to this development on international level (which might have been different if I had stayed in Cambridge).

Of course, it is not possible to turn back time and take the other choice (and I even do not wish this as my life has been exciting enough). On the other hand, I have accumulated quite a number of  theoretical ideas during these years and these need to be elaborated. This motivated me to take a quite sharp turn in my life: when my contract ended in, I changed my busy administrative life in Tallinn University for a quiet life of a researcher in Tartu University. Basically this would mean me a similar academic freedom as a post doc has. If I could not have this chance 12 year ago in Cambridge, I am having it now in Tartu.