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Teretulemast pardale: Linguistic landscapes of Talsinki travel

Updated: Sep 6, 2022

In 1965, a regular ferry line from Helsinki to Tallinn was opened. Since then, Tallinn has been a very popular travel destination for Finnish people. If you live in Finland, the likelihood of having visited Tallinn is high. And why wouldn’t it be? Tallinn is a charming town with layers of interesting history, the restaurant scene is vibrant and it is nearby - only 85 kilometres away from Helsinki. Since the (second) independence of Estonia in 1991, Tallinn has also attracted Finnish businesses and many other people interested in the lifestyle of “the Southern cousins”. Naturally, there has been interest in the direction too. There were already people escaping the Soviet Union, but especially after the borders opened (and even more so when Estonia joined the EU in 2005) numerous Estonians have visited and moved to Finland permanently or less permanently. Especially known are the “Kalevipojad”, the Estonian construction workers, who commute weekly over the Gulf of Finland.

After this long introduction, it is unnecessary to say that the travel between Finland and Estonia is busy. It is the Finnish and Estonian speakers travelling, but especially in summer there are tourists all over the world wanting to explore both cities. How is this reflected in the harbours and on the ferries? In this post, I will be looking into the linguistic landscapes of those locations.

Linguistic landscape is a form of study that has gained popularity over the last decade in applied linguistics. It is literally a study of landscape: what languages are visible (or audible) in certain places, in what quantities and what does this tell about the people(s) living there. Many applied linguists have been interested especially in those languages that are not visible in the landscape. This is often the case for minority languages and increasing their quantity in the landscape has been considered a method for revitalisation or gaining prestige in the community.

In this post, I am looking at languages in different types of spaces: language(s) of the commercial space and language of informational space (information signs). I collected “the data” for this post on a day trip to Tallinn in April 2022. I took Eckerö Line’s ferry Finlandia from Länsiterminaali in Helsinki to A-terminal in Tallinn, and these are the locations where the photos were taken. I focus on the visual space, although many languages were present also in the audioscape.

Informational space and official language(s)

Finland has two official languages (Finnish and Swedish), Estonia one (Estonian). However, in Estonia and especially in the North, there is a big, Russian speaking minority (in Tallinn around 40 % of the population) whose situation in politics is… sensitive. In both countries English is widely spoken, but unlike the common belief Estonians do not speak that much Finnish anymore. However, Estonian and Finnish are closely related languages and some vocabulary and grammar are similar.

The purpose of many signs is to guide, give directions or inform about rules and safety. This seemed to be the case also in the ports and on the ferry. The main languages used were Finnish, English and Estonian. The choice and order of languages was seemingly random, at least I could not find a pattern. There were also some signs that were in different languages maybe because of the manufacturer or the expected tourists.

Also, the war in Ukraine was noticeable in the harbour, where there were signs guiding the refugees. In some of the signs both Ukrainian and Russian were used, in some only Ukrainian.

In April 2022, the Covid restrictions had been removed but the signs to inform about safety were still in place in both Helsinki and Tallinn. The rules were communicated in both ports in multiple languages: in Finnish, Estonian and English. In the Port of Helsinki sign you can also see Swedish. All the posters had visuals to support the texts. This was the case for purely informational signs. In Tallinn, there were posters trying to convince people to follow the safety rules through humorous approaches in Estonian.

Most likely the signs have been added at different times, and probably there is no conscious language policy for neither the ports nor the ferry company. Finnish representatives here (Helsinki port and Eckerö line) have chosen to use Swedish, but not in every situation. Russian was used little, which can be because Russian speakers living in Finland are expected to understand Finnish too. Previously in Tallinn I have seen many information related signs in Russian too, but now there weren’t really any.

Commercial space

Commercial space is not the same way restricted by the official (language) policies as the official signs organised by the city. Commercial space follows the rules of capitalism and uses the languages that help to sell the product. Companies also use languages to prompt emotions and images - for example using Italian or French for creating an image of romance.

In the ports and the ferry there are two types of advertisements: those set up by companies and those set by the ports (who are actually also companies). On the ferry, the advertisement space is solely reserved for the ferry company and its partners. Interestingly, almost all advertisements on the ferry were in Finnish. Sometimes English was included with a small print.

The port of Tallinn had chosen to advertise itself and the city in Estonian and English. Helsinki port had posters with good wishes in playful Finnish and Estonian. Interestingly, the images on the ferry were also almost alone about Tallinn/Estonia.

There were some cases where the same adverts were both in Estonian and Finnish, while some advertisements were clearly targeted towards Estonians OR Finnish, not both.

Why does this matter?

The linguistic landscape of the ports and the ferry is not surprising. It reflects pretty much the people who are travelling and their expected languages: Finnish, Estonian and occasional English. Anyhow, the linguistic landscape is rather messy without any clear policy behind it. For me personally, navigating in this space is easy: I speak and understand both Finnish and Estonian. All the information, entertainment, advertisements, rules, guidance, is available to me. However, this is not the case for an average traveller, especially not for one that does not speak Estonian or Finnish. Deciding to provide signs systematically with English, Estonian and Finnish (not necessarily in that order) would be a good start. I understand Estonians’ reluctance to actively use Russian, but… Maybe sometimes it would be in place.

It is also striking how clear it is in the linguistic landscape that this route is targeted to Finns on holiday. According to my previous experience, this varies a bit between the ferry companies. Still, it is very visible that the most wanted customers are from Finland, travelling to Estonia, and not the other way around. Perhaps Tallinn is just a more attractive destination, but more likely Finns can better afford the trip. Salaries in Finland are higher and so are the prices, which makes a trip to Helsinki less attractive.

However, Tallinn and Helsinki are often paired together and images of a double city with an underground train connection has been flashed many times in the past. How would this double city function, when the gap between the average salary of the two countries is still so wide? Would the linguistic landscape change and if yes, to which direction?

Venla Rantanen used to travel regularly between Tallinn and Helsinki in 2014-2018 during her university studies in Tallinn. She has a complicated relationship with Estonia and Estonians.

Historical information about Helsinki-Tallinn travel here.

Read my earlier blog post on ferry travel between the UK and France here.


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