Finnish Language

Brief History of the Language

Finnish Language Map Lapland Karelia Ahvenanmaa (Åland) Finland Sweden Finns

Finnish belongs to the Uralic, or Finno-Uralic language family, which, unlike the Germanic, Celtic, Romance and Slavic languages, is not Indo-European. Though the Finns presently live in close proximity and share recent history with the Scandinavians, it is believed they originally migrated from the Ural mountains. Hungarian also belongs to the same family, though the two languages display a greater degree of difference than German and Russian. Estonian is its closest neighbor, making the two somewhat akin to Spanish and Italian.

Ancient Finnish Petroglyph

Although it is not an Indo-European language, Finnish does have a great number of Germanic loan words, some of which are quite archaic. The Germanic origin of these words can tell us a lot about the cultural contact and exchange that occurred between the two peoples long ago. Some examples are: kuningas (king), tuoli (chair - same root as 'stool'), koulu (school, same root), puola (spool), talli (stable), naula (nail), miekka (sword), rauta (iron), koru (basket), leipä (bread, related to loaf), sali (room), etc. Just looking at this list one can infer that Germanic peoples traded with ancient Finns, probably introducing iron and various other goods.

In the 12th and 13th centuries Sweden conquered Finland and made it into a province. Although it was fairly autonomous, the Swedish language inevitably left its mark on Finnish. Swedish and Russian missionaries brought not only Christianity to Finnish Pagans, but also a laundry list of vocabulary: kirkko (church), sielu (soul), pappi (priest), pastori (pastor), etc.

Finnish was first written down in the 16th century, by Mikael Agricola. Before then it was considered a crude peasant tongue, as opposed to the language of the ruling Swedes. In the Romantic period several poets were important, but by far the most famous personality was Elias Lönnrot. He traveled in the Karelian countryside, collecting folk tales and legends left over from pre-Christian times, and eventually artfully wove them together into a coherent epic poem, the Kalevala. One could write on and on about this, but for the sake of brevity, let's just say that its publication in 1835 (first version) and then in 1849 (the now widely-read edition) were a key catalyst in the Finnish nationalist movement.

During the same time, new words and concepts were entering the country, but scholars felt the need to protect and preserve the language. For this reason there are many loan-translations in Finnish that are often directly translated from Swedish or German. Some examples: voileipä (butter-bread; sandwich), sateenvarjo (rain-shadow; umbrella), mustekala (ink-fish; octopus), sadetakki (rain-jacket), sanakirja (word-book; dictionary), jääkaappi (ice-cupboard; refrigerator), etc.

The newest chapter in the Finnish language is essentially the age of the internet. Some words have come over as loan-translations or newly invented words - hiiri (literally, mouse), tietokone (knowledge-machine), sähköposti (electronic mail), but others have just entered the language directly: kursori (cursor), linkki (link), surfailla netissä (to surf the web), klikata (to click), tekstailla (to send text messages), and even googlata (to 'google' something).