Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Mikael Agricola, Elias Lönnrot and the Finnish Language

Sometimes I question my decision to study Finnish. My class ends this month and I can do very little in Finnish except to refuse the offer of a plastic shopping bag. My one Finnish sentence is very green! "En tarvitse pussia" I say, piously pulling out my ChicoBag.

Some might question the need to learn Finnish because everyone in Finland speaks English so well. It is true that there are millions of fascinating people in Finland who can speak English better than I.

However, if you don't know Finnish then you can't read Finnish and I fear I am missing a nation's worth of interesting reading material.

For starters I cannot read the Helsingin Sanomat and it looks like the world's most interesting the newspaper, next to the Concord Monitor! It is full of wordy articles and I am even saving some of them for my scrapbook despite the language barrier. Interesting newspapers mean that people are reading. Finland has the highest newspaper readership in the European Union and the third highest in the world, just behind Norway and Japan.

And then there is the Finnish literature that is there just out of my reach. And Finnish literature brings me to my topic: The Flag Day this week is April 9. April 9 is the day that Mikael Agricola, the founder of written Finnish, died. It is also the day Elias Lönnrot was born. Because of those two important personages the day is also known as the Day of the Finnish Language.

Mikael Agricola
One of the interesting things about Finnish is how recently the written language was developed. Before Agricola, Finnish was only a spoken language. Agricola, who became Bishop of Turku, translated the New Testament and the mass into Finnish for printing during the 16th Century. It was a goal of the Reformation that everyone should be able to read the prayers and New Testament for themselves. In order to accomplish this task, Agricola had to develop rules which became the basis for modern Finnish. The enormity of this task reminds me of Sequoyah's twelve year labor to develop the written Cherokee language.

But Finland was not an independent country so for a long period written Finnish did not flourish. Education was conducted solely in Swedish. Written Finnish was used only for religious purposes. Then in the 19th Century written Finnish developed at lightening speed.

Elias Lönnrot
I cannot begin to discuss everything that happened to the Finnish language and Finland in the 19th Century, but certainly a nationalist pride blossomed and this encouraged the discovery and embracing of all things Finnish. Elias Lönnrot was born on April 9, 1802. Lönnrot trained as a doctor and during his medical service in northern and eastern Finland collected and compiled Finnish folk tales that were printed as the Kalevala! The Kalevala is the be all and end all, I tell you!

So, to recap, because I find the blossoming of Finnish so amazing:
1537-Agricola begins to translate the New Testament
300 years of government and education in Swedish.
1809-Finland ceded to Russia
1835-36-Lönnrot publishes the "old" Kalevala
1870 - Alexis Kivi publishes Seven Brothers, the first Finnish novel.
1917-Finnish independence

From 1870 Finnish literature developed at a rapid pace. The Books from Finland blog gives you a taste of how rich the literature is. The latest news in Finnish literature is that Sofi Oksanen's book, Puhdistus ( Purge), was awarded the Nordic Council's literary prize and the English translation will be released next month by Grove Press.

My pictures are from the top:
The cover art for Purge from the Grove Press web site.
The portrait of Elias Lönnrot hanging in the Turku library.
A woodcut portrait of Mikael Agricola found on Wikipedia.


  1. Will you tell us some stories from the Kalevala?

  2. Yes!I plan to visit the Gallen-Kallela Museum next week so maybe then! Here is the link. His art is illustrations of the Kalevala.

  3. I don't know how to eat breakfast without newspaper. I don't watch news from TV, I read them from the paper. Because of this, I'm sometimes half a day behind, but I don't mind. This habit comes from my youth. At teenage years, when I wasn't able to order newspaper, I watched the morning TV.