Is it Finnish Language Day again already?!

by joegio

Yes!  It is!

I know exactly one Finnish word: “sisu.”  I’m not sure of the exact translation, but it basically means “the grim determination and stoutness of heart necessary to dig in for a long winter war with the Soviet Union in one of the coldest places on the planet.”  I do not have much sisu.  When it’s really cold outside, sometimes I close my eyes and pretend I am inside a toaster to try and warm up.

But it turns out there is a lot more to the Finnish language than a single word!

Finland started out as a Swedish territory around the time of the Crusades (12th Century) and remained that way for a while.  Swedish settlers made up a lot of the population, and Swedish was used as the primary language for administrative matters and for education, where it was used alongside Latin.  This was fine and everything, except for the fact that a lot of the people in Finland were, in fact, Finnish, and had a spoken language all their own.

All that changed because of a guy named Mikael Agricola:


Not a lot is known about Mikael’s early life, but it is presumed he was born to a wealthy peasant family (whatever that means) in a predominantly Swedish-speaking town in Finland.  His family was well-off enough to afford an education for young Mikael, so he became fluent in Swedish and Latin and also, somewhere along the line, in his native Finnish.  After his initial schooling, Mikael was sent to Wittenberg to study nailing things to doors.  Or something.  There, Mikael began work on his defining achievement: a translation of the New Testament into written Finnish.

This was not exactly simple, given that Finnish at the time did not have a written language.  Ever the innovator, Mikael just made it up as he went along, incorporating German, Latin, and Swedish syntax, grammar, and spellings as he saw fit to make ends meet.

Mikael went on to become the first Lutheran bishop of Finland and, under that guise, joined a delegation to Russia in 1557 to negotiate a peace treaty (Sweden and Russia were fighting in Finland, their mutual backyard.  Or like, side yard where you might park a car).  He died on the way back on April 9, 1557.

Okay, so a couple hundred years passed, there was some famine, there was a plague, and then in the early 19th century, the Finnish War which was fought between Sweden and Russia over the place where they park their car.  Russia won and Finland was established as an autonomous Grand Duchy of Russia.  At this point, the Finnish language assumed the role as a centralizing national identity-type thing for the Finns who at this point had been using all their best sisu to tolerate being someone else’s territory for hundreds and hundreds of years.

In the 1835, the Kalevala was published, and would go on to become the national epic of Finland.  Wikipedia tells me that the Kalevala is basically what you’d expect from a national epic: the world was created from the shards of a duck egg, people are carried by eagles, and there is a mysterious and powerful talisman called a Sampo.  It is all pretty exciting.

This codified a national identity for the Finns and Finnish nationalism grew through the 19th century.  By 1892, Finnish (the language) achieved equal legal status with Swedish.  The Finns staged a few revolutions in the early 20th century, and then declared independence from an increasingly radically communist Russia in December 1917.

But that’s not what we’re celebrating today.  Today, we celebrate the guy who made it all possible.


Today’s question: if you were going to make up a language, what existing languages would YOU borrow spare parts from?