Finnish: an origin story
Despite being a Nordic country (Scandinavia consist only of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark) and sharing Europe’s longest border with Russia, the Finnish language is the tall blond stranger in this company.
On the origin of Finns
As many of you will know, the origins of a language are not necessarily the same as the origins of the people who speak it, or the culture they’ve adopted. Theories on the roots of the Finns range from the ingenious (an amateur Egyptologist suggested in the 1930s that it was the Finns who gave birth to the Ancient Egyptian culture) to the likely: that the area has been populated by various ethnic groups arriving from Eastern and Southern Europe following the retiring sheet of ice approximately 10,000 years ago.
These peoples would have spoken languages that are unfortunately long lost to us, though a few place names not derivable from Finnish might have their origins in them. Lapland was inhabited by another people, the Sámi, and a prehistoric version of their language, a kind of an Ur-Sámi, was probably also spoken further south, though we don’t know by whom.
The genetics of a language where genetic testing and other handy tools exist for those interested in the origins of people, researching the history of a language is notoriously difficult, particularly when there are no documents written in that language that could be compared against each other to find changes over time.
To try to uncover the development of a language, historical linguists look into the sounds, words, and grammatical structures of different languages to find similarities. A large number of similarities between two languages mean they probably also share roots. We can also assume that words standing for certain things are older than others, and by comparing those to the same words in other languages reconstruct a hypothetical proto-language, the shared ancestor. According to the Swadesh list, published by the American linguist Morris Swadesh in the 1970s, there are about 100 of these core words, including fish, heart, fire, sun, and I.
Ancestors of Finnish
Based on this type of research, we can say pretty confidently that the Finnish language originates in the area covered by dense fir-tree forest close to the river Volga and the Ural Mountains in present-day Russia. It’s consequently classified as a Uralic language. Despite its physical origins it’s not, however, related to Russian, which belongs to the Eastern European Slavic language family.
The most ancient ancestor of Finnish and other Uralic languages was Proto-Uralic, spoken approximately 2000 to 7000 years ago. It later split into Proto-Samoyedic, the grandfather of Samoyedic languages currently spoken by approximately 25,000 people in Northern Russia, and Proto-Finno-Ugric, which can be dated back about 4000 years. Proto-Finno-Ugric separated further into Baltic Finnic, Ugric, Mari, Permic, Mordvinic, and Sámic languages at different points in time.
Out of modern Finno-Ugric languages, Hungarian (13 million), Finnish (5.4 million), and Estonian (1.1 million) have the largest number of speakers, while there are numerous other languages, such as Hill Mari, Mansi, and Inari Sámi, that only have a few thousand speakers or are in danger of disappearing altogether. Though most of these languages are too separated to be mutually intelligible anymore, there are noticeable similarities for example in number words: ‘four’ is neljä in Finnish, nēļa in Livonian, and ńelä in Khanty.
Finnish was probably brought to Southern Finland only about 1500 years ago, though who brought it remains at best an educated guess. It was possibly spoken by trading peoples living south of the Baltic Sea, seen as prestigious by the predominantly hunter-gathering dwellers north of the gulf. The language would have been adopted by population groups scattered around what is today Finland, with language developing quite independently in Western and Eastern Finland into varieties that were much more distinct than modern Finnish dialects are.
The oldest known text to be written in a Finnic language is from the mid-1200s on a birch-bark letter from Novgorod, present-day Russia – difficult to interpret but possibly some kind of a spell. It bears little resemblance to modern Finnish: “jumolanuoliïnimiži / noulisehanoliomobou / jumolasoud’niiohovi” has been transcribed as “Jumalannuoli, kymmenen [on] nimesi / Tämä nuoli on Jumalan oma / Tuomion-Jumala johtaa.” A sentence found in a German manuscript some 200 years younger is much more intelligible for a 21st-century Finnish speaker: “Mijnna thachton gernast spuho somen gelen Emijna daijda” would be “minä tahdon kernaasti puhua suomen kielen, en minä taida”, ironically a complaint about wanting to speak Finnish but being unable to do so!
The standardization of the multiple varieties of Finnish was brought about by the creation of written language in the 16th century, encouraged by the Reformation which required preaching in the local language. It was based heavily on south-western dialects, which form the basis of modern Finnish. The Bishop of Turku, Mikael Agricola, published the New Testament in Finnish in 1548 effectively creating written from of the language from scratch, and is today celebrated as the father of literary Finnish.
The oldest words in Finnish
Though most, if not all, of the above Finnish words would sound completely foreign to a non-Finno-Ugric speaker, the Finnish vocabulary didn’t come out of nowhere. By comparing similar words across languages, we get an idea of how the physical environment, culture, and communication with other peoples influenced the language: you wouldn’t need a word for a boat if you had no connection with water. Some of the oldest words still in use in Finnish date back about 4000 years to Proto-Finno-Ugric, and include luu (bone), nainen (woman), kala (fish), and elää (to live). Indo-European loanwords, about 1000 years younger, are jyvä (grain), mehiläinen (bee), and orpo (orphan). From about 1500bc the first words relating to the sea and borrowed from Baltic languages pop up: meri for ‘sea’, ankerias for ‘eel’, as well as morsian for ‘bride’, siemen for ‘seed’, and aitta for ‘granary’. The Sami language has also enriched Finnish with words such as kahlata (to wade), nuotio (campfire), and kaamos (polar night).
Finnish is sometimes called a linguistic freezer because it has preserved many old Germanic loanwords, dating to the same era as the Baltic loans, close to their original form: the Proto- kuningaz is still kuningas in Finnish today, whereas the modern Swedish word is kung and in English, of course, king. The Finnish word for ‘city’, kaupunki, was spelled kaup-angra in Proto-Germanic. Other Germanic loans are juusto for ‘cheese’ and kulta for ‘gold’.
More recent loans show the effects modern neighbouring languages Swedish and Russian have had on Finnish. Porukka (group, ‘posse’), kapakka (tavern), and vaino (persecution, from the word vojna, meaning war) are all Russian loans, whereas Swedish speakers might recognize sänky (säng) for bed, koulu (skola) for school, and tuoli (stol) for chair. English continues to leave its mark particularly in modern slang with words such as digata (to dig, to like), fiilis (feeling), and keissi (case).