The History of the Finnish Language

The History of the Finnish Language
Finnish has a fascinating history despite not being written down in any way until the middle ages.

Well, at least Word Nerds like me find Finnish fascinating. The history of the Finnish language goes back more than three thousand years, and offers a lot of interesting insights into the human condition and world history along the way.

Ancient Finnish

There is a theoretical language called Sami that existed as far back as 1500 BCE. Sami gave birth to what we call Proto-Finnic around that time, and Proto-Finnic eventually saw a distinct child group known as Baltic-Finnic form and split away in about the first century CE.

Strangely, Finnish was not written down at all until the Kingdom of Sweden annexed the country in the 15th century. That’s remarkable – fifteen hundred years of language development lost to history because no one wrote any of it down! The earliest written form of Finnish dates to 1450, which is surprisingly late in the game for a major language. And it wasn’t until a hundred years later than a coherent standard written form of the language was developed, combining elements of written Latin, Swedish, and German.

During the domination of Sweden, Finnish took on many Swedish words and other characteristics, and modern Finnish still has these “Swedish” features. Finnish has continued this attitude of taking the best examples from other languages, and today also features plenty of borrowings from English, German, and Russian. What’s interesting about this process is that most of the Swedish words incorporated into Finnish are government-related, while most of the English words borrowed are cultural in nature.

Modern Finnish

Finland didn’t have a strong national identity until the 19th century, when nationalist movements swept Europe and many countries sought to establish their own identity and borders, shrugging off ancient imperial rule. During the 19th century Finland joined this overall movement, seeking to promote itself as a distinct region and people. 1870 saw the publication of the first novel written in Finnish, and in 1892 Finnish was adopted as the official language of Finland.

Today there are about six million Finnish speakers in the world, and two major Finnish dialects: Western and Eastern, divided as you might expect between West and East Finland. The dialects are mutually intelligible, and are subdivided into several smaller dialects within those broad categories. One dialect, Meankieli, is spoken by a group of Finns who were annexed by Russia in 1809 and kept culturally isolated for some time. Meankieli is sometimes referred to as a separate language, but this is a political invention – it’s Finnish, all right.

Image by Mestos (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons