Although it was established as an official language only in the late 19th century, the Finnish language today is a recognized language of the European Union and the Nordic Council.
Finland’s case is especially interesting due to the development of Finnish nationalist sentiment in the 19th century, inspired largely by the publication of the "Kalevala," a national Finnish epic based on traditional Finnish folklore.
Classification and Early History of the Finnish Language
The Finnish language is classified as a member of the Baltic-Finnic branch of the Finno-Ugric languages, part of the Uralic language family. The language is closely related to Estonian and Livonian, among other languages.
A number of theories exist regarding the origins of the Uralic languages, including Finnish. Most theorists, however, believe that they originated in the boreal forest belt by the Ural Mountains region.
Emergence of Finnish as an Official Language
Before the 19th century, Finnish had no official language status. As part of the Kingdom of Sweden from the 13th to 19th centuries, Finland utilized the Swedish language for the purposes of education, government, and literature.
When Sweden ceded Finland to the Russian empire in 1809, the role of the Swedish language in Finland decreased significantly. Since Finland achieved independence in 1917, however, the Finnish have become more accepting of Swedish, which is now one of Finland’s national languages, along with Finnish.
Development of a Written Finnish Language
Scholars date the Finnish written tradition to the 16th century. At this time, the Lutheran bishop Mikael Agricola – now considered by many to be the founder of literary Finnish – translated the New Testament into the Finnish language.
Due to the facts that Finland was part of the Kingdom of Sweden from the 13th to 19th centuries and Swedish was the primary language of both everyday and official use during this time, Finnish and Swedish literature are closely intertwined.
Evidence of a uniquely Finnish literature during the Middle Ages is evident in Finnish folk poetry, such as epic poems concerning mythical events or shorter songs dealing with everyday happenings. Many of these texts existed in both oral and written forms, and some of them were used in the writing of the Finnish national epic, the "Kalevala," which aroused sentiments of Finnish nationalism upon its publication in the 19th century.
Finnish Nationalism and the Finnish Language
Although a written Finnish language had been in existence since Mikael Agricola’s translation of the New Testament in the 16th century, it had been used primarily in religious contexts. The new sense of nationalism which emerged in the 19th century inspired the need for the establishment of Finnish as a fully functional national language.
Toward this end, efforts were made to modernize and standardize the Finnish language in a way that would allow it to be used in everyday circumstances. By the 20th century, the Finnish language had undergone significant developments and was being used in more common contexts such as literature, administration, and journalism.
Contributions of the "Kalevala" to Finnish Nationalism
In 1835, the publication of the "Kalevala," an epic work grounded in Finnish folklore, helped to further awaken national sentiment in Finland, and further spurred Finland’s inhabitants to pursue independence, as well as a unique Finnish language and culture.
Elias Lonnrot’s compilation of Finnish folklore in the "Kalevala" resulted in immense progress for the Finnish language. With his work, Lonnrot helped to develop the modern Finnish vocabulary.
In the years following the publishing of the "Kalevala," the use of Finnish increased substantially until the Finnish language became the primary language of Finland’s government and educational bodies. In 1863, Finnish was finally declared an official language, alongside Swedish. In 1870, the publishing of the novel "Seven Brothers" by Aleksis Kivi became a landmark event, being the first novel written by a Finnish-speaker and in Finnish.
Contemporary Finnish Language
Today, an estimated 6 million people speak Finnish, most of them residing in Finland. The modern Finnish language serves as one of the official languages of Finland, where approximately 90 percent of the population claims the Finnish language as a mother tongue.
Finnish is also an official minority language in Sweden, an official language of the European Union, and one of the working languages of the Nordic Council. The Nordic Council – which includes Denmark, Finland, and Iceland, among others – allows citizens of Nordic countries to use their national language for government and official purposes without paying translation or interpretation fees.
Formal and Informal Varieties of the Finnish Language
The modern Finnish language includes two primary varieties: the standard language, referred to as yleiskieli, and the spoken language, known as puhekieli. Yleiskieli is used in formal situations, and also has a written form, known as kirjakieli (literally translated to "book language") which is used in most written texts. Puhekieli, on the other hand, is the language used in most everyday situations and in Finnish pop culture, like television shows.
Dialects of the Modern Finnish Language
The dialects of the Finnish language are divided into two groups: Western and Eastern. Although differences do exist in pronunciation and rhythm, the two dialects’ vocabulary and grammar are almost identical, allowing for western and eastern speakers to understand one another without difficulty.
The Finnish Language Outside of Finland
The Finnish language has very close ties to the Karelian language in Russia and Meankieli in Sweden. While Karelian is unique enough to have its own written form, Meankieli is a type of dialect completely intelligible by Finnish speakers.
The status of both Karelian and Meankieli as minority languages has proven to be a sensitive political issue. Due to these political sensitivities, for example, Sweden now officially recognizes Meankieli as a minority language, as well as the Finnish language.
Finnish Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Suomi, Suomea
Language Family: Uralic, Finnic
Official Language of: Finland
Spoken by Approximately 5,233,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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