Planning a new standard language: Finnic minority languages meet the new millennium

Planning a new standard language: Finnic minority languages meet the new millennium edited by Helena Sulkala & Harri Mantila (translated by Marja Heikkinen) is a collection from 2010 of eight dissertations on the current state of some of the lesser-known languages in the Finnic family. Finnish is of course the dominant Finnic language but smaller languages such as Meänkieli, Kven, Vepsian, Livonian, Karelian and Võro are threatened or severely endangered. The title of this collection sums up a common premise among the essay authors: the importance of standardizing the language in order to ensure its survival. When the topic of language standardization comes up, I immediately think of Romansch, and its five disparate idioms. On the Romansch language continuum, the easternmost and westernmost Romansch speakers cannot understand one another. An artificial language called Rumantsch Grischun was developed in the early eighties in an attempt to unify the idioms. Rumantsch Grischun is a written language, although I have heard it spoken. Perhaps my intense study in learning the Sursilvan idiom has distorted my perception of the relevance of Romansch, but I was nonetheless surprised that none of the essayists even mentioned it when discussing the standardization of other European minority languages. Mantila however mentioned the standardization of Aromanian, spoken in Macedonia.

When one does standardize a language, a general rule is:

“However, beyond the Nordic countries, there are cases where the creation of new standard minority languages has been based on compromises between dialects of different areas.”

That is exactly what has occurred in the standardized language of Rumantsch Grischun, where even the smallest idiom of Romansch, that of Sutsilvan, had its input.

The Finnic minority languages are new as written languages. Consider that Finnish itself only became standardized in the mid-nineteenth century. Mantila grabbed my attention with a brief history outlining the standardization of Finnish. A key to language survival is not so much its spoken use, but rather its development as a written form:

“Although the standardisation of a minority language is not based on the mission of constructing a nation-state, standardisation and the literary use of a minority language is highly significant from the point of view of the identity of the minority. Using the language in literary contexts and granting it an acknowledged status turns it into a visible, concrete symbol of identity. In Meänkieli and Kven, the rise from the position of undervalued dialect and mixed language experienced as deteriorated to the status of a language seen as real and equal with other languages has been central. It may well be that the core objective of standardisation in the planning of a minority language is, in fact, to make the language visible. In the present world a language that only exists in spoken form is easily ignored.”


“While even small minorities used to survive for centuries using their unofficial language in the premodern world, in today’s situation a language will become endangered if it is not used in public life, the media, the school institution, and if it is not cultivated in writing.”

Why is developing a written standard so important? It makes the language accessible. Regional variants limit the reader base and might turn your potential audience away. Standardization brings authority to a written language:

“When a minority language becomes a standard language, it is simultaneously assigned some of the authority of a cultural institution. As long as a language is not standardised, texts written in it are easily perceived as amateur writing. When talking about the standardisation of a language, we could also talk about the standardisation of literature.”


“Most writers do, in fact, resort to an established standard language regardless of whether the mother tongue skills of the minority authors are sufficient for the purposes of versatile artistic expression or not. On top of this, they are faced with the above-mentioned tendency of the literary institution to classify fiction written in a non-standardised language as amateur writing. Further, there is also the question of visibility and credibility. An author who writes in the majority language has far better chances of making his works noticed.”

The Kven language did not see its first novel until 2004. This was late for a European minority language. The first author of Kven fiction was Alf Nilsen-Børsskog, who had a daunting task ahead of him. With no Kven language academy to fall back on, Nilsen-Børsskog had to standardize the language himself:

“Nilsen-Børsskog is trilingual. His childhood’s languages were his mother tongue Kven, and Norwegian and North Saami. He says it would have been much easier to write in Norwegian or Saami, since these languages already had existing literary traditions. Yet, he chose to write in Kven because, in his mind, it was the only appropriate language to write this story in. It was only in the Kven language that the people and events could be conveyed vividly enough and in the right way. Because of his choice of language, the author needed to create a written form of his mother tongue practically without models or points of comparison, mainly helped in the venture by his skills in Finnish. He had to make innumerable decisions concerning vocabulary, orthography, inflections, etc.”

I see the merits in standardization, yet I am a student of regional languages, and I collect books on and in local idioms. Literature in nonstandard regional languages is popular today, and there is no shortage of fiction either. As a minority language developed into a written form it was at first necessary to establish it through standardization before it could be set free and live its life as nature intended. However before the live-and-let-live philosophy could prevail, regional language in literature was first seen as subversive. It emphasized the underrepresented side that was suppressed (although often voluntarily) through standardization. Often a regional word in print would ripple excitedly through a community, like a local athlete winning an Olympic medal:

“Writing fiction in a language that had not been standardised was a truly radical cultural deed when measured against the conception of literature prevalent in those decades. In fact, even the use of Karelian-language dialogue in fictive texts written in Finnish could be regarded as a bold and original solution in the 1920s and 1930s, or even later. The classic Finnish descriptions of the life of common people that came out in the same decades portrayed peasants as speaking mostly correct standard Finnish. Spoken language and dialect were only really introducing into literary expression in the 1960s.”

One essay focussed on language revitalization and successful versus failed language-learning programs. Studies have shown that:

“Our experience is that laymen’s language attitudes are often believed to be more negative than they actually are, and this may impede the launch of some of the measures of revitalisation of a language.”

Thus the author believed that one should embark on revitalization programs heedless of the general reaction to what the state of the language is.

A language cannot be acquired if it is not spoken everyday by parents to their children, and it cannot be acquired or reacquired by adults who merely attend weekly classes. The language must be alive to thrive and weekly classes end up being nothing other than a cultural curiosity. The language of instruction must be the target language, thus total immersion yields the best results. A successful program has been that of establishing language “nests”, where young children attend classes and are spoken to only in the target language. Nests are relatively new and it remains to be seen how many children maintain using the minority language into youth and adulthood. The nests in Inari Saami have proven to be more successful than those of Karelian, which I believe is mostly due to the perception of the usefulness of each nest language. Teens and adults will not continue to use a language if it is not spoken or valued in their respective communities. The small region where Inari Sami is spoken in northern Finland has been successful in promoting pride in its culture and language and the nests have even had non-Sami children in attendance.

[I have double-checked all the quoted passages. Some of the English sounds awkward. This is the translated text as it is written.]

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