The Karelian Phoenix

I obtained The Karelian Phoenix by Paul Austin as an interloan from Memorial University of Newfoundland. This book was published by the University Press of Joensuu and when I first visited Joensuu in 2016 I was pleased to find so many books on Karelia and the Karelian languages in the main library. Austin documented the ongoing efforts to develop a standard Karelian written language. There are numerous barriers that have interfered in the creation of standardized Karelian, the biggest obstacle being the political divide through Karelia itself. On one side is Finland, while on the other the Soviet Union (now Russia). The Soviet policy of Russification meant the forced deportation of thousands of Karelians. Those that remained, while never forced to abandon their mother tongue, nevertheless faced the incursion of Russian loanwords into their language. In addition to this, two independent alphabets developed, one relying on Finnish orthography (for the idiom known as Karelian Proper) and the other based on its Russian influences (for Livvi, also known as Olonets). The latter also includes phonemes not found in Karelian Proper, such as /b/ and /z/. How does one create a literary language without offending some (or all) of its speakers? I am familiar with a language of amalgams: Rumantsch Grischun, which was created in an attempt to unify the five Romansch idioms. Rumantsch Grischun is only written, not spoken. Yet I must clarify that even further: Rumantsch Grischun is read, and those that do the reading far outnumber those who are familiar with its writing system. In the case of Karelian, where there are two main idioms that abut one another, those who are literate in Karelian Proper or Livvi may resent having to unlearn or adapt to the other, as “everyone thinks his or her own language is the only right one”. Progress to create a standardized written Karelian is thwarted time and again by the influence Finnish and Russian had on each idiom:

“This basic difference between the two main dialects has been, it would seem, at the heart of the web of problems that have bedeviled the fate of Karelia for the past hundred years.”

The Soviets, while awarding the Karelians within its borders the right to use their own language, drew the line at supporting a standardized Karelian. They believed that “any ‘invention’ of a separate written language would be ‘reactionary'” and, besides, the “First Karelian Regional Party Conference in 1922 declared that the creation of a Karelian written language was ‘chauvinistic’ and ‘politically untrustworthy and harmful, used to stupefy the dark masses’.”

I can imagine that the loss of Finnish Karelia to the Soviets in the Continuation War would have given the residents who were still allowed to live there ammunition to refuse to use or speak Russian if they had been given official permission to produce a standard version of their own language. The Soviets reasoned, and enforced the theory, “that because of the lack of a written language, the multiplicity of dialects and the impossibility of the creation of a literary language, ‘cultural and educational work’ was possible only in Russian and Finnish. So despite the fact that the Finns were only about 1% of the population of Soviet Karelia, they managed to make their language an official language along with Russian.”

This dissertation was 110 pages long yet would have benefited by a thorough proofreading. At times I wondered if the native language of the author was even English. Repeated verbs and run-on sentences caused me to reread many passages several times over. This occurred far too often so it warranted a mention. I was impressed by the author’s lengthy bibliography where he used mostly Finnish and Russian sources.

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