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October 21, 2003

Mother Tongue Forever!

Foreign rule & cultural domination characterize the histories of Finland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. And yet all four nations have preserved an independent linguistic identity apart from their rulers and rivals. Finland's literary tradition did not mature until the Kalevala was composed in the 19th century. After a long period of Polish high cultural domination Lithuanian literature emerged from its centuries long slumber in the 19th century as well (it was during this period that both came under Russian rule). As for the Estonians and Latvians, the benign neglect of Teutonic Knights, Swedes, Poles, Lithuanians and Russians (if the last can be ever said as such), prevented their linguistic dissolution.

The persistence of these languages among the common-folk is amazing to me because the commanding heights of politics, military, church and literature were the domain of alien peoples for centuries. And yet with the expansion of literacy and the dissemination of nationalistic ideas in the 19th century these "peasant languages" took their places besides the speeches of rule.

So how did the elite transmission of Indo-European (if it was elite transmission) occur in ancient Europe? Swedes and their ilk brought the Finns their god, the power of their swords, the writ of their king, the written word and much more. And yet after 650 years of rule, in 1800 the Finns still spoke Finnish and were a distinct people. Things that make you say hhhhmmmm....

Posted by razib at 02:12 AM

commanding heights of politics, military, church and literature were the domain of alien peoples for centuries

A very few self-regarding specialists, taking in each other's washing. The people went on without even giving them a thought.

Something similar happens here on the web, where all the disputations of the liberals, libertarians, and conservatives blows right by the ordinary people without a trace. If it didn't happen on Oprah, it didn't hsppen.

Posted by: Dick Thompson at October 21, 2003 08:05 AM

Hungary. Turkey. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't.

Posted by: gcochran at October 21, 2003 09:25 AM

The stereotype of Finns is that they're very stubborn and determined, hold a grudge, and less talkative than Swedes. Swedes aren't that talkative either. So there just wasn't the kind of jabbering that went on when the Anglo-Saxons and the Celts got together.

Considerable areas of Finland (swamp and forest) are unattractive to anyone not born there, and this may have been true of Lithuania too.

Perhaps Lithuania was affected by the fact that for a long time, even though the Lithuanian aristocracy were Polonized (?), the Lithuanians were theoretically a ruling people. I also believe that Poland, whose borders were fluid (!! disappearing entirely occasionally) may have been constituted as a multinational dynastic state. They had a More Jews than anyone, a Muslim minority, Orthodox minorities, and other linguistic minorities.

Estonia and Latvia were old Hanseatic port areas though, I think, and not really isolated. Maybe they played the Germans, the Swedes, the Russians, and the Poles off against one another. Perhaps they survived by bilingualism like the Welsh.

This is all speculation or jokes on my part. I've wondered about these things myself. (If only you would specialize in Lithuanian studies and forget that awful racial realism!!)

Posted by: Zizka at October 21, 2003 10:17 AM

Initially, ruling elite dialects rarely influence common languages: ordinary people continue conversing unaffected. Eventually, conquered natives emulate elite cultural expressions, popularizing priorly noble language patterns

(Every word in the above sentence derives from French)

Posted by: PovertyBeckons at October 21, 2003 11:42 AM

Hungary. Turkey

interesting counter-points, insofar as the "elite" did not bring in a much higher culture like the swedes did for instance (at best, one can argue that turkish muslim culture was equivalent to greek, slavic & armenian christian culture).

as for lithuania, i believe that the nobility was polonized after the full unification of the two countries in 1569. but yes, before the dynastic union with poland in 1386 lithuanians within greater lithuania were a small military elite (who ruled over orthodox christian slavs by & large). more so after the dynastic union no doubt....

A very few self-regarding specialists, taking in each other's washing. The people went on without even giving them a thought
Eventually, conquered natives emulate elite cultural expressions, popularizing priorly noble language patterns

we know elite transmission does occur sometimes, and we know it doesn't other times. i am curious about the contexts where it does & doesn't obviously. as greg pointed out, hungary was conquered by finno-ugric speaking barbarians and the native population (probably german & slavic) eventually took up the ruling language. in bulgaria, the turkic barbarians were totally absorbed into the slavic milieu.

Posted by: razib at October 21, 2003 03:15 PM

With Sweden, Germany, Estonia, Latvia, and Finland, elite literary culture before ~1500 was in Latin. I don't know about the politics, but political dominance was probably a fairly nominal suzereinity involving symbolic submission plus tax payment, and perhaps carried on in Latin too, but without much population movement (actually there was quite a bit on the Finnish coast, and they became bilingual Finno-Swedes or Finns with Swedish names -- around 10% today I think).

So my guess is that those three countries developed economically, etc., parallel to the Swedes and neighboring Germans (and perhaps ahead of the Russians and Poles) before Swedish or German became cultural languages. The relative economic unattractiveness of inner Finland is probably a factor too.

Anglo-Saxons / Britons, Hungarians, Turks: maybe there was more population movement and a more brutal conquest. None of these can be explained by superior elite culture; absolutely the opposite. It was illiterate peoples conquering literate ones.

Posted by: Zizka at October 21, 2003 03:36 PM

"we know elite transmission does occur sometimes, and we know it doesn't other times. i am curious about the contexts where it does & doesn't obviously."

It's probably a matter of politcal will: how badly do the conquerors want to keep control of their new province?

If they regard it as a new homeland (eg. hungary), then great effort will be put into promoting their language and culture among the subject people. Linguistic luddites will be punished, and collaborators rewarded - even if this carries an economic cost

If on the other hand, they regard it just as a useful source of tax-revenue (eg. normans in england), then there will be very little incentive to educate the natives - as long as the peasants pay up, they will be left alone to speak whatever language they want. Over time, by a process of cultural osmosis, the native language may change - but this will be a slow process, taking centuries or millenia

Posted by: PovertyBeckons at October 21, 2003 04:05 PM

Repeating what I conjectured above, probably Estonia, Latvia, and Finland passed back and forth between German, Swedish, Russian, and maybe Polish control often enough that none of the masters was able to overwhelm the original language. Malta is an even more interesting case. They've been under God knows how many flags over the last millenium, but still speak an Arabic dialect.

Posted by: Zizka at October 21, 2003 10:14 PM

As a native Finn, let me correct you Zizka on one point: Finland never passed back and forth between German, Swedish, Russian, and maybe Polish control often enough...
After about 1100 AD Finland was a part of Sweden. It was as swedish as Norrland or Svealand.
In 1809 Sweden lost that part to Imperial Russia. Finland then became a Grand Duchy and for the first time became nationally aware.
In 1917 Finland got independence from Russia/Soviet. In 1918 after a bloody civil war the country was recognised by England, France and US.

Just my 0.02

Posted by: Mats at October 22, 2003 12:30 AM

Thank God I said "I don't know about the politics" in my first post.

The Swedish colony in North America, absorbed byt the Dutch and eventually the state of Delaware, included a number of Finns on its roster, and as I recall, Finnish names were found among the Varangians who made the trek to COnstantinople (not Istanbul, this was ~900 A.D.)

So the Finnish persistence still needs explanation. I know that Finns are a minority in Sweden, and Swedo-Finns a minority in Finland, but it seems like there's been a fairly stable separation for many centuries. As I remember, Finnish families with Swedish surnames often are not Swedish speakers any more.

Posted by: Zizka at October 22, 2003 09:02 AM

>So the Finnish persistence still needs >explanation.

During the 650 yrs of swedish rule the language of adminstration was swedish. Finns were NOT by any means excluded from administratrion. It was common to adopt swedish if one got educated (either as a working language or completely).

I'd give 3 main reasons to "survival" of finnish:

#1 Most "ordinary" people always spoke finnish, especially off the coastal regions which had most swedish immigrants. Basically the country is one huge forest with sparse population. Thus it's very difficult to control.

#2 I think there was no conscious effort to make everyone speak swedish, only those that the administration needed.

#3 The nationalistic movement of 1800s. If "nationality", and especially language hadn't become perceived as central to identity, I doubt that Finlands universities and institutions would have changed into finnish. With the nationalistic movement came also national epics and literature and such. They were crafted to the needs of the movement from the available ingredients.

And if someone is into statistics, here we go:

% of native swedish speakers in Finland:
1880 14,3 %
1920 11,0 %
1960 7,4 %
1999 5,7 %

The dilution due to intermarriage, emigration & differential birth rates.

Currently, about 16% of population has Swedish last name.

And a funny fact. Worlds most swedish place is in Finland: A locality where 98% speak swedish. Such high percentages are nonexistant in sweden, due to immigration.

Posted by: Prometheus at October 22, 2003 10:02 AM

Old imperial rule wasn't usually nationalistic the way France's rule of its linguistic minorities is. Russia, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottomans ruled lots on non-Russians, etc., etc., without trying to change their nationality. So there was no Swedification during Swedish rule, except of the elite. Then when linguistic nationalism did come along, the pro-Finnish push was stronger than whatever Swedish-nationaist push there was in the other direction (partly because Russia and Sweden were contesting Finland during some of this period).

All this makes sense. What about the Anglo-Saxons, the Turks, the Hungarians, and the English in Ireland? Perhaps it was a more aggressive colonization in these cases, involving more violent subjugation of the defeated and larger population transfers. The fate of Gaulish in Roman Gaul is another question; it seems to have disappeared almost entirely. (Frankish was still barely alive alongside French around 1000 AD as I remember, and the French of 1200 has more recognizably Frankish vocabulary than modern French does.)

Posted by: Zizka at October 22, 2003 01:16 PM

my girlfriend (who lived in finland for several years) says she was always shocked by the terrible accents that swedish speakers in finland had in finnish (worse than her!). good comments by the way.

Posted by: razib at October 22, 2003 02:19 PM

Finnish heritage and cultur have much deeper roots
than swedes have. Ancient Finland consisted of many competing tribes: Karelians, Häme-Finns, Kvens and Lapps. They had very developed society.
Example at 800AC town Turku (capital of Häme-finns) had own taxationsystem. Area of South-Karelia was one of the first places in scandinavia
that was christianiced (850AC). The Karelians controlled Balticsea and routes to Bysantium at
Vikingage and they were not satisfied with Swedish Vikings because they did help Häme-Finns
to attack against Karelians. That's why Karelians
burned down viking capitalcity Sigtuna in Sweden
at year 1154. That was the end of the vikingage.
After that began Swedish invasion to west Finland.
The Häme-Finns got Swedish christianity elements, though they had had christianity funerals a hundreds years before. Long lasting war with Karelians did began. Karelians got help from Novgorod. At finally Häme-Finns and Swedes win
the war and Finland was in one piece. And then
began finish Hakkapeliittas conqure the Europe for the Swedish-Finnish Union which was leaded by Swedish King. Napoleon had many bloody fights with
finns. The Finns conqured half of Russia, Poland
Germany and a piece of Franch at the middle ages.
Finnish history has been very bloody from vikingage to WWII. But Sweden has had a huge benefit of Finland by giving a good shelter for
enemies. I hope that swedes understand the history
on right way.

Posted by: Toni at October 24, 2003 12:04 PM