The University of Eastern Finland has been entrusted with leading the revitalisation of the Karelian language. Due to the diversity and dispersion of the language community, the task is challenging. On a positive note, the Karelian language is experiencing a new kind of boom among young people.
- Text Nina Venhe | Photos Varpu Heiskanen and Helka Riionheimo
A special duty to revive the Karelian language was assigned to the University of Eastern Finland in the beginning of 2021, and funding for the work has been granted for two years.
“At this point, however, I would rather talk about a revival project. The revival of the Karelian language as a special duty would require permanent and sufficient funding, as well as an extensive revival programme,” Professor of Karelian Language and Culture Helka Riionheimo says.
In other words, resources are limited, and this must be taken into account in all planning.
“In practice, this means that we have started by identifying the priorities of reviving an endangered language with the resources we have. We have also been in close contact with the language community, listening to the ideas and proposals emerging from it.”
Having everyone’s voice heard is a challenge
In Finland, the number of people who speak Karelian is estimated to be up to 11,000, and the language community also includes approximately 20,000 people who understand Karelian. This means that there are many more speakers of Karelian than, for example, the Sámi languages. Yet, the Karelian language was not included in the Government’s Language Policy Programme until now, under Sanna Marin’s Government.
The objective of the Language Policy Programme, which his currently being prepared, is to respond to the challenges identified for the different language groups, such as the viability of the language, the realisation of linguistic rights, and access to languages.
“It is important for the Karelian language to be officially recognised also by the Government. Language issues are also political issues,” Riionheimo points out.
The Language Policy Programme is part of the Government Programme’s language policy reform, which includes renewing the Strategy for the National Languages of Finland and a project aimed at improving the language environment.
“The revival of the Karelian language is made challenging by the fact that its speakers are not a close-knit community. They are geographically dispersed across Finland and, unlike the Sámi, they do not have their own language region. And, of course, there are many Karelian speakers also in Russia. The language community is very diverse and multivocal both geographically and internally.”
The largest group is formed by people born in Border Karelia, and their descendants. After World War II, approximately 30,000 Karelian-speaking people were evacuated from the ceded Karelia to the newly demarcated Finnish side. In addition, when Finland gained independence in 1917, around 10,000–20,000 refugees arrived from eastern Karelia, so their descendants, too, are still living in Finland.
“And then there is the group I represent: Karelian speakers who have moved from Russia to Finland,” coordinator, translator and Karelian language teacher Natalia Giloeva says.
In other words, the Karelian community does not share one, identical history. Some of those who speak Karelian belong to different associations, others do not. This makes it difficult to reach all speakers.
“This is one part of the project: how to reach such a diverse community in order to have everyone’s voice equally heard,” Giloeva says.
The language community is very diverse and multivocal both geographically and internally.
Professor of Karelian Language and Culture
Need for different words
According to Riionheimo, the most important thing in reviving the language is to support language learning. Since the Karelian language so far has been a colloquial language, one mostly spoken at home and among family members, its vocabulary is limited.
Many speakers of the Karelian language are elderly, and one objective of the revival is to bring new speakers to the language, especially children.
“It would be important to start creating a vocabulary of children’s language also in Karelian,” Giloeva says.
She is responsible for translating the Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle’s radio news into Karelian.
“I do translations for the news on a daily basis, and not all new words exist in the Karelian language. Although dictionaries are somewhat helpful, the words they offer do not always fit into the context. That is why I also turn to the language community for help: they are eager to assist and provide feedback on how something should be translated.”
Karelian dialects and their literary languages
Linguistically, the Karelian dialects are divided into two main dialects: Karelian Proper and Livvi Karelian. Karelian Proper, in turn, is divided into Viena Karelian and South Karelian. Efforts to develop a literary language have been made in each dialect. Of these, Livvi Karelian is considered to be the strongest because it has the most published, written materials.
“South Karelian is in greatest need of support because the development of its literary language within the language community didn’t begin until in the 2010s. The revival project supports this work. In addition, it is necessary to support materials that are aimed at Finns and produced in Viena Karelian,” Riionheimo says.
At the same time, she stresses that a literary language will never be “ready”: it’s a living construct that changes constantly. However, it is important to have a common basis.
“Livvi Karelian has a literary language that’s been developed the most, so it can provide some support to the other dialects. Language experts in the revival project also work in close cooperation between the dialects, and all previous vocabulary work benefits every dialect, for example in the case of new words.”
Separate literary languages have been created for the dialects, because when studying or relearning the language, members of the language community feel it is important that the learning materials are as close as possible to their own dialect, which has been spoken in the family.
New boom among young people
There is also a slightly surprising group in the Karelian language community: young people interested in the language. In recent years, the Karelian language has clearly gained new popularity among them. Especially young people from families with Karelian speakers are very interested in the language and Karelian culture.
One of them is Stiina Laine, who has always identified herself as primarily Karelian.
“Or rather, I feel like I'm both Karelian and Finnish. They've always been two completely different things to me, perhaps because of my family's history. Of course, those identities are close to each other, and I can't tell what about me is particularly Karelian. Yet, Karelia and Karelianity have always been close to my heart, even though I have lived in Southwest Finland all my life.”
Laine is Vice-Chair of Karjalazet Nuoret Suomes, a youth association for the Karelian language and culture, and she is studying at the University of Turku. She is taking Karelian language courses at the University of Eastern Finland through the national flexible study rights agreement, which means that she can include the minor subject studies in Karelian in her degree.
“When I heard about this opportunity, it was immediately clear to me that I would apply to study Karelian”.
According to Laine, the language is definitely experiencing a new boom among people of her age.
“As a result of this interest, some differences have also arisen with regard to traditions and, in part, language. Although a few generations have passed since the most painful times associated with the loss of Karelian areas, emotions are still running high.”
Despite the challenges faced by the language community, Laine says that it is great that things are being discussed and that people are willing to move forward. There are problems, but things are headed in the right direction.
“The number of people joining the association is constantly increasing, and conversations have been lively even in times of physical distancing. Our most recent conversation was about how wonderful it is that courses in the Karelian language will become available to everyone next autumn through the Centre for Continuous Learning at the University of Eastern Finland.”
Currently, Karjalazet Nuoret Suomes is planning to cooperate with the Finnish Sámi Youth Association, Suoma Sámi Nuorat.
“If the COVID situation so allows, the idea is to throw a party, pruasniekka, for the members!”
Laine says, with enthusiasm, that she currently feels confident that her future career will, in one way or another, be linked to the revival of the Karelian language and culture.
“I may have been a little lost about my identity at times, but now I finally feel that this is where I belong – and that my work will have a greater significance.”