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.