Who Are the Finns?

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This article appeared in the Scandinavian Review in June, 1961. Written by a renowned linguist in the field of Finno-Ugric languages, it is republished here as part of a series of memorable historic articles contained in early issues of the Review.

TOURISTS IN SCANDINAVIA EASILY OBSERVE THAT THE HIGH Nordic peoples form a unit of sorts and that they are quite similar in regard to general appearance, culture and their entire way of life. Especially close in this respect are Sweden and Finland; this is, of course, very understandable, for their twoi countries have for centuries been parts of the same state and, more particularly, at vthe very time when the foundation of Western society and culture was laid.

In one respect, however, the difference between Sweden and Finland is considerably greater than that between Sweden and the other Scandinavian countries. The majority of the Finnish people, more than 90 percent, speak the Finnish language as their mother tongue, and this, to Americans, very strange language is not related to the Scandinavian languages. Danish, Swedish and Norwegian, when spoken, sometimes present difficulties of mutual understanding, but are nevertheless so close to one another that it is evident to anyone that they are all in some manner related. But the Finnish language is something quite different. Linguists have been able to prove that there is a certain, although distant, relationship between the Slavic and Germanic languages, but the Finnish language is as far distant from the Russian language as it is from the Swedish. It is no wonder that people with even the slightest interest in Finland and its people are inclined to ask: Who, then, are the Finns?

In trying to find an answer to this question, we ought first of all to point out one deep-rooted prejudice. We are apt to think, and it was also generally the belief of scholars of bygone times, that language and race are inseparably connected with one another. Anyone who takes the trouble to think of the matter more precisely and to consider the evidence gained from his own experience, will realize that race signifies inheritance and blood relationships, but that language is an influence of the environment, of society. There are to be found some linguistically highly unified peoples, but very seldom, if ever, any people of pure race. The Finnish people are no exception to the rule, and it is easy for a traveler to notice that all the racial types of Northern Europe are represented among them. Incidentally, the claim that the Finns are of Asiatic or Mongolian origin is completely unfounded. In the heart of Finland, for instance, live some of the fairest and most blond racial types in the entire world.

There is no reason, however, to go to the other extreme and to contend that language and race are wholly independent of one another. It is evident from the sharp deviation of the Finnish language from the Scandinavian languages that the ancient core of the Finnish people originated elsewhere than did its Nordic neighbors.

The only science which is able to tell us something definite about the origin of the Finns is linguistics, but it gives concrete information about nthe phenomenon of the language only. The Finnish language is not as isolated as, for example, the Basque language, which is quite alone and without any relatives. The Estonians, living south of the Gulf of Finland, speak a highly developed language which is approximately as close to Finnish as the Scandinavian languages are to one another. The Estonians, the Letts and the Lithuanians make up a group called the Baltic peoples, but only the Letts and the Lithuanians are related: they speak a language which is distantly related to the Slavic languages. The origin of the Estonians lies somewhere else; they come from where the Finns come.

Surprising and extremely interesting light is shed on the prehistory of the Finns by the indisputable conclusion at which linguists arrived more than a century and a half ago, that the famed and valiant people of the puszta, the Hungarians, speak a language which is related to Finnish. …