You might be a foreigner whose friends compliment you on your quick progress in learning Finnish, or they might jokingly tell you, somewhat less helpfully, “Thousands of little kids speak the language, so it can’t be that difficult.” You might be a literary heavyweight in Helsinki’s Finnish-language publishing world, or you might be trying to decipher the lyrics of one of Finland’s thousands of heavy metal bands.
April 9 is a day for all fans of the Finnish language. That’s when Finland annually celebrates Finnish Language Day and memorialises Mikael Agricola, who was instrumental in creating standards for Finnish as a written language in the 1500s.
Agricola was born in approximately 1510 and died in 1557. He came from a parish called Pernå in Swedish and Pernaja in Finnish, about 80 kilometres east of where Helsinki is now located – it is not known which language was actually his mother tongue. He grew up to be a learned man – a linguist and theologian, and much later a bishop.
He lived in Wittenberg, Germany from 1536 to 1539, studying under Martin Luther and others. Agricola’s time there eventually contributed far-reaching effects to religious and literary life in Finland.
Just as Luther had translated the bible into German, setting the stage for the future of formal German, Agricola translated the Old Testament into Finnish, together with Martin Teit and other fellow Finns who were studying in Wittenberg. Agricola made a Finnish version of the New Testament later, after moving back to the southwestern Finnish city of Turku, and also translated and wrote other texts related to religion. One of his publications, a primer called Abckiria (ABC Book), is considered the first piece of literature in Finnish.
So the next time you are trying to decide which one of the Finnish language’s at least 15 grammatical case endings is your favourite one to spell, or the next time you are admiring the architecture of a Lutheran church in a Finnish town, you can think back five centuries to Mikael Agricola, whose life’s work helped set the scene.
By ThisisFINLAND staff, April 2017