Biography of a word gardener: Elias Lönnrot

This is Elias Lönnrot. Without him, the culture of Finland wouldn’t be what it is today.

He didn’t create Finnish culture, of course. But he did help it grow into its present form. Sort of like a gardener working with plants. Or an arborist working with a tree.

A culture – and its language, which is the vital fluid of culture – is like, say, a maple tree. The leaves arrive, change colours, go away, come back; the branches grow, bend, fork. It all comes from the roots, which you mostly don’t see but which are essential. But humans can also shape the tree. They can water it, they can prune it, they can bend it. They can even graft onto its roots.

The Finnish language is like a very well tended tree. I’ve been struck for years by how regular and careful its system of sounds and grammatical bits is. The kind of Finnish you see on the page and hear on TV may seem complex to us, but to a comparative linguist’s eyes it bears clear marks of conscious efforts to standardize and regularize it. For example, it has a very consistent vowel harmony: the “back” vowels a, o, and all have “front” equivalents ä, ö, and y, and in any given word (or part of a compound word) you don’t mix back and front vowels (and go with either). Suffixes will even change to match: compare –ainen versus –äinen in the names Kovalainen and Vyyryläinen. It’s very tidy.

Gardeners have been here.

The first gardener of note was a minister named Mikael Agricola, the son of a farmer. He lived in the 1500s, at which time Finland had been under the control of Sweden for about 400 years. The Finnish language didn’t have the same prestige as Swedish, but it was spoken by a lot of people. Agricola put it in a written form and translated the Bible and a number of other things into it.

Agricola’s Finnish is not the Finnish used now. For one thing, his spelling was inconsistent and not always good at distinguishing between similar words. For another, the Finnish language has changed so much in the intervening centuries that the kind of Finnish he wrote down is now called Old Finnish. A person who speaks modern Finnish wouldn’t be able to just pick up one of his books and read it.

Fast-forward a bit. In 1808, Finland was still part of Sweden. In 1810, Finland was part of Russia. Russia invaded and took it over in 1809 and made it an autonomous Grand Duchy. But Swedish culture was still influential, and the Finnish language was, more than ever, a language of the “common people” – which tended to mean poor and rural people, with various regional dialects.

But there were people who wanted Finland to have a national identity. And to have your own identity, it helps to have – and use – your own language. You’ll also want some important cultural material of your own. Iceland has its sagas. England has its Arthurian legends and a whole bunch of other stuff. And Finland had lots of folk songs and stories, too… if you went out to the towns around the country and heard them.

Into this, in 1802, was born Elias Lönnrot.

“Outwardly Lönnrot’s life was fairly uneventful and simple,” wrote his successor August Ahlqvist in a biography after Lönnrot’s death (see the National Biography of Finland): “born in a poor home, is put into secondary school, suffers hardship but makes progress in his studies, gets into university, earns his livelihood as a domestic tutor, passes his examinations satisfactorily, though not with distinction, acquires a post and fulfils his duties irreproachably. That is about all. Lönnrot’s arid existence lacked surprising events, daring exploits and emotional turmoils.”

Ahlqvist may have been understating the case a bit.

Lönnrot studied medicine at the Imperial Academy in Turku. While he was a student there, a little event commonly referred to as the Great Fire of Turku happened. Three-quarters of the city burned to the ground, including the main building of the Imperial Academy.

Lönnrot took a short enforced break from his studies. He went on a trip to Karelia, an eastern area that’s now mostly in Russian territory, and got to know some of the roots of Finnish culture. He studied the customs and listened to their songs and made lots of notes. Meanwhile, the Imperial Academy set up in a new location in Helsinki, and so Lönnrot went back and finished his studies.

He got lucky right out of university: there was a famine in a rural district and the doctor there up and quit, so Lönnrot got the job as the only physician for 4000 people spread out in many small villages. His home base was Kajaani, a village almost 600 kilometres north of Helsinki. He travelled a lot. Over the course of his life, he travelled a distance that has been calculated as equal to a trip from Helsinki to the South Pole, although he got no farther south or west than Estonia, no farther east than Arkhangelsk, and no farther north than… well, where the land stops at the northern tip of the Scandinavian peninsula. And he did much of it on foot.

Elias Lönnrot was a good, thoughtful, open-minded, and innovative doctor; he implemented community health centres and undertook health education and awareness programs. He wrote a very popular book, the 1839 Suomalaisen Talonpojan Koti-Lääkäri (The Finnish Peasant’s Home Doctor). He was an advocate for temperance – he founded a group called the Selveys-Seura (Clearheads Club). It folded because of a lack of members. He also studied and made use of medicinal herbs.

Plants were one of his great loves, in fact – leaves as well as roots. He wrote Flora Fennica (1860), the first book on Finnish flowers. He gave names that are still in use to many of the local plants. He also had other great loves that were aided by his many rural peregrinations: songs, stories, culture, and the Finnish language.

On his first trip, during university, Lönnrot became acquainted with some songs, folk tales, and singers. Throughout his life, he kept taking trips and getting to know culture and its purveyors. As a doctor travelling around rural Finland checking vaccinations, he also got to hear many more songs and get to know more notable singers. And he had the idea of collecting these poems into a coherent collection with a clear narrative through-line.

Putting together a national lore or mythos is not easy. Any student of the classics of Greek and Rome knows that there are many unresolvable forks and conflicting stories involving various versions of the many characters. Heck, even the Christian Bible has four overlapping but not exactly identical accounts of the life of its central character. If you want a coherent mythos, you can do one of four things: you and everyone in your culture can get together every year and sing the whole thing through to make sure you’re consistent, which is what they used to do in Iceland; you can tell your own version of the stories in a coherent way and have it become the dominant version, as Homer did for the stories relating to the Trojan War and its aftermath; you can just plain old make it up out of whole cloth, like J.R.R. Tolkien writing his Middle Earth mythology (much harder to do with a real culture and country, though); or you can collect it and trim it and shape it and graft bits onto other bits to make it all work together, and maybe do some writing yourself. Maybe do a fair bit of writing, in fact, to fill the gaps and make it smooth.

Elias Lönnrot took the fourth path.

Finns, wanting to assert their own distinct culture, eagerly received the publication in 1835 of Lönnrot’s collection of mythic poetry, titled the Kalevala. It was catalyzing, galvanizing, and whatever other -izing word you want. Finland’s most famous composer, Jean Sibelius, used it as material and inspiration for some of his most famous work. It also, a century later, inspired an Englishman named John Ronald Reuel Tolkien to write his own mythos.

Tolkien was inspired not only by the concept but also by the language. His classical Elvish language, Quenya, drew on Finnish. (The Elvish language that everyone thinks of when thinking of Lord of the Rings, however, is Sindarin, which drew on Welsh.)

That language. As Lönnrot collected the songs of the Kalevala and put together his next work, the Kanteletar – a collection of hymns and other songs for a dulcimer-like instrument called the kantele – and as he assembled a larger revised version of the Kalevala that was released in 1849 (my English paperback edition of it is two inches thick), and as he was writing his other works, Lönnrot needed a consistent language with a consistent writing system and a replete vocabulary. Remember that Swedish was still dominant; all his university studies were in Swedish, for instance, though his home language had been Finnish. But Lönnrot’s books were written in Finnish, and not in Agricola’s Old Finnish.

Lönnrot wasn’t the only scholar working on a clear, consistent, standardized Finnish, to be sure. In 1820, professor Reinhold von Becker of the Imperial Academy had declared that Finnish should be reformed and standardized to adhere more to the dialects of the more inland and eastern parts of Finland, because they were “purer” and did not have all the marks of contact with other languages that the Finnish of the western port cities such as Turku and Helsinki had. Not everyone agreed with him. This disagreement, which has become known as the Battle of the Dialects (I’m not even kidding), raged for three decades. It ended in a sort of compromise; the western literary foundation built on Agricola’s work remained, but a lot of eastern grammatical features and vocabulary were integrated. (And, of course, people still spoke their regional dialects, as many still do.)

Lönnrot was important in reaching that compromise. He had become a hero of Finnish folk culture, after all, and in his many travels he had heard the various dialects of Finnish, collected much of its poetry, lore, and vocabulary, and needed to put it all in a form that was coherent and consistent.

So of course he was made Chair of Finnish Literature at the University of Helsinki in 1853.

And then, of course, he put together a dictionary. Having been not just the gardener but the landscape architect of the national lore of Finland, he set to being the herbologist of its lexicon. It helped that in 1863 the Tsar (remember, Russia still “owned” Finland) declared Finnish an official language equal in status to Swedish – but Lönnrot’s efforts had plenty to do with its having gained that status. (The efforts of many in the Finnish upper classes to learn Finnish and use it in their homes – even changing their names to Finnish versions – also had plenty to do with it. Remember, Finland wanted to assert itself as culturally distinct from Sweden!) Between 1866 and 1880, Lönnrot assembled the Suomalais-Ruotsalainen Sanakirja (Finnish–Swedish Dictionary). Two hundred thousand words, including some new ones for new things formed on the basis of old Finnish words rather than just borrowing from other languages. (This wasn’t just because of nationalism; many words that might have been borrowed did not fit comfortably into Finnish phonology, which does not accept a lot of the consonant clusters so common in other European languages.)

Between all this travelling and writing and so on, Lönnrot, long a famously eligible bachelor, eventually managed to make time to get married – in 1849, shortly after his revised Kalevala was released. He had a son and four daughters, but the son died in infancy, three of his daughters died in young adulthood of infections (tuberculosis and diphtheria), and his wife died in her forties, in 1868, of tuberculosis.

The gardener plants and shapes, but the plants grow. Finnish evolved in significant ways in Lönnrot’s lifetime, adding new vocabularies and shifting preferred forms. And many Finns spoke Swedish at home – including Lönnrot’s wife and daughters. Much academic discussion was still done in Swedish, which had the technical and abstract vocabulary that Finnish was still striving to add. Later in his life, Lönnrot used Finnish less and less, saying that it had developed forms that were beyond his grasp. You can plant a tree and finally not be able to reach its top leaves, though you stand on its roots.

Finland still has Swedish influence, though only a small percentage of Finns speak Swedish as their first language now. But consider: The most famous national composer, Jean Sibelius, has a Swedish family name (well, Swedish morphologically, formed on a place in eastern Finland; also, the French-styled Jean was his own choice – he was born Johan). Finland’s leading linguistic lights include Mikael Agricola (that’s Latin for ‘farmer’), Reinhold von Becker (a German name), and Lönnrot’s colleague and cousin-in-law Johan Vilhelm Snellman (also a Swedish name).

And the man who gardened Finland’s national epic, its national wordbook, and other important parts of its culture? Elias Lönnrot’s family name might look Finnish if you don’t know any Finnish or Swedish, but it is in fact a straightforward Swedish compound word formed, like many Swedish names (such as Hasselblad, which means ‘hazel leaf’, and Lindgren, which means ‘linden branch’), from botanical clippings: Lönn means ‘maple’ and rot means ‘root’.

(The Finnish translation of his name, if you want to know, would be Vaahterajuuri.)

Some sources:

“Elias Lönnrot.” Wikipedia.

“Finland’s language strife.” Wikipedia.

Lehtinen, Tapani, and Auli Hakulinen. “Finnish.” Revue belge de Philologie et d’Histoire 90, no. 3 (2012): 1029–1052.

National Biography of Finland. “Lönnrot, Elias (1802–1884).”

One response to “Biography of a word gardener: Elias Lönnrot

  1. Yes, gardening is a fertile (haha) metaphor here. Stan Carey has a post on it: C. S. Lewis, language botanist. And when language is produced commercially at large scale, gardening becomes farming; I suppose that makes the AP Stylebook a factory farm of language, producing endless rows of monoculture.

    I also like the medical metaphor: prescriptivism is to linguistics as medicine is to biology. Language is, unfortunately, hundreds of years behind medicine in the development of science-based practice, and the field is flooded with quacks and snake oil.

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