Tuesday, March 22, 2022


 by Walther Glodstaf

Walther Glodstaf is a PhD student in Linguistics at the University of Illinois. Walther's future plans include modeling language change in bilingual contexts and using our knowledge of language both at a mental and societal level to develop better policy specifically for minority language protection. He wrote this blog post in 418 'Language and Minorities in Europe' in Fall 2021.

‘Everyone in Karelia has to respect history and know that we are living in an area which has always belonged to these nations…’ (Andrej Nelidov, November 2010; Helsingin Sanomat, 2010) (Scott, 2012).

Though Nelidov – the president of the Russian Republic of Karelia – refers to the Finnish ethnicities in his speech, it is noteworthy that his use of the demonstrative ‘these’ can not only be applied to distance Karelia from Finland but also from Russia. Since it is these nations who have often disputed over the territory and have thus made Karelia a pawn in their international political arena. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of the Karelian language which serves as a textbook case of how the definition of a language is political and the tragic outcomes when this definition is applied for political ends with no respect for the real linguistic situation of the language in question.

Karelian is a language that is spoken around the region of lake Ladoga and Onega in what is now primarily Russia and Finland. Large parts of this used to be a part of Finland until the second World War though. It is also spoken in the Oblast of Tver near Moscow as a result of the forced movements of people during in the USSR. It is a Finno-Ugric language that has only about 36.000 native speakers according to Ethnologue and which can be divided into three main varieties: Karelian Proper, Olonets Karelian and Tver Karelian. Between these main varieties there are further smaller ones with large linguistic differences to the point of mutual unintelligibility (Palander, Riionheime & Koivisto, 2019).

Due the geographic area that Karelian inhabits having been split between Finland and Russia, the language itself has been co-opted as a battleground between them. In the early 19-hundreds Karelia was positioned as the cultural cradle of Finnish culture and its language which is highly similar to Finnish was treated as a dialect of Finnish. As a result, when the Finnish communists lost the Finnish Civil War, they fled to the Soviet Republic of Karelia that had been recently founded as a part of the USSR. These refugees were more educated than the locals and quickly ended up running the administration in the region. This included language policy. But instead of creating a new standard as was common in other parts of the USSR (Austin, 1992; Zamyatin, 2012). The leadership of Karelia decided to have Finnish be the language of education in Karelia. Some of this has been thought to be a result of the leadership expecting Finland soon to be joined into Karelia. Other factors are more cultural in nature where due to the status of Karelia as a cultural cradle of Finnish, it was merely natural to see Finnish as a mere prestige variety of the language (Scott, 2012).

What is less disputable though is, that as far as the language and lived reality of Karelians was concerned, a foreign intelligentsia that comprised a percentage of the population, had taken the reins of language policy of a people that themselves were a minority (ca 38%) in their own region. Thus by 1932 99.2 percent of Karelian children studied at Finnish schools (Austin, 1992). And though this increasing effort in publishing and literacy was no doubt in part beneficial to Karelians, it also shows how political agendas more so than the wishes of the speakers of the language shaped the linguistic policy that governed Karelian.

This changed however in 1938 where virtually overnight all traces of Finnish were removed in Karelia. This included writing, speaking, and people. Finnish had been identified as a hostile language by Stalin’s regime and thus Karelia and its language had to be distanced from it. In terms of people this resulted in the forcible removal, imprisonment, and execution of nearly all leading figures in politics and administration, and anyone promoting Finnish; as well as the immediate closure of schools and ban on speaking Finnish by adults and children alike (Austin, 1992).

In terms of the language its name was changed from Finnish to Karelian, its script from Latin to Cyrillic, and its words from Finnish to Russian. Austin (1987) for instance notes that three-quarters of official announcements of the formation of the Karelian Soviet Socialist Republic (in 1940) were Russian with Karelian morphological word-endings. This effort in language planning went so far that even saliently Finnish parts of the syntax such as morphology was deleted to make the language less Finnic (and incidentally on the surface behave more like Russian).  Austin (1992) for instance quotes Bubrikh (the writer of the normative grammar of the Soviet-era Karelian) as finding ‘the richness of the morphology […] completely unneccessary’ (Bubrikh, 1932). This Soviet version of Karelian for instance thus had a mere 9 cases compared to 12-13 documented before, forcing a greater use of prepositions instead of case morphology like in Russian. A casualty of this is for instance the adessive case (corresponding to on/in) that was lost completely. Or the reduction of the inessive case morpheme –ssa/-ssä (corresponding to inside) to –s (Austin, 1992).[1] As a result, language transmission was also affected since suddenly there existed no native speakers of this new constructed variety of the language among the few that survived the purges. Russian was therefore more likely to be passed on to the subsequent generation by their already bilingual parents.

In the present day, Karelian has recently gotten a uniform written standard in Latin script for all dialects. It is also represented on Wikipedia and has since 2011 gotten a translation of the new testament. Speaker numbers are however declining since the language is only taught as an optional foreign language class and most Karelians – a minority in their geographical region – are more likely to speak Russian than Karelian (Semenova, Khanolainen & Nesterova, 2021; Zamyatin, 2012; Kruchykova, 2002).

While the future of Karelian might look bleak, it offers nonetheless a valuable lesson in how language and what counts as a language is weaponised in politics. It is unlikely that the similar battle over the Valencian results in a similar tragic loss in language and human life as Karelian, but it bears to keep in mind the true cost of a language policy that is removed from the wishes of its actual speakers. Thus, if there ever was any doubt that language rights are human rights, Karelian offers a good example of it.


Austin, P. M. (1992). Soviet Karelia: The Language that Failed. Slavic Review 51(1), 16-35.

Austin, P. M. (1987). Soviet Finnish: End of a Dream. East European Quarterly XXI.183-86

Bubrikh, D. (1932). Karely i karel’skii iazykMoscow.

Kruchylova, T. B. (2002). Effective Language Politics: The Case of Karelian. World Congers of Language Policies 16-20/04/02.

Palander, M.; Riionheimo, H. & Koivisto, V. (2019). Introduction: Creating and Crossing Linguistic Borders. In: On the Border of Language an Dialect Palander, M.; Riionheimo, H. & Koivisto, V. (eds.), 7-15.

Scott, J. (2013). Constructing Familiarity in Finnish–Russian Karelia: Shifting Uses of History and the Re-Interpretation of Regions. European Planning Studies 21.

Semenova, E.; Khanolainen, D. & Nesterova, Y. (2021). Indigenous language education in Russia: current issues and challenges. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Developmenthttps://doi.org/10.1080/01434632.2021.1921782

Zamyatin, K. (2012). From Language Revival to Language Removal?. JEMIE 11(2), 75-102.

[1] Though it needs to be said that by now this reduction has also occurred in colloquial standard Finnish, so it is possible that this change in the inessive was developed sooner in Karelian and thus Bubrikh’s grammar was surprisingly descriptive on this point, despite its prescriptive agenda.


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