Saturday, 21 March 2009

Don't be fooled by the surname

On account of the complex symbiosis between Finnish- and Swedish-speaking people in the bilingual regions of Finland, you cannot always immediately tell whether someone is a native-speaker of Finnish or Swedish, or what their second-language is likely to be. There are relatively few true bilinguals; Finnish-speaking people have picked holes in the Finnish of such people as Elmer Diktonius and Jörn Donner, even though they seem incredibly bilingual to the outsider. Whether this criticism is accurate, or mere envy, I cannot tell.

But it is the Christian name, or forename, that often (with some exceptions) gives a clue to the main language of specific people from Finland. Take a number of authors, statesmen and cultural figures in no particular order. Some will fool you, others not, and some speak somewhat unexpected languages:

Albert Edelfelt
Arvid and Eero Järnefelt
Henrik Tikkanen
Märta Tikkanen
Sally Salminen
Johannes Salminen
Johan V. Snellman
Anja Snellman
Amos Anderson
Jutta Zilliacus
Annika Idström
Kjell Westö
All names ending in -ius
Karmela Bélinki
Gustav Mannerheim
Hella Wuolijoki
Malin Kivelä
Tapani Ritamäki
Zinaida Lindén
Aleksis Kivi
Edith Södergran
Max Jakobson
Mirjam Tuominen
Hannele Mikaela Taivassalo
Heidi von Wright
Kristina Rotkirch
Akseli Gallen-Kallela
Thomas Warburton
Väinö Tanner
Eeva-Liisa Manner
Volter Kilpi
Matti Klinge
Tommy Tabermann

And so on. I'll continue later, in a comment on this same thread.


David McDuff said...

It has to be said that a majority of Finns don't want to be forced to learn Swedish. The introduction of pakkoruotsi/tvångsvenska ("compulsory Swedish")in Finnish schools was not exactly popular. There's a discussion of the whole subject here.

Eric Dickens said...

I've come across "pakkoruotsi", and I do have some sympathy for schoolkids living in, say Yli-Ii or some other remotish part of Finland who are forced to learn a language they will never use. But especially for well-educated people living in the capital, the Swedish language is a serious part of their history. I wonder whether schoolchildren in many Finnish-speaking parts of Finland would be less prejudiced against Swedish, if the history of the Finland-Swedes were taught them in Finnish, and with more sympathy, instead of forcing the language itself down their throats.

But personal names are an immediate clue to a person's background. Using my rule-of-thumb test, you can work out, by looking at the first name, that, for instance, the Tikkanens and the Salminens are Swedish-speaking (reinforced if you know that, paradoxically, the Salminens come from Åland). Heidi von Wright looks like a German Brit, but the name [pronounced: fon vrickt], is well established in Finland. Anja Snellman and Eero Järnefelt can be seen to be Finnish-speaking from their first names. And so on. But people like Tapani Ritamäki and Thomas Warburton defy all the rules. I always found it amusing that Mannerheim spoke Russian fluently and hardly any Finnish at all.

Eric Dickens said...

With regard to the name Karmela Bélinki, hardly a Finnish one, I don't think I ever met her, but I spoke to her on the phone in autumn 1979. She said that her language situation was quite complicated and that she used three languages quite a lot. When she went mushroom picking, she knew the terms better in Finnish, or Swedish, I don't remember which. The third language, which I think she spoke with her mother, was Yiddish, a language that was quite common in Helsinki between the wars, which the short-story by Elmer Diktonius "Josef och Sussan" bears witness to. Her name is Hungarian originally, as I believe and both names are stressed on the first syllable.

David McDuff said...

The language situation in Helsinki was certainly different from that in other parts of Finland, and there is a surviving street patois which consists of a blend of Finnish and Swedish. Rosa Liksom has used it in some of her fiction.

Finland's Jewish population between the world wars was never more than about 2,000. There are details here.

The real antagonism between the Finnish and Finland-Swedish cultures can be seen in the "language wars" which were still raging in the 1920s and 30s. See this link.

Unknown said...

I see a comment on the origin of my name and my language situation. Unfortunately most of it as published here is wrong. Karmela Belinki: Karmela is Hebrew, OT,means "God's fruitful vineyard" (Mount Carmel in Israel). Belinki is Russian-Jewish and means "little white", probably from a river, which runs i.a. through Lithuania and parts of Belarus, where my paternal family stems from. I pronounce it Karméla Bélinki. As to my lingustic situation, I consider myself mainly a Finland-Swedish writer, but I was brought up with multiple languages, Yiddish being one of them.I have also written and broadcast in Finnish, I was partly educted in the United Kingdom, and I am fluent in several other languages as well.

Interesting to appear in this context.
My best wishes.
Karmela Bélinki
Writer, journalist and academic