People who have lived long enough in Finland, will have already noticed that the inhabitants of this small country love to wave their white and cross-blue flag.
In the absence of a long and glorious history of military conquests, Finns have managed to take advantage of their cultural anniversaries to express their patriotism. In fact, they have a detailed calendar of so-called 'flag days' in which national flag is raised throughout the country -not only in official buildings, but also in private homes- to commemorate symbols that make them proud.
April 9 is one of those days. In this case, the Day of the Finnish language is celebrated.
Foreigners who read this article may have experienced the usual frustration after trying to learn the intricate Finnish grammar, with its 15 cases and 6 types of verbs. A language in which sometimes it seems that exceptions are the rules and that for non-natives seems impossible to learn because many words are written and pronounced almost the same. At least to our eyes and ears.
If you are one of those, or if you have experienced the language as a barrier that prevents you from accessing the labor market, probably you may be thinking that there is no point in celebrating anything. However, for those who have succeeded to learn it and for those who never give up, we will try to explain the origin of this peculiar anniversary. After all, this is Finland, right?
For whom the flags wave
The flags wave every April 9 because that day died, back in 1557, a guy named Mikael Agricola. And if you must blame someone for how complicated the Finnish language is, it is him. He is considered the “father of literary Finnish”.
The book ‘Finland, a cultural encyclopedia’ published by the Finnish Literature Society describes Agricola as “Bishop of Turku, Finnish reformer, creator of Finnish as a written language” and “one of the most important characters in Finnish history”. He was also one of the religious men who brought the Reformation from Germany to Finland, which was a Swedish territory at the time.
The exact year of his birth is not clear, but it is supposed to be around 1510. What is known is that Agricola was born into a family of farmers and he was recruited by the clergy. He studied in Viipuri and in the Turku Cathedral School, at that time the only institution responsible for the training of priests in Finland. After being ordained a priest, in the 1530s he was sent along with half a dozen young men to Wittenberg (Germany) to study the Reformation.
The young Mikael stayed in Wittenberg from 1536 to 1539 and it was at that time that he began to translate the New Testament into Finnish. That was “an unusually demanding task, for Finnish had not been previously been used as a literary language”, wrote Jussi Nuorteva in his article included in the encyclopedia of the Finnish Literature Society.
Agricola’s use of Finnish language remains one of the central subjects of the study of old literary Finnish. His translation of the New Testament was probably completed by the end of the 1530s, but because of the absence of financial support it was not printed until 1548. It was preceded by other two books by Agricola: Abc-kiria ('The alphabet book', 1543) and Rucouskiria ('A prayer-book', 1544).
Abc-kirja is considered by the experts “the first example of Finnish literature”.
Later, Mikael Agricola translated into Finnish more than one fifth of the Old Testament, and some other religious books. His translation of the Psalms (1551) has been particularly interesting for students of the Finnish culture, because in its introduction he presents a list of ancient Finnish gods. Therefore, it constitutes the oldest surviving source of information about Finnish mythology.
Today Agricola’s work is especially relevant because it was him who set up the rules of orthography on which modern Finnish spelling is based.
Today Finnish is one of the official languages of Finland. Photo: Foreigner.fi.
After his return from Germany, Agricola served between 1539 and 1548 as a schoolmaster in the Turku Cathedral School. Later, in 1554 he was appointed Bishop of Turku.
In January 1557, the Swedish king Gustavus Vasa sent him on a diplomatic mission to Moscow. His task was to negotiate peace with Russia, with whom Sweden-Finland had been at war since 1554. On his return journey, he died unexpectedly in the Karelian Isthmus, on 9 April 1557. His remains were buried inside Viipuri Cathedral, which was destroyed during the second world war.
Like all of Finland, the existence of Agricola is marked by the vagaries of history. He was born Swedish, but he helped to magnify a nation that during his time lacked political autonomy. And he died in the territory that the Russians would snatch from his country -already independent- four centuries later, as a result of the German invasion of the USSR.
His work is the basis of modern Finnish language, the same one that today confuses and amazes most foreigners who venture into these cold lands.