Due to his own dialect, Jan-Ola Östman understands what it means to belong to a minority.
Östman´s combination of Indian languages and the dialect of Solf
Leena ItkonenChafe and Mithun were invited to lecture in Helsinki by Professor Jan-Ola Östman, who met Chafe when writing his own dissertation in Berkeley. When Östman last year got an opportunity to hold a professor's chair of general linguistics in Helsinki, he hoped that the students would acquaint themselves with less familiar languages.
The department has therefore organised a number of guest lectures on the North American Indian languages during the spring. The Indian theme will culminate in a three-week intensive course in May, where participants of various nationalities will study day and night trying to learn as much as possible.
Östman says that the reason they chose North American Indian languages as the topic was because he himself has studied them and therefore has contacts with people who could visit the department. Östman lectures on the Hualapai language, which is spoken in the State of Arizona. His course will give an insight into the structure, phonetics, and orthography of Hualapai, but also on the way of speaking it, the culture, and the history of the community.
"But we don't have to be so exotic. The trick is not to find as exotic a language as possible, but to get an idea of the versatility of people and their behaviour through languages," Östman emphasises. This is why he also gives a course on Solv, one of the Swedish dialects spoken in southern Ostrobothnia. "For Finnish-speaking students, the dialect of the village of Solf is as exotic as the Indian languages. And it's cheaper for us to travel to Ostrobothnia," Östman says with a laugh. Last autumn the group studying Solv entertained four guests from Solf. Two informants had come by coach to go shopping at Ikea and met Östman's group in Helsinki. In January Östman spent nearly a week in Solf with seven of his students . "It is important for me that students also do empirical research. Otherwise their studies remain too theoretical and abstract," says Östman.
The Solv dialect is Östman's native language, as he himself says. He was involved in the creation of an orthography for the dialect, and has written a number of humorous essays in Solv. "Some people may think that the dialect doesn't differ so much from the standard language. It is in fact very different. It works in a different way and creates its own language system. The dialect always reflects its own culture," Östman says.
Dialects are also endangeredThe threats to languages mentioned by Chafe and Mithun are also familiar to Östman, not only from the time he spent in the Hualapai community but from his own village. "Children go to the same upper secondary school in Smedsby with the other children of the region, and the dialects are inevitably diluted. Furthermore, Solf is so close to the town of Vaasa that it is naturally influenced by it. New people, both Swedish-speaking and Finnish-speaking, are moving into the village," says Östman, listing the factors that influence the dialect.
"But we have to think of the villagers first. It is not right to think that I am a professor now and can therefore drive to see my own museum," says Östman. "Some may think that the dialect has to be preserved at home but don't themselves want to stay there. So much has happened during the last 20-30 years. We've got television, people tra-vel to the Canary Islands. You can start thinking how awful it is, people just watch television and all the old traditions are lost. But who is the god to tell someone that they cannot travel or watch television even though others can. We cannot take some people for museum objects."
According to Östman, the same matters must be considered when studying exotic languages. "You have to act on the speakers' terms in field research. You cannot go there looking at research objects through a magnifying glass." Due to his own dialect, Östman understands what it means to belong to a minority. "I could only speak the dialect when I started school in Vaasa. The other children mocked me. I have some idea of how people feel in those parts of the world where minority languages are not accepted and the situation is really bad."
Therefore, according to Östman, linguists can often have a dual task: on the one hand they are interested in languages and learn new things along with them, but on the other hand they may also help their research objects to understand themselves better and realise that there is nothing wrong with them. "Nobody should have to suffer for the fact that they happen to have a certain native language," Östman concludes.