Universitas Helsingiensis

The quarterly of the University of Helsinki
Hebrew and Finnish – Related Languages?*
Both the Renaissance and the Reformation demanded a return to the sources. The biblical story of the confusion of languages at the tower of Babel constituted an axiomatic explanation for the variety of languages of the world. In this sense, it was not illogical to search for vestiges of the pre-confusional Hebrew retained in various languages. Thus, the search for the affinity of the Finnish language with Hebrew, which took place in the 17th and 18th centuries in academic circles, constituted a component of serious and consequent philological research.

Tapani Harviainen

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Comparative word lists and other arguments were collected by well-known scholars to testify in favour of a special relationship between Hebrew and the native languages, German, Tuscan-Italian, Swedish, Finnish, Lappish (Sami), Estonian, etc. Even a degree of competition can be seen to have taken place in this field.

Enevaldus Svenonius, a proponent of the Finnish language

I.A. Heikel, who wrote his still indispensable Filologins studium vid Åbo universitet in 1884, includes the following statement: “As far as is known, even the questionable merit of being the first to propose the sentence that to the greatest extent the Finnish language has received its vocabu-lary from Greek and Latin rests with Svenonius.” As a rule, a similar amused tone accompanies the descriptions of the linguistic achievements of Enevaldus Svenonius (1617–1688), the Swedish-born Professor eloquentiæ (i.e. of Latin) at the Academia Aboensis in Turku in Finland, and his colleagues of the 17th and 18th centuries in both scholarly and popular works, including textbooks.

Indeed, Svenonius argued in his extensive linguistic studies in Latin that “concerning the origins of the Finnish language, it seems to originate to the greatest part from Greek and Hebrew words.” Svenonius presented 37 Hebrew words in a type of Latin transcription which I have retained in the following few examples and to which I have added my own English translations and explan-ations:

Avah voluit (‘he wanted, wished’) = (Finnish) åwi (in Swedish) döör (‘a door’) / q: ad nutum patens (‘open as desired’).

Em mater (‘a mother’) = Ämi ‘an old woman’.

Holel vesanus (‘furious’, ‘madman’) = hullu ‘folly’, ‘infatuated’.

Chadsah vidit (‘he saw’) = katzo ‘he saw’.

Chamar lutosus f. (‘was muddy’) = camara pellis suilla, q: semper lutosa (‘pigskin which is always muddy’).

Canas collegit (‘he collected’) = Kans(s)a ‘with’.

Sws 1. Equus 2. Grus, 3. Anser sylvestris, variorumquè aliorum animalium nomen (‘1. a horse, 2. a crane, 3. a wild goose, and the name of various other animals’) = Susi ‘a wolf’.

Pimah omentum, pingvedo (‘the fatty membrane or caul covering the intestines’, ‘fatness’) = Pimä ‘butterfat’, ‘buttermilk’.

Pæræsch fimus æquiv. met. podex (‘manure’, ‘metonymically equal to the anal orifice’). (A tacit reference by Svenonius to the Finnish word perse ‘buttocks’, not in polite use.)

Tsara leprosus f. (‘was leper’) = sairas ‘ill’.

With the knowledge accrued in subsequent centuries, the equations of Svenonius look casual and even ridiculous, as has been stated in numerous contexts.

Not by words alone

In 1697, the theme of the equivalence of Hebrew and Finnish was dealt with in the pro gradu dissertation Lingvarum ebrææ et finnicæ convenientia presented by Eric Cajanus at the Academia Aboensis. At first, Cajanus enumerated only six equivalent words in Hebrew and Finnish “although a more extensive list could be collected easily.”

However, Cajanus was not satisfied with a word list. According to the trad-itions of the linguistic studies of those days, he continued to examine the various parts of speech (partes orationis) of both languages. Cajanus was able to make the following observations: In its morph-ology, Finnish reveals counterparts to three out of the four “conjugations” (i.e. stems) of Hebrew verbs (“Kal” teki ‘he made’, “Pihel” teeskeli ‘he frequented/used to make’, and “Hiphil” teetti ‘he let make’). Among the independent pronouns, the plural forms of Hebrew ’attem ‘you’ and hem ‘they’ closely resemble their Finnish counterparts te and he, while the non-independent short forms can be added as suffixes to a noun (e.g. Hebr. sifrenu = Finnish kiriamme ‘our books’, cf. Hebr. ’anahnu and Finnish mewe’). Further, in both languages, these pronominal suffixes can be attached to verbs (i.e. infini-tives); thus, e.g., ’okhli and ’okhlekha, derivations of the verb ’akhal ‘to eat’, correspond to the Finnish expressions syödesäni and syödesäs (‘when I/you eat’). In poetry, the metre, which usually consists of eight syllables, as well as the recurrent parallelism of two verses, is no minor proof of the affinity. In this syntax, it is worth noting that for the address both languages apply the second person singular; instead of the various degrees of comparison of adjectives, a reduplicated posi-tive form or a positive form added with an emphatic word replaces superlatives in both Hebrew and Finnish. Two conson-ants in the initial position cannot occur in these languages.

A comparison between the arguments of Svenonius and Cajanus is important. Instead of just a list of words, Cajanus examined the issue from a wider perspective: he was able to point out similarities in the vocabulary, morphology, prosody, syntax, and phonology, all the linguistic fields of both languages. This implied that the affinity between Hebrew and Finnish was comprehensively demonstrated according to the current trad-itions and principles of the scholarly research of his time.

Finnish, one of the cardinal languages

In Finland, this type of research was continued during the 18th century. Daniel Juslenius, Professor of Holy Languages and Theology in Turku, concluded in several publications that Finnish was one of the independent cardinal, or basic, languages which, in turn, had given rise to Lappish, Estonian, and Bjarmian, and perhaps also to the Slavonic language. The origin of Finnish was to be derived from the Babylonian confusion of languages, and thus “no other language can boast of having given birth to Finnish.” However, the vestiges of Greek and Heb-rew constitute a part of the Finnish language.

In Juslenius’s inaugural speech as professor given in 1712, the lexical contacts with Hebrew (and Greek) were described by him in the form of a score of “striking” equivalents, though, according to him, there occur six hundred similar ones and, in addition, countless others which by form or reference are more remote but surely related, however.

Although all the comparative word lists consist of casual similarities, we may pay attention to the remarkable difference between Svenonius’s list and those of Juslenius and his followers: very few of the equations proposed by Svenonius were repeated by later scholars; instead, they were able to find a rather large number of other pairs of words which indeed looked very convincing from their viewpoint. The basic idea of Svenonius was con-sidered to be correct for a long time after his death. Nevertheless, his comparative material was thought to be defective, unreliable, and perhaps even ridiculous in the view of other scholars who themselves were native speakers of Finnish. In this sense, the development of the comparative lists also reflects a constant attempt to amend the quality of the argumentation.

After the comparison of vocabulary, Juslenius returned in his speech to the same morphological, syntactical, poet-ical, and orthographical categories which were presented earlier by Cajanus. Juslenius was also able to pay attention to several new similarities in the field of morphology, for example that also the fourth, reciprocal “Hithpaël” stem of Hebrew verbs has a counterpart in Finnish: kierin (‘I rolled myself’).

As a central figure in the cultural life of Sweden and Finland in the first half of the 18th century, Daniel Juslenius is the person who as a rule is later referred to when the Hebrew “track of errors” is mentioned.

A final demonstration

A hundred years after Svenonius’s studies, in 1766, Fredrik Collin, later vicar of the parish of Helsinki, published the second part of his pro gradu thesis Dissertatio historica de origine Fennorum in Turku. In respect of the methodology and the extension of comparative discoveries, his study was the final and most complete achievement during “the century of the Hebrew-Finnish affinity”.

Collin presented a list consisting of 77 Hebrew words with their Finnish coun-terparts; these fulfil his methodological prerequisites which demand consistent similarity of both the consonantal structure and the reference of the words in the two languages. In addition to this “material similarity”, he repeated the aforementioned morphological, prosodic, and syntactical, or “formal features”, which also according to Cajanus and Juslenius connected Finnish with Hebrew. Parallels in material culture, manners and customs1 were added to the chain of evidence. In theory, the close connection between Hebrew and Finnish was now demonstrated as multilaterally and convincingly as the paradigms of the current philology could ever demand.

Even in those days, prophecy was a rare phenomenon among scholars. Thus, the proponents of the Hebrew-Finnish affinity could not predict that, only a few decades after Collin, the study of comparative linguistics was to acquire a totally different direction under the leadership of Wilhelm von Humboldt, Rasmus Rask and their colleagues who demonstrated the existence of Semitic, Indo-European and Finno-Ugric families of languages. Our predecessors could not predict future developments – as part of the European community of scholars they followed the scholarly paradigm of their own period.


* This description is based on my article ‘The Story of Supposed Hebrew-Finnish Affinity - a Chapter in the History of Comparative Linguistics’ published in Inquiries into Words, Constraints and Contexts: Festschrift in the Honour of Kimmo Koskenniemi on his 60th Birthday. (Ed. by Antti Arppe et alii.) Saarijärvi 2005, pp. 289-306. http://csli-publications.stanford.edu/site/ONLN.html.

1 Though I have expressed above my dislike for the attempts to ridicule the achievements of our predecessors, a connection proposed by Collin between the unleavened Passover bread of Jews and the Finnish Easter pudding, mämmi, the name of which clearly originated from the biblical Hebrew celestial bread manna, is too amusing to be passed by without a note.

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