Universitas Helsingiensis

The father of standard Finnish

The father of standard FinnishThe life’s work of Mikael Agricola, known as the father of standard Finnish, still exerts an influence on Finnish culture.

In the era of reformers Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon, some dozen young Finnish men went to Germany to study. One of them was Mikael Agricola, who was sent to the University of Wittenberg in 1536 to learn more about the amazing new faith preached by Luther. Later, Agricola became renowned among his fellows through his important literary work for the benefit of the Finnish language, in particular his Finnish translation of the New Testament (1548) and the publication of the first Finnish book, Abckiria (1543) and an extensive prayer book (1544).

Agricola’s works and his language are still analysed and studied as it is the oldest Finnish that has been preserved to our day and that can be dated. In fact, many Finnish etymological dictionaries reiterate the phrase “used by Agricola”.

“The language itself is not that different from modern Finnish and it is quite readable. For today’s Finns, Agricola’s Finnish is easier to understand than Shakespeare’s English is to the modern British,” says Simo Heininen, Professor of General Church History.

Different eras have viewed Agricola’s person and role from different perspectives. “During 19th century national romanticism, Agricola was hailed as an important proponent of Finnish nationalism and the Father of Standard Finnish. He was described as a modest person from a poor background because these qualities were associated with the idealised image of the Finnish peasant popular among national romantics,” says Heininen.

“Today’s view is different. We know that language had no intrinsic value for him but was a means to bring religious literature to the people. And he was not a poor and modest man but the son of a wealthy landowner. He was very aware of his own abilities and this is evident in the prefaces to his books, in which he is not shy to boast about his merits.”

Studying a life’s work

Agricola’s achievements are beyond dispute and for generations he has been called the father of standard Finnish. Owing to a lack of sources, many aspects of his person are still unknown, there are no contemporary portraits and his exact date of birth is not known. This year, Finland celebrates the 450th anniversary of his death.

Simo Heininen has devoted himself to studying Agricola from early in his academic career. This spring saw the publication of his comprehensive book on the life and works of Mikael Agricola, presenting the latest research results. According to Heininen, it is unlikely that very much more can be discovered about Agricola’s life, but the works of this productive scholar still offer much material for research.

Agricola must have worked very hard all his adult life, although many assistants, whose names have not been preserved for posterity, also worked on the translations. Translating the New Testament took more than ten years. Works from Agricola’s own bookshelves have been preserved to our day; for instance, we still have his copy of Luther’s book of homilies in Latin. Agricola’s thorough study of this extensive work is evident from the amount of underlining and notes in the margins.

Agricola’s mother tongue used to arouse much debate among scholars: was it Swedish or Finnish? “His mother tongue was probably Swedish as his native region Pernå was completely Swedish-speaking at the time. On the other hand, his mother tongue is of secondary importance because he was clearly a language genius and learned Finnish perfectly. His exceptional talents were recognised even during his lifetime and he was also envied. His career, which culminated in becoming the Bishop of the Turku Diocese, proves that Agricola was also a significant person in politics. He even participated in the peace negotiations with the Russian tsar Ivan the Terrible,” Heininen points out.

Faithful to the Bible

Earlier research has paid very little attention to how erudite Agricola was. Heininen says he was a true European humanist scholar, who, in addition to languages and theology, was widely learned in history and geography, as his extensive library reveals.

“He was also clearly a clever administrator. When he worked as a scribe and secretary to the Bishop as a young man, he drew up extensive economic reports commissioned by the King, who was robbing the church’s property in the name of the Reformation.”

In his research, Heininen has studied the sources and translation methods used by Agricola. “I have compared his texts to sources in Latin, German, Greek and Swedish and noticed that Agricola very meticulously preserved the content and phrasing of the Bible but that he was quite free with prayers and prefaces because they were not holy scriptures. If the texts referred to German folk customs that were not known in Finland, Agricola substituted examples familiar to Finns. This has helped preserve valuable information on Finnish folklore: in his preface to the Psalter, Agricola lists ancient Finnish gods, which has been extremely important to Finnish folklore studies.”

Students are also interested in Agricola, but few are prepared to embark on research, which, according to Heininen, is laborious, tedious and requires extensive language skills and the ability to read old texts. It seems that the general public is also interested in Agricola. The anniversary year is filled with numerous events, which have attracted a great number of participants. Throughout the years, Heininen has also travelled around Finland to give lectures. “Sometimes I have had quite large audiences even in small towns. I think that shows how important Agricola still is to today’s Finns.”

Arja-Leena Paavola