Morphology Archives preserve forms of speech from 50 years ago

Are the conventions of spoken language same today as they were in the 1970s? For Finnish, the answer can be found in the Morphology Archives, which are gradually being digitised.

Fifty years ago, in June 1967, a few scholars of the Finnish language embarked on a tour of Finland to collect dialects. During the summer, they went all the way from Töysä and Sauvo to Joutseno and Ylihärmä.

That marked the beginning of the first dialect cards to be stored in the University’s Morphology Archives of the Finnish language. Scholars continued to accrue more material until 1998. Today, the Archives are a snapshot of the dialects spoken by the eldest generations during the 1960s to the 1980s.

Researchers slept in barns

Collecting dialects used to be a required component of intermediate studies in the Finnish language, says Mari Siiroinen, archivist at the Morphology Archives and research coordinator for the Faculty of Arts.

For three decades, students set forth on field work tours every May. One group would go west, and the other, east.

The dialect collection accrued for intermediate studies was just a practice assignment. A bigger effort fell to Master’s graduates, who collected a substantial number of dialects by touring a single area over the course of several consecutive summers.

Journal entries were made of each collection trip: who was interviewed and who had served as the most important informants. The journals reveal that sometimes the scholars struggled to find lodging for the night.

“According to the journal, one collector had brought his entire family with him. The family had slept in a cold barn, and some of them contracted pneumonia. He had to discontinue his collection tour,” explains Outi Pajukallio, trainee at the Morphology Archives.

Small steps towards digitisation

Trainees Outi Pajukallio and Pauliina Kettunen have spent the summer entering dialect phrases from the Morphology Archives into a digital database. At the beginning of August, they had made it as far as Teisko, a parish near Tampere. The work is slow, and has been ongoing for more than a decade.

The digitisation efforts were launched in 2000, when the Department of Finnish was successful in the Academy of Finland’s funding application for digital databases. The application had been drafted by long-term archivist, Amanuensis Kaisu Juusela and Toni Suutari, who helped pilot the first steps of the digitisation process. The Language Bank of Finland joined the project as a partner.

Digital archives depict the spread of phrases

Mari Siiroinen estimates that the full archive will be digitised within five years.

“After that, the accessibility and usability of the Archives will skyrocket. It will be easy to check anything that comes into you head: Have people ever said this? Where has this word or phrase been in use?”

Digital databases offer fantastic opportunities for linguists and students. Suvi Vierula, a fourth-year student of Finnish language, used the dialect corpus in her Bachelor’s thesis. She studied the development of the synonymous words kanssa, kans and kaa (“with”) in the Finnish language. The article based on her thesis was published in the 2/2017 issue of Virittäjä, one of the most esteemed publications in the field.

The Archives show that kaa form, currently common in spoken Finnish in Helsinki, was rare as recently as the 1970s. Today, the kaa is very common, but in the 1970s it was so rare that there is no mention of it in The Longitudinal Corpus of Finnish Spoken in Helsinki. The only hits are for kanssa and kans.


Kaa comes from Kymenlaakso

From the Morphology Archives and former studies, Vierula discovered that the origin of the kaa form is in the dialects of Kymenlaakso in eastern Finland. One example was recorded in Vehkalahti in 1969. The same form has also been found in the dialects of Ylä-Satakunta, in mid-western Finland.

The first mention of the kaa form in The Longitudinal Corpus of Finnish Spoken in Helsinki is from the 1990s. It has become more popular in many contexts. In the material from the 1990s, kaa is found 16 times, but in the material from the 2010s, it already features 73 times.

Vierula used Google searches to find out whether people thought of kaa as an independent word or a suffix. It is most commonly written separately, but occasionally it is integrated into the preceding word, such as maidonkaa (“with milk”).

Digital databases offer fantastic opportunities

Suvi Vierula, a fourth-year student of Finnish language, used the dialect corpus in her Bachelor’s thesis. She studied the development of the synonymous words kanssa, kans and kaa (“with”) in the Finnish language.

Suvi Vierula will give a Pecha Kucha talk based on her research at the 50th anniversary seminar of the Morphology Archives on 15 September.

The 50th anniversary seminar of the Morphology Archives will be held from 13.00 to 17.00 on Friday, 15 September at the Small Hall of the University of Helsinki’s Main Building (Fabianinkatu 33, 4th floor). Free entrance. The seminar language is Finnish. It's possible to follow the live stream of the event through this link.