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Finnish researchers on Ob-Ugric languages


Carl August Engelbrekt Ahlqvist

7 August 1826 in Kuopio/Finland, † 20 November 1889 in Helsinki/Finland.

image Carl August Engelbrekt Ahlqvist Scholar of Finno-Ugric languages, considered, together with József Budenz, to be the real founder of Finno-Ugric linguistic studies as a regular academic discipline. Ahlqvist became professor for Finnish Language and Literature at the University of Helsinki in 1863, was rector of this University from 1884 to 1887, and retired in 1888.

As a student of M. A. Castrén, he adopted the principles of comparative linguistics. In 1854 and 1855 he travelled through Karelia, Ingria and Estonia, researching local Finnic languages. As a result of these journeys he published descriptions of Vote (1856) and Veps (1859). Ahlqvist’s next destinations were the middle reaches of the Volga and the Ob river basin in the years1856 to 1859. On this expedition he collected materials from Mari, Mordvin, Chuvash, Tatar, Mansi and Khanty. His studies on Moksha Mordvin (1861) were the first scholarly works on this language. Later, in 1877 and 1880, Ahlqvist made two more journeys to the Mansi and Khanty.

Ahlqvist promoted Finnish studies, writing several pioneer works on various subjects. He was, for example, the author of the first comprehensive study on Finnish metrics (1863a), as well as on derivation and nominal inflection (1877). His monograph on the history of Finnic cultural words (1871) was the first attempt to determine the age and origin of these words and then to elucidate, by means of this vocabulary, the prehistory of the Finns (cf. a corresponding study on Ob-Ugric, 1882). Ahlqvist was the first scholar to falsify the popular idea of Chuvash as a Finno-Ugric language and wrote the first modern scientific comparative study of Finnish and Hungarian (1863b). The Society for the Study of Finnish (Kotikielen Seura), publisher of the most important linguistic periodical in Finland, Virittäjä, was founded in 1876 at Ahlqvist’s suggestion.
In addition to his linguistic work Ahlqvist was an influential language planner, the leading literary critic of his age in Finland, and, under the pen name A. Oksanen, a poet.

(Mikko Korhonen; revised by Johanna Laakso and Tim Riese)

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Mathias Alexander Castrén

*2 December 1813 in Tervola/Finland, † 7 May 1852 in Helsinki/Finland.

image Mathias Alexander Castrén Explorer, Uralic linguist, founder of Samoyedology and Siberian anthropological linguistics.

In order to explore the eastern Uralic languages Castrén undertook two long expeditions to Northeastern Europe and Siberia. When the professorship of Finnish Language and Literature was founded at the University of Helsinki, Castrén became the first holder of this chair in 1851.
As a student of languages in Helsinki, Castrén became familiar with the work of R. Rask, thus coming upon the idea of applying the comparative method to the Finnish languages. In his docent thesis (1839), Castrén showed the elements of common origin, e.g. consonant gradation, in the declension of Finnish, Estonian, and Saami.
On the initiative of A.J. Sjögren, and with the financial support of the Finnish Treasury, Castrén undertook a linguistic and ethnographic expedition in 1841 to 1844 through Finnish and Russian Lapland and northern Russia to the river Ob, studying Saami, Komi and Nenets on the way, and writing e.g. a Komi grammar (1844a). After falling ill, he was forced to return to Helsinki, but having recovered he traveled back to Siberia in 1845, this time commissioned by the Imperial Academy of Science in St. Petersburg. On this expedition he studied several indigenous languages and peoples in Siberia, especially in the river basins of the Ob and Yenisey, extending his journey far into the mountains of Sayan and beyond Lake Baikal. When Castrén returned to Helsinki in 1849, he had collected vast materials in Khanty and all five extant Samoyedic languages, as well as in several Turkic, Tungus and Mongol languages, in addition to which he had discovered the Ket and Kot languages.
On this journey Castrén elaborated his theory on the relationship between the Finno-Ugric, Samoyedic and Altaic languages and peoples, as well as on their original homeland (Urheimat) in the Altai and Sayan Mountains (1846, 1850).
In his last years Castrén worked on his data collections intensively, publishing a Khanty grammar (1849) and preparing a large grammar of the Samoyedic languages. After Castrén’s death, F. A. von Schiefner assumed the responsibility for Castrén’s unpublished papers and edited Castrén’s collected works in a 12-vol. series (1853–62).
On the basis of the data collected on his journeys Castrén demonstrated the affinity of the Finno-Ugric and Samoyedic languages, although his theory on the relationship between the Uralic and Altaic languages has remained unverified. His descriptions of numerous Siberian languages have retained their value as sources of data up until the present. Castrén served as a model for numerous scholars undertaking linguistic and ethnographic research journeys later to Uralic peoples.

  • Article on finnugor.elte.hu: "Castrén, Matthias Alexander" (in Hungarian).
  • (Mikko Korhonen; revised by Johanna Laakso and Tim Riese)

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    Kai (Karl) Reinhold Donner

    *April 1, 1888 in Helsinki, Finland, † February 12, 1935 in Helsinki.

    image Kai Donner Linguist, anthropologist and ethnographer.
    He was the son of Otto Donner, who formulated the first family tree of the Finno-Ugric languages and was the founder of the Finno-Ugric Society. He obtained university degrees in 1914 and 1921, followed by a doctorate in 1923. In 1924 he became associate professor for Uralic languages at the University of Helsinki.
    After studying in Helsinki, Budapest and Cambridge, his first expedition in 1911-1913 led to the Selkup between Tomsk and Krasnojarsk, where in the area of Kansk Kamas was still spoken. The journey led from Tomsk to Krasnojask (Selkup), along the Ket and Yenisei (Nganasan) towards Turukhansk and Dudinka (Nganasan, Yakuts, Dolgan and Tunguz) and finally along the Tas back to the Ob. His second expedition to the Kamas in 1914 was terminated due to the beginning of World War I.
    Back in Finland, he was a reserve officer in the Finnish independence war of 1918, gained honors in the Jäger Movement, and was a director and industrialist.
    Wide parts of his material collection from the years 1911-1914 remained unedited and were not dealt with until the 1960’s by Pekka Sammallahti. Juha Janhunen and Ago Künnap translated and catalogued further portions. In 2004 Jarmo Alatalo published a Selkup dictionary based on the materials of Kai Donner and U. T. Sirelius.
    From 1920 to 1922 he was editor of the Suunta-lehti and from 1924 until 1934 associate professor for Uralic languages at the University of Helsinki. In 1932 he became a member of the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters and in 1934 of the Suomen Tiedeseura.
    In addition to his linguistic work, Donner was a political activist, and therefore had to remain in Swedish and German exile during 1916-1918. Furthermore, he was a member of the rightist Lapua Movement.

    (Maximilian Murmann)

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