Old literaty Finnish online

What do the old Finnish words myhkymähkin, mieluullinen or even metsäröhni mean?

The Dictionary of Old Literary Finnish that is being compiled by the Institute for the Languages of Finland has the answers to these questions. The dictionary provides a description of early literary Finnish covering a period of almost 300 years, from the days of Mikael Agricola to 1810. The purpose of the project is to present the meanings and contexts of words contained in extensive texts published then. The words are examined from the perspectives of the 1900s and 2000s with the aim of making texts written centuries ago comprehensible to modern readers.

In the autumn of 2013, Kone Foundation awarded this project one of its largest individual grants, EUR 1 million covering a period of five years. “This will allow the dictionary’s editors to be able to focus more on their actual work, which is making the dictionary, as there will be no need for them to be continuously managing everything involved in applying for monetary assistance and completing applications. This long-term funding will free up energy to, among other things, see the connection more widely between the dictionary compilation work and language, culture and research,” says chief editor Pirkko Kuutti explaining the significance of the funding.

In addition to chief editor Pirkko Kuutti, the dictionary is being edited by Katariina Summanen, Elina Heikkilä, Taru Laanti, Maria Lehtonen and Sanna Nissinen at the Institute for the Languages of Finland in Helsinki.

Two parts of the dictionary have already been published, the first part (a-i) in 1985 and the second (j-k) in 1994. The funding from Kone Foundation will help to finish the words beginning with l-n and continue with the words starting with o. The dictionary will contain at least 80,000 entries and it will be published online. A sample section (entries starting with m), with just over 5,000 entries, will be published online today, 21 November 2014. “Reliable dictionaries compiled by professionals are needed on the internet. The search for information and materials has largely transferred to the internet, so it is also a good idea for tools to be easily usable online.  The internet has also become a tool which can help highlight small languages and various forms of language,” says Kuutti about the importance of dictionaries in the internet age.

The Dictionary of Old Literary Finnish is mainly used by linguists, researchers of early literary Finnish, researchers of etymology and semantics, researchers of Finnish and cognate languages and also of languages from other nearby areas, students and historians in various fields. “The dictionary could also be useful for writers of memoirs and historical novels, and history enthusiasts, including live action role players,” the editors explain. The Dictionary of Old Literary Finnish can help anyone gain an understanding of language history and insights into the way in which language, words, and the meanings and concepts of words change.

The examples in the dictionary make interesting and enjoyable reading for anyone. The working group explains that in their editing work they constantly stumble across funny words that are rich in nuances.

Sometimes the funniest thing is the sound of the word and sometimes combinations of familiar words grab your attention, but it is not possible to work out the meaning of these words. ”

The compilation of specialised dictionaries has been facing difficulties because these projects, which can last for decades, are often regarded as unfinishable, and financing can easily run out. A few years ago the publication of the Dictionary of Old Literary Finnish was also in danger as the working group assessing the tasks of the Institute for the Languages of Finland calculated that there was not enough money to continue the slowly progressing project. However, at this point, the team working on the project boldly set out to seek funding to allow the dictionary work to continue.

Kone Foundation believes that the dictionary work will be completed. “Specialised dictionaries are never-ending projects because the updating of information is always necessary, as the understanding of language always changes. But this is why it is important for them to be completed and for the dictionaries to contain all of the letters of the alphabet, as this considerably increases our understanding of the language. The team compiling the dictionary is a team that we can trust to complete the work and publish it for use,” explains Kalle Korhonen, Head of Research Affairs at Kone Foundation.

Kone Foundation wants to make the world a better place by advancing bold initiatives in research and the arts. So what do the members of the working group consider to be bold about compiling a dictionary? Kuutti summarises the thoughts of the working group: “It requires going against the mainstream to implement and fund a project requiring a lot of human input, and in the case of old texts it is almost only digitisation projects that receive funding. Kone Foundation has demonstrated boldness by awarding funding to the project for several years, which will allow the editors to concentrate on the work and look to the future.”