Finnish

The Languages of Berkeley: An Online Exhibition

Finnish
Title page for 1849 edition of Kalevala, Source: HathiTrust (Harvard)

The Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, is a collection of folklore stories, much in the spirit of the German Nibelungenlied or Old English Beowulf. The Kalevala starts with the origins of the earth, its first people, spirits and animals, and ends with the departure of the main protagonist and the arrival of a “golden child”, a new era. 

The Kalevala is based on poetry called runos or runes, collected and compiled by Elias Lönnrot, a countryside doctor who had a keen interest in linguistics and, especially, in oral folklore. He set out for his first of many oral folklore collection journeys in the early 1830s and journeyed to the Karelian Isthmus, to areas that were then and are also nowadays part of Russia. The areas he visited were populated by Finnish speakers and considered as part of Finland by many. Lönnrot’s method of collection was simple: he listened to local singers and wrote down what he heard. In the process of compiling the transcripts, he surely took liberties to compose parts himself as well.

When Lönnrot started the Kalevala project there was no sovereign nation called Finland. Before becoming independent in 1917, the area we know now as Finland was under either Swedish or Russian rule for centuries. In Lönnrot’s times, Finland was an autonomous Grand Duchy of Russia. National romantic ideas of one national hailing from shared, mystical origins were no inventions of Lönnrot’s—quite the contrary. Winds of changes were blowing across Europe as Lönnrot walked along the Russian Isthmus collecting folklore. Europe was a turmoil of revolutions. 

Many artists and thinkers in the Grand Duchy of Finland were excited about the Finnish language, culture, and the budding ideas of an independent nation. A national epic seemed needed, almost necessary, and in many ways it was perhaps perceived as proof for the right of the Finnish people to their own sovereign country, language and identity. Lönnrot was a Swedish speaker who saw the need and importance of a shared language for an emerging nation that was not Swedish or Russian, the languages of an oppressor, but Finnish, the language of the people who lived in the Grand Duchy.      

The Kalevala was first published in 1835 and a second, reworked edition came out in 1849. The 1849 edition is the version that is still read today. It has 22,795 verses that are divided into several dozen stories. Together these stories create a whole, grand narrative. In the center of the runes are two tribes, the people of Kaleva led by the old, steadfast Väinämöinen, a powerful spiritual leader with the gift of song. In Pohjola, the North, rules a mighty old woman, Louhi, a witch, the ragged toothed hag of the North. Both tribes have fortunes and misfortunes in the stories: they venture out to compete for the hand of beautiful and clever maidens, they fight, they love, they die horrible deaths in the jaws of monsters or at the hands of their foesjust like the fate of heroes in all epic stories. What makes the Kalevala different from other epic stories is the vulnerability of its heroes. Where mighty godlike heroes of other epic stories escape from the flames of dragons and the horrors of cave dwelling creatures, the characters of the Kalevala suffer defeats, cry in pain and loneliness, never win the heart of the person they court, break bonds that were never to be broken and, in the end, there is death, the ultimate departure. The characters have a human tenderness that is rarely found in epic stories with heroes and villains. 

Song is central in the Kalevala. We can read lengthy passages about spells Väinämöinen sings when he builds a boat to carry him across the stormy seas to Pohjola, how spells can be used to enchant someone, or which spell to sing in order to retrieve a missing spell from the belly of a forest spirit. Kalevala is full of singing competitions, exchanges of spells between characters—the song is mightier than the sword. The Kalevala is written in a strict tetrameter and is meant to be sung rather than read. An identifiable character of the Kalevala is the use of alliteration: two or more words in a line begin with the same sound. In strong alliteration even the following vowel is the same. Here, an example from the very first lines of the Kalevala

Mieleni minun tekevi  = mastered by desire impulsive

aivoni ajattelevi =  by a mighty inward urging

hteäni laulamahan = I am ready now for singing

saa’ani sanelemahan = ready to begin the chanting

Poetry as a genre poses challenges to the translator, and the Kalevala’s form makes translation that captures the meter impossible. Despite the intricate nature of the Kalevala, the epic has been translated into numerous languages, including English. 

Many artists found inspiration in the Kalevala. For example, Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1861-1935), a Finnish contemporary of Edward Munch (1863-1944), painted large Kalevala themed frescoes for the Finnish pavilion in the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris. In designing and decorating this entire pavilion dedicated to Finland (a country that did not yet exist), the Finnish cultural elite demonstrated its national spirit. Kalevala themes were central inspirations also for the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957).

But is the Kalevala Finnish? Is it a compilation of authentic Finnish oral poetry, or did Lönnrot in fact appropriate oral tradition he collected on his journeys and simply called it Finnish? The popular use of the book had a great influence on the formation of a positive Finnish identity, and to this day the Kalevala holds a firm position in Finnish culture. Discussing the Kalevala’s origins in the context of collecting oral traditions reveals its historical burden. This is the case for many epic stories and old poetry; the Old Norse and Old Saxon poetic forms can be scrutinized in the same light. Whose poems are these? Who claimed ownership and to what end? The Kalevala can be used as reading material for the pure enjoyment of poetry, but also as a discussion starter about authenticity, oral tradition, and the formation of national identity.   

Finnish has about six million speakers worldwide. The Department of Scandinavian regularly offers both Finnish language courses and courses in Finnish Culture and History. Numerous editions of the Kalevala are held by the University Library beginning with an important translation into German from 1852, kept in The Bancroft Library and contemporary with the publication of the later editions of German folklore collected by the Brothers Grimm. Other editions within the Library include a 1965 Finnish text which features Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s paintings, and, beyond English, translations into languages such as French, Yiddish, Hungarian, and Hindi. 

Contribution by Lotta Weckström
Lecturer, Department of Scandinavian


Title:
Kalevala
Title in English: Kalevala
Author: Lönnrot, Elias, 1802-1884, editor.
Imprint: Helsingissä, 1849.
Edition: 2nd
Language: Finnish
Language Family: Uralic, Finno-Ugric
Source: The HathiTrust Digital Library (Harvard University)
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/011532640

Select print editions at Berkeley:

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The Languages of Berkeley is a dynamic online sequential exhibition celebrating the diversity of languages that have advanced research, teaching and learning at the University of California, Berkeley. It is made possible with support from the UC Berkeley Library and is co-sponsored by the Berkeley Language Center (BLC).

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Hungarian

The Languages of Berkeley: An Online Exhibition

Hungarian
Cover for 1987  Európa Könyvkiadó edition

Magda Szabó (1917-2007) was a Hungarian novelist, known as the most translated Hungarian author. She worked in multiple genres, including drama, poetry, short stories, and memoirs. For this exhibition, we chose her 1987 novel Az ajtó (The Door”) for several reasons, first she was repressed as a result of Stalinist excesses. According to a book review of another recently novel only recently translated into English, “her fiction shows the travails of modern Hungarian history from oblique but sharply illuminating angles.”[1] Second, the complex relations between the main characters of Az ajtó: Magda, her husband, and Emerence, the woman helper with an adopted dog,  juxtaposed with who is in charge and how the relationship will evolve leads to a creation of a layered narrative. The layered narrative represents a mesmerizing self-weaving quilt of time and contextual protests.[2] As a young poet she won her country’s chief literary honor, the Baumgarten Prize, in 1949. On the same day, the communist regime cancelled this award to a class enemy. She lost her civil- service job, went to teach in a primary school, and only began to publish novels a decade later. Novels such as Az ajtó and Pilátus (“Iza’s Ballad”) are entangled with public upheavals from the repressive governments and Nazi occupation of the 1930s and 1940s, to the sudden annihilation of Hungary’s Jews, and the soul-sapping compromises and betrayals of the Stalinist era. 

Called Magyar by its speakers, Hungarian is the language of Hungarians (Magyarok) and is the official language of the Republic of Hungary. It is spoken by over 10 million people in Hungary and also by approximately 3 million ethnic Hungarian minorities in parts of the Czech Republic, Romania, Slovakia, Serbia and other areas bordering Hungary. Hungarian belongs to the Ugric branch of Finno-Ugric languages. Hungarian also has loan words from Germanic, Slavic and Turkic groups of languages. According to Oxford’s International Encyclopedia of Linguistics International Encyclopedia of Linguistics (2nd ed.), Hungarian’s status is described as follows, “Until the end of the 18th century, the status of Hungarian in the juridical, educational, and even literary spheres was at best that of a lesser rival to Latin, and then to German. With the deliberate establishment of the standard literary language, and the prodigious output of the golden age of Hungarian belles-lettres (roughly 1780–1880), dialectal variation was winnowed out. At present, the primary internal variation lies in the contrast of rural vs. urban standard; the latter is roughly equivalent to the speech of Budapest, where one-fifth of the population resides.”[3]

Hungarian was also one of the principle languages of the multiethnic, multilingual Austro-Hungarian Empire since its establishment in 1801. In her essay “The History of the Book in Hungary,” Bridget Guzner notes,The earliest Hungarian written records are closely linked to Christian culture and the Latin language. The first codices were copied and introduced by travelling monks on their arrival in the country during the 10th century, not long after the Magyar tribes had conquered and settled in the Carpathian Basin. The first incunabula known as Chronica Hungarorum (“Chronicle of Hungarians”) was published in 1473 by András Hess.” According to The Oxford Dictionary of the Renaissance, “Scholarly study of the Hungarian language began in 1539 with the publication of Pannonius’ Grammatica Hungaro-Latina.”[5] Until the end of the 18th century, the principal language of Hungarian literature was Latin, which was the language of the markedly literary court of Matthias Corvinus. The most important writers of Latin in Hungary were János Vitéz, Pannonius (whose poetry included epigrams, panegyrics, and epics), the Italian Antonio Bonfini (who wrote an important history of Hungary, the Rerum Hungaricarum decades IV, Basel, 1568), and the Hungarian Sambucus, who wrote a continuation of Bonfini’s history. In the Hungarian language, the most influential works were a series of translations of the Bible into Hungarian. The first great lyric poet of Hungary was Valentine Bálint Balassi (1554–95).”[6]

At UC Berkeley, Hungarian is currently taught by Eva Szoke in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, but the credit for creation of Hungarian language teaching program on campus can be given to Ms. Agnes Mihalik, who arrived at UC Berkeley in 1982. Outside the Hungarian language program, Professor Jason Wittenberg and Professor-Emeritus Andrew Janos, both from the Department of Political Science, specialize in Central and Eastern Europe with a focus on Hungary.

Contribution by Liladhar Pendse
Librarian for East European and Central Asian Studies, Doe Library

Source consulted:

  1. After 50 years, a Hungarian novel is published in English,” The Economist (February 28, 2019, (accessed 6/12/20)
  2. The Hungarian Despair of Magda Szabó’s ‘The Door’,” by Cynthia Zarin. The New Yorker (April 29, 2016) (accessed 6/12/20)
  3. International Encyclopedia of Linguistics. 2nd ed. William J. Frawley, ed. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. (accessed 6/12/20)
  4. “The History of the Book in Hungary” by Bridget Guzner in The Oxford Companion to the Book. Michael F. Suarez and H.R. Woudhuysen, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. (accessed 6/12/20)
  5. The Oxford Dictionary of the Renaissance. Gordon Campbell, ed. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. (accessed 6/12/20)
  6. Ibid.

~~~~~~~~~~
Title: Az ajtó
Title in English: The Door
Author: Szabó, Magda, 1917-2007
Imprint: Budapest: Magvető, 1987.
Edition: 1st
Language: Hungarian
Language Family: Uralic, Finno-Ugric
Source: Digitális Irodalmi Akadémia
URL: https://reader.dia.hu/document/Szabo_Magda-Az_ajto-889

Select print editions at Berkeley:

  • Az ajtó. Budapest: Magvető, 1987.
  • The Door. Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix; Introduction by Ali Smith. New York, NY: New York Review Books, 2015.

The Languages of Berkeley [fan]
previous | about | next

The Languages of Berkeley is a dynamic online sequential exhibition celebrating the diversity of languages that have advanced research, teaching and learning at the University of California, Berkeley. It is made possible with support from the UC Berkeley Library and is co-sponsored by the Berkeley Language Center (BLC).

Follow The Languages of Berkeley!
Subscribe by email
Contact/Feedback
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