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Elias Lönnrot

Born April 9, 1802, Sammatti. Died March 19, 1884, Sammatti.

Master of Arts,1827, Royal Academy of Turku
Bachelor of Medicine, 1830 and Doctor of Medical Science, 1832, Imperial Alexander University
Professor of Finnish Language and Literature, 1853–62, Imperial Alexander University
Folk poetry fieldwork and research trips, 1828–44
District Medical Officer for the Kajaani region, 1833–43, 1849–54

Picture: Helsingin yliopistomuseo
Written by Kaarina Pitkänen-Heikkilä and Suvi Uotinen (ed.)
Translated by John Calton

The Law and botany for all

In the pages of the Oulu Wiikko-Sanomia newspaper, the editor Elias Lönnrot offered his readers advice about such matters as court procedure – “Neuvoja talonpoikaiselle kansalle oikeuden hakemisessa ja keräjän käymisessä” (‘Advice to my fellow countrymen in their pursuit of justice and correct standards of behaviour in court’). He followed this up in the 1857 volume Suomi (‘Finland’) in the form of new Finnish translations of the legislative code relating to commerce and land ownership. Lönnrot drafted the translation because he held what was there already to be extremely poor. His opinion was that there was followed Swedish clauses from word to word and moreover the Swedish words were translated badly. Quite simply any Finn who didn’t understand Swedish would be quite at sea.

Later Lönnrot translated J.Ph. Palmén’s law book. It was published in 1863 under the title La’in-opillinen Käsikirja Yhteiseksi siwistykseksi (’A law manual for universal improvement’). When it was published Lönnrot is said to have boasted to Palmén: “You will soon see that the Swedish countryman can make nothing of your writing but Finnish countrymen understand mine.” The translation was reviewed in Suometar in 1863. It was largely favourable but attention was drawn in particular to new derivative forms  (for example the erroneous nnAinen- ja stO-johdoksista) and the nominative stem of word combinations where the second element was a derivative of a transitive verb (in words like pesäjako, metsähoitaja, läänihallitus). The evaluation was most probably the work of August Ahlqvist, because he typically apportioned blame for excessively-wrought word combinations: “…we aim to demonstrate what a difficult and hazardous business the coining of new words is, because a scion of language such as Lönnrot may, in his adoption of derivative law, occasionally go awry.”

Lönnrot had recognised the importance of botany in the pages of the Litteraturblad journal back in 1847. He had told how he considered it to be one of the most essential and useful disciplines: “If it be for no other reason, it must be studied as there is nothing quite so fitting to demonstrate the value of any other kind of study.” He went one step further in Flora Fennica (1860): “I know of no better way to acquaint the practicant in the independent study and careful observation of external distinctions..”

Before publishing his comprehensive description of Finland’s flora, Lönnrot wished to publish a botanical glossary, in order to gather comments and suggestions for improvement. This plant primer, “Kasvikon oppisanoja”, appeared in his 1858 work Suomi. And two years later in Flora Fennica Elias drew on the glossary in all its lexical abundance. He came up with words like emi (‘pistil’), hede (’stamen’), terälehti (‘petal’), verholehti (‘sepal’), kärhi (‘tendril’), siemenkota (‘core’, lit. 'seedhut'), sepivä (‘amplexicaul’), and of leaves, nirhalaitainen (‘dentate’, ‘denticulate’) and kourasuoninen (‘palminerved’).

The primer was well received. For example, Lönnrot’s star student, Rietrikki Polén, wrote in the Mehiläinen journal that ..”we cannot pass without mentioning the joy which every Finn feels about this lexicon, which, for those who command the Finnish tongue, has cleared a path to the scientific study of plants. From these words it is clear how rich and malleable our mother tongue is, if it is but embraced by skilful men.” The writer of the piece did however find fault with certain terms because they were used with a different sense in certain dialects of Finnish.

The statesman J.V. Snellman also found much to praise in Lönnrot’s lexicographical work. He was full of admiration for the flexibility of the Finnish language, writing that Lönnrot’s glossary was never once found wanting for a suitable word to match a concept, whereas it would have been a necessity to frame a circumlocution in the Swedish. Snellman considered Lönnrot’s plant lexicon to be of significance for Finnish letters, the Finnish people and both school and university teaching. Lönnrot’s botanical vocabulary bedded down well, and even today the detailing of plant structure draws largely on Lönnrotian terms.

Elias Lönnrot hoped that his terminological labours would serve as a model for future generations, and concluded the postscript to the lexicon in a style reminiscent of the Kalevala:

“He who sets out to find errors and insufficiencies will find them in plenty in the exercise, but be they whatsoever good, whatsoever unsuitable and otherwise to chide, howsomever, all together

track bending, treetop bending,

branch arching, way pointing,

for smoother designs,

for sharper shapers,

with youth yearning

and 'kin succeeding.”

Photo: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura.​


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