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Eemil Nestor Setälä

Born 27 February 1864, Kokemäki. Died 8 February, 1935, Helsinki.

Master of Arts, 1886, Licentiate of Philosophy, 1887 and Doctor of Philosophy, 1890, Imperial Alexander University
Docent, Finno-Ugric Languages, 1887–1893

Professor of Finnish Language and Literature, 1893–1929, Imperial Alexander University (University of Helsinki after 1919)

Teacher, Finnish Language in Helsinki Läroverket för gossar och flickor (Grammar school for boys and girls), 1884–1887
Member of editorial board, Valvoja journal,1886-, editor-in-chief, 1897–1905
Assistant, Uusi Suometar journal, 1891–1899
Editor-in-chief, Finnisch-ugrische Forschungen periodical, 1901–1935
Full-time Assistant, Helsingin sanomat newspaper, 1905–1917
Chairman, Kaleva Society, 1919–1935

Senator, 1917–1918, Minister of Education, 1925, Minister for Foreign Affairs, 1925–1926
Finnish Ambassador to Copenhagen and Budapest, 1927–1930
Chancellor, University of Turku, 1926–1935
Councillor of State, 1934

Photo: Museovirasto
Written by Riitta-Ilona Hurmerinta
Translated by John Calton

Professorship via syntax

Eemil Nestor Setälä is said to have been fascinated by the Finnish language even in his school years, despite having to learn it using a Swedish-language grammar. Setälä and his peers at the Hämeenlinna normal lyceum were bothered by there not existing a grammar in Finnish. Encouraged by his teacher, Arvid Genetz, he used abstruse German language sources and compiled the work Suomen kielen lauseoppi (‘The syntax of Finnish’), which was published in 1880. This achievement revealed exceptional philological talent in the schoolboy, talent and application which was to flourish at the Imperial Alexander University. Among other subjects, Setälä studied Finnish, Latin, Sanskrit, Greek, comparative linguistics and botany, and was given the status of best young scholar in 1886. Following his doctoral dissertation on the development of mood and tense in Finno-Ugric languages, he became Doctor Primus of Philosophy in 1890. Young Setälä had at once a university career in mind, especially the professorship left vacant after the retirement of August Ahlqvist.

As it turned out, Setälä’s fellow competitor for the professorship was his former schoolteacher Arvid Genetz. The selection procedure proved to be rather eventful, and in the end both gentlemen were granted professorships. Genetz became Professor of Finno-Ugric Studies and the 29-year-old Setälä Professor of Finnish Language and Literature.

At the Imperial Alexander University, the young man was set on reforming the teaching of his subject. He was an enthusiastic generator of ideas on the research side, but many a new academic avenue went unexplored due to lack of time. He did however publish plenty of studies. One of the most important of these is Sammon arvoitus (‘The mystery of the Sampo’, 1932), which focuses on Finnish folk poetry and pre-history.

Together with his brother-in-law Kaarle Krohn, Setälä staked an academic claim by founding the international Finno-Ugric studies review Finnisch-Ugrische Forschungen (‘Finno-Ugric studies’) in 1901. One of Setälä’s greatest plans in the 1890s was to compile new dictionaries. This project was taken forward, especially in the 1920s, when Setälä was an MP and a minister and was thus able to promote the Dictionary Foundation.

E. N. Setälä’s work Suomen kielen lauseoppi, which he completed as a schoolboy, became a legendary textbook. It was used in new editions in grammar schools and universities until late in the 20th century.

Picture: Museovirasto.​


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