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Gustaf Ramstedt

Gustav John Ramstedt
Born 22 October, 1873, Tammisaari. Died 25 November, Helsinki

Bachelor of Philosophy, 1895, Master of Philosophy 1898 and Doctor of Philosophy 1903 (language sciences), Imperial Alexander University

1917–1941 Professor Extraordinarius of Altaic Languages, University of Helsinki
1906–1917  Docent in Language Sciences, Imperial Alexander University
1918 Secretary to the Commander of the Salo White Guard
1919–1929 Finnish Envoy to Tokyo, Peking and Bangkok
1935–1936 Director of the Finnish Academy of Sciences
1936–1940 Acting Professor of Sanskrit and Indo-European Languages
1936–1940 Acting Professor of Phonetic Sciences

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

From explorer on the trail of Altaic languages to professor and diplomat

Gustaf John Ramstedt's original intention when he began his university studies was to become a priest. Initially he threw himself into his studies of Latin, Greek and Hebrew, but his interest in linguistic sciences rather superseded his theological studies. Ramstedt came from a poor background and economic circumstances forced him into working life immediately on completion of his undergraduate studies in 1895. Over the course of several years he supported himself by teaching at the Finnish-medium Suomalainen Lyseo in Turku.

The professor of Sanskrit and comparative Indo-European languages, Otto Donner, managed to persuade Ramstedt to continue his studies, encouraging him to conduct research on the Altaic languages, a language family ranging from Turkish all the way to Japanese. Donner was one of the founding members of the Suomalais-Ugrilainen Seura (‘the Finno-Ugric society’), which was inaugurated in 1883.  Donner had spotted Ramstedt’s aptitude for languages and research, and proposed that he embark on a field trip to Asia.

Between 1898 and 1912 Ramstedt made seven expeditions to central Asia, Mongolia and Siberia, during which time he carried out detailed research on the region’s languages. The work went well and Ramstedt became a pioneer of comparative Altaic languages, the precursor of modern Mongolia languages and an internationally recognised authority on Central Asian languages. He defended his doctoral thesis for the Imperial Alexander University in 1903 on the verb structures of Mongolian.

Research grant notwithstanding, Ramstedt supported his family through his teaching and became a docent of the Imperial Alexander University in 1906. His income was finally secured in 1917 when he was appointed Professor of Altaic Languages. A family man, Ramstedt involved himself in local politics and the temperance movement. He was also active in various learned societies.

Upon Finnish independence, and on the strength of his language abilities, Gustaf John Ramstedt was chosen in 1919 to be Finland’s envoy in Japan, China and Siam (Thailand). He was based in Tokyo. In the course of a career lasting a decade, he was to cement relations between Finland and Japan. The Finnish foreign ministry was said to have been not altogether pleased with Ramstedt’s activities: on occasion, the experienced researcher in the field showed a little too much initiative. Alongside his diplomatic duties, Ramstedt continued his research, studying Japanese and beginning his work on Korean. Ramstedt wrote the world’s first basic grammar of Korean, which was published in English in 1939. The work proved to be a great success, not least at the time of the Korean war in the 1950s.

Ramstedt left Japan, returning to Finland in 1930, whence he resumed his professorial duties up until 1941. Between 1935 and 1940 he was also professor of phonetics. He was responsible for studies in Sanskrit and comparative Indo-European languages.

G.J. Ramstedt was also Finland’s first Esperantist, and chairman of the Finnish Association of Esperantists. During his years in Japan he also found time to serve as Esperanto teacher at large. On his return he founded the Finnish-Japanese Society in 1935, serving out his days as its chairman.

Kuva: Wikimedia Commons.​

Sources (in Finnish):

  • Halén, Harry (2001) ‘Ramstedt, Gustaf John (1873–1950)’. National Biography of Finland online. Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura. Accessed 15 January, 2015.
  • Janhunen, Juha (2014): Gustaf John Ramstedt (1873–1950): Vertailevan altaistiikan perustaja. In T. Markkanen, A.Tiitta, & P. Havaste (eds.) Suomalaisia tieteen huipulla: 100 tieteen ja teknologian saavutusta (’Finns at the forefront of science. 100 scientific and technological achievements’), Helsinki: Gaudeamus Helsinki University Press, pp. 74–75.
  • Suomalais-Japanilainen Yhdistys ry:n website. Accessed 29 January, 2015.



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