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Heikki Ojansuu

Heikki August Ojansuu
Born July 26, 1873, Tyrvää. Died January 18, 1923, Helsinki.

Master of Arts, 1899, Licentiate of Philosophy, 1901, Doctor of Philosophy, 1907, Imperial Alexander University

Professor of Finnish and Finnic Languages, Dean of the Humanities Faculty, 1922-3, University of Turku
Docent Teacher, Finnish Language and Literature, 1903-1914, Acting Professor of Finnish, 1905-1907, 1909, 1917-1919, Assistant, Finnish Philology, 1914-1922, Imperial Alexander University/University of Helsinki

Teacher of Finnish, Swedish-medium school for boys and girls, 1902-1905, Finnish School of continuing education, 1905-1906, Helsinki Finnish girls’ school extension classes 1906, Finnish Businessmen’s Commercial College, 1908-1919

Member of editorial board, 1899-1918, Editor-in-chief, 1904-1908, Virittäjä journal
Member, Student Matriculation (examination) Board, 1906-1910, 1912-1917
Member, Finnish Academy of Science and Letters, 1916

Photo: SKS / kirjallisuusarkisto
Written by Tomas Sjöblom
Translated by John Calton

The Mikael Agricola mother tongue controversy

“We consider that a part of the language errors in the work of Agricola are such that they show that it is impossible that Finnish would have been his native language,” wrote Heikki Ojansuu, substitute Professor of Finnish at the Imperial Alexander University, in his extensive study Mikael Agricolan kielestä (‘On the language of Mikael Agricola’) published in 1909. The work contained a broad analysis of the language used by Mikael Agricola in various texts. The study lifted Ojansuu’s status to that of a leading scholar of written Finnish. The question of Mikael Agricola’s native language was included in the study and led to a lengthy academic debate.

One of the arguments Ojansuu used to back his claim that Agricola had been Swedish-speaking was that Agricola had been born in the nearly entirely Swedish-speaking area of Pernå. His main arguments, however, centred around expressions in Agricola’s language which are clear errors, as well as loan words and ‘Sveticisms’. His arguments may have been influenced by the linguistic purism of Finnish linguists in the 20th century.

No portrait of Mikael Agricola has survived from his own time. Painter Albert Edelfelt’s vision of the translator of the Bible. Photo: Albert Edelfelt / Wikimedia Commons.​
No portrait of Mikael Agricola has survived from his own time. Painter Albert Edelfelt’s vision of the translator of the Bible. Photo: Albert Edelfelt / Wikimedia Commons.​

The debate over Agricola’s native language would most likely not have arisen had Ojansuu not changed his mind a little less than ten years afterwards. In 1918 he published the article Mikael Agricolan äidinkieli (‘The native language of Mikael Agricola’) in the journal Suomalainen Suomi (‘Finnish Finland’). Ojansuu proposed in the article that Pernå has still been a largely Finnish-speaking area in the time of Gustavus Adolphus. His other previous arguments also collapsed, and among his new ones was, for example, the fact that Agricola wrote in Finnish. In the case of expressions influenced by Swedish, Ojansuu stated in his article for example that they might have been part of Agricola’s Pernå dialect.

This radical change in his thinking led to discussion and criticism, especially on the part of Swedish-speaking scholars. Over the following years the question was extensively debated in various journals. Ojansuu’s most notable opponents were Anders Allardt and Kurt Antell.

The debate about Agricola’s mother tongue became part of the broader language question. Allardt published the article ‘Michael Agricolas modersmål’ (’Michael Agricola’s mother tongue’) in 1927, assertively challenging Ojansuu’s arguments. Allardt was convinced that Agricola’s mother tongue had been Swedish whilst Antell, who voiced his opinion on the matter in 1954, asserted that there could be no certainty about Agricola’s native language. Later researchers have mostly agreed with Antell. Many scholars have doubted whether the concept of having a mother tongue is even usable in a 16th-century context.


  • Anders Allardt, ‘Michael Agricolas modersmål’ (‘The mother tongue of Mikael Agricola’), Historisk tidskrift för Finland 12, Helsingfors 1927, 19–26.
  • Kurt Antell, ’Mikael Agricolas släkt’ (‘Mikael Agricola’s family’), Historisk tidskrift för Finland 39, Helsingfors 1954, 7–15.
  • Heikki Ojansuu, Mikael Agricolan kielestä (‘On the language of Mikael Agricola’), Helsinki, 1909.
  • Heikki Ojansuu, ‘Mikael Agricolan äidinkieli’ (‘The mother tongue of Mikael Agricola’), Suomalainen Suomi 3 (1918), 112–140.
  • Simo Heininen, Mikael Agricola. Elämä ja teokset (‘Mikael Agricola. Life and works’), Helsinki 2007.
  • Kari Tarkiainen, Finlands svenska historia 1. Sveriges Österland: från forntiden till Gustav Vasa (‘Finnish Swedish history 1. Eastern Sweden: from the prehistoric times to Gustavus Adolphus’), Skrifter utgivna av Svenska litteratursällskapet i Finland (‘Writings published by the Society of Swedish Literature in Finland’) 702:1, Helsingfors/Stockholm 2008.


Translated by Kaisa Kajava

Revised by John Calton

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