Marja-Leena Sorjonen
Humanist of the day

Marja-Leena Sorjonen

Marja-Leena Sorjonen, professor of Finnish, investigates language a means of interaction: a way of managing things and sharing thoughts with others – a means of expressing who we are to other people at any given time. Language is found wherever there are human beings; the language of any person whatsoever is interesting to a linguist. Professor Sorjonen is interested in the construction of interaction in both everyday situations and various social institutions.

Marja-Leena Sorjonen

Born August 8, 1956, Valtimo

Master of Arts 1985 (Finnish Language), University of Helsinki
PhD 1997 (Applied Linguistics), University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA)
Docent in Finnish language 1998, University of Helsinki

Director of the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Research on Intersubjectivity in Interaction 2012–, University of Helsinki and the Academy of Finland
Professor of Finnish 2010–, University of Helsinki
Professor of spoken Finnish 2007–09, Research Institute for the Languages of Finland
Senior researcher 1999–2006, Research Institute for the Languages of Finland
Senior assistant 1995–97, University of Helsinki
Research associate 1995–97, University of Helsinki
Principal Researcher 1993–96, Finnish Foundation for Alcohol Studies

Publications, research projects and other academic activity

Research themes:
Linguistic interaction, interaction and grammar, language variation, interaction in institutional settings, multimodal interaction.

Awards and special achievements:
Knight first class of the Order of the White Rose of Finland 2015
Joint award of the August Ahlqvist, Yrjö Wichmann, Kai Donner and Artturi Kannisto foundations for an outstanding doctoral dissertation 1997

Photo: Sasa Tkalcan
Written by Marja-Leena Sorjonen (Kaija Hartikainen, ed.)
Translated by Matthew Billington

Interest in a subject often begins almost unnoticed. In the middle of the 1980s, when I was a research assistant for Professor Auli Hakulinen, I was transcribing some conversations from groups of men. At some point I started paying attention to some short sounds on the tapes: now “mm” (‘um’), now “joo” (‘yeah’) or “niin” (‘so’ or ‘well’). This led me to research the similarities and differences in the response words (response particles) “joo” and “niin” all the way to my doctoral dissertation. That also led me to study various conversation functions and conversation structures, since “joo” and “niin” can be used to respond to many different kinds of utterance.

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At the beginning of my studies in Joensuu, perhaps the two most fascinating courses were dialects and sociolinguistics – the regional and social variation of language. Yet the lure of interaction studies proved stronger. In the 1980s there was still a deep gulf between the basic premises of sociolinguistics and conversation analysis. The sociolinguistic conception of language usage and the social identities of people appeared static, while conversation analytic research didn’t seem to extend to wider society; sociolinguists were tabulating phonetic and morphological features from large corpora, conversation analysts were going over short conversation excerpts with a fine-toothed comb.

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I began studying at the University of Helsinki in the late 1970s when I transferred from the then University of Joensuu to Helsinki, to the big wide world. In Helsinki you could attend philosophy lectures, delve into the Finnish history archives and study news photography. In my major, Finnish, I learnt about the history of place names while behind the window snowflakes gently fell in Senate Square.

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