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Juha Janhunen

Juha Antero Janhunen
Born February 12, 1952, Pori

Master of Arts 1976, PhD 1986 (Finno-Ugrian studies), University of Helsinki

Docent in North Asian Studies 1986–94, University of Helsinki
Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures 1994–, University of Helsinki
Honorary professor at the Inner Mongolia University 1998–
Docent in ethnohistory 2011–, Åbo Akademi University

Research themes:
Comparative linguistics, ethnohistory, field linguistics, endangered languages and their revival

Research projects and working groups:
HALS (Helsinki Area and Language Studies)
Manuscripta Castreaniana (M. A. Castrén’s manuscripts)
Corpus Scriptorum Chitanorum (Khitan language and writing)
UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger
ElCat (Endangered Languages Catalogue)
Revitalisation of the Nivkh language on the Amur and on Sakhalin

Publications, research projects and other academic activity

Professor E.J. Nyström prize (Finnish Society of Sciences and Letters)
Tuhat Award for high-level publications and exemplary use of the system (University of Helsinki) 2015

Membership of scholarly societies:
Royal Asiatic Society 1986
Finnish Society of Sciences and Letters 2003
Academia Europaea 2008
Hungarian Academy of Sciences (Magyar Tudományos Akadémia) 2013
International Eurasian Academy of Sciences 2015

Photo: Hungarian Academy of Sciences
Written by Juha Janhunen (Kaija Hartikainen, ed.)
Translated by Matthew Billington

Can a dying language be saved?

A researcher of endangered languages is faced with the difficult choice of whether to objectively observe the life and death of languages or to subjectively intervene. Biologists have long spoken in favour of biodiversity, and it would be strange if linguists didn’t take up the issue of the future of languages. The justification is the same as in biology: diversity is beneficial, and it is worth preserving even when we don’t yet know what benefit it could have.

One can attempt to ‘save’ a language in the same way as a species of animal or plant. In both cases knowledge, skill, resources and public sympathy are required. Finnish researchers and amateur enthusiasts have actually achieved significant results in language revitalisation, and particularly Inari Sami has been successfully revitalised from a critical position where it was no longer being passed on to the next generation. Today, it is being passed on once again.

Language revitalisation is one of research and application areas of HALS, the University of Helsinki’s ethnolinguistic research community. In the summer of 2014, Hals made a teacher-student trip to Sakhalin, and one of the results of the trip was a project to revitalise the Nivkh, or Gilyak, language, which began in the summer of 2015. In addition to myself, four other colleagues specialised in Nivkh and ethnolinguistics from the University of Helsinki are participating in the project. Among the Nivkh people, there is already a small group practising language transmission, and at the start of 2016 the intention is to create language nests for small children. The more endangered the language, the earlier the age at which it should be learnt.

Amur 2015. Landscape, a Nivkh village in the Amur delta. Photo: Juha Janhunen


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