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Matthias Castrén

Matthias Alexander Castrén
Born December 12, 1813, Tervola. Died May 7, 1852, Helsinki.

Bachelor of Arts 1836, Master of Arts 1836, Doctor of Philosophy 1944, Imperial Alexander University.

Docent, 1840 (Finnish and Old Scandinavian Tribal Languages), Imperial Alexander University, Professor, 1851 (Finnish Language and Literature), Imperial Alexander University.

Field trips:
1841-44 Russia (occasionally with Elias Lönnrot)
1845-48 Russia and China (accompanying Johan Bergstadt)

Awards and special achievements:
Joint winner of the Demidov Award
Member, St Petersburg Academy of Science, January 1, 1849.

Photo: WikimediaCommons
Written by Tero Juutilainen
Translated by John Calton

Finland's First Linguist

Tapani Salminen aptly describes how Matthias Castrén was somewhat isolated from the acquaintances he made during his study years due to concentrating on an academic career. However, his research trips and pioneering work in comparative linguistics raised him to equal standing with Elias Lönnrot and J. V. Snellman.

Matthias Castrén’s greatest academic achievements came in the 1840s when, with the aid of scholarships and grants, he made several trips to various parts of the Russian empire, of which Finland was then a part. On his journeys got to know different peoples and languages and published grammars of many languages as well as other academic literature. In 1844 he received his doctoral degree at the Imperial Alexander University. His dissertation topic was De nominum declinatione in lingua Syrjaengeli, the declinations of nouns in the Komi language. The dissertation was part of a larger work on Komi grammar, for which he received half of the prestigious Demidov Award.

Publishing his doctoral dissertation meant that Matthias stayed in Finland having traded his explorer’s role for that of a teacher for a while. This time his topic was Finnish grammar. However, his enthusiasm for research showed no sign of waning: through consultations with a local soldier he learned the Mari language. Meanwhile a new field trip was in the planning, and the newly graduated Johan Reinhold Bergstad MA was to accompany him.

The trip took the two companions to new places and they produced a Mari grammar and revealed the hitherto unknown Nenets language to the academic world. Some of the speakers Castrén encountered were the last speakers of their language alive, and in the case of other languages the last speakers had already died some years previously.

Castrén is not only known for discovering new languages or being otherwise involved in linguistic research, but also for collecting plenty of traditional items from various peoples and for conducting archaeological excavations. He sent the results back west, to the academy of sciences.

The last field trip abroad came in 1849 after a delay of half a year due to Castrén’s poor health. In Finland his health improved, however, and he was able to work on the publications of his research results. At that time he was also engaged in travel writing and finished one volume, which covered his trips until 1844. His health worsened in 1851, and he was unable to finish his grammar of Samoyedic languages. It was published posthumously with accompanying notes. Many other works based on Castrén’s notes and correspondence were also published after his death. In this way his legacy was preserved for the coming generations.

Image: Kansalliskirjasto, digitoidut sanomalehdet.​
Image: Kansalliskirjasto, digitoidut sanomalehdet.​



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