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Pirkko Nuolijärvi

Pirkko Sinikka Nuolijärvi
Born July 19, 1949, Artjärvi.

Master of Arts, 1972, Licentiate of Philosophy, 1985 and Doctor of Philosophy, 1986 (Finnish Language), University of Helsinki

Director, Institute for the Languages of Finland, Professor, 1998-
Associate Professor of Finnish and Communications, 1989−98, Helsinki School of Economics
Acting professor of Finnish Language, 1993−94, University of Helsinki
Acting associate professor of Finnish Language 1987−1988, University of Helsinki
Docent, Finnish Language, 1987−, University of Helsinki
Acting University Lecturer 1986−87, University of Uppsala, Department of Fenno-Ugrian Languages
Project researcher, 1982−85, Muuttajien kieli –project, Academy of Finland
Researcher, 1976−81, 1986, Institute for the Languages of Finland
Senior Archive Assistant, 1973−76, Sanakirjasäätiö (’Lexicographical foundation’)
Research Assistant, 1971−72, Käänteissanakirja (‘Reverse dictionary’), academy of Finland

Awards and honours:
Honorary Doctor, Faculty of Arts, University of Vaasa, 2006
Svenska Folkskolans Vänner, Brobyggarpriset (‘Bridgebuilder prize’), 2012
Finnish Cultural Fund Award, 2000
Doctoral Thesis Prize, August Ahlqvist, Kai Donner, Artturi Kannisto ja Yrjö Wichmann fund, 1987
Award, E. A. Saarimaa fund, 1977
Badge of Merit, Estonian Ministry for Education and Science Ministry, 2009
Knight of the Order of the White Rose of Finland (1st class), 2005
Badge of Merit, Svenska Finlands folkting- Swedish Assembly of Finland, 2003

Photo: Otso Kaijaluoto
Written by Pirkko Nuolijärvi (Riitta-Ilona Hurmerinta, ed.)
Translated by John Calton

The many facets of language

The prerequisites for a language’s vitality are diversity and influences from various sources. Surrounded by new words and other linguistic changes, a community is constantly testing its language and culture.

Time and again, a linguist faces the concerned citizen’s anxiety about the decay of language. All things new and different are seen as degenerate or at least impoverished, no matter how acute the need for a new loan word or how logical a morphological or grammatical change.

I don’t recall anyone ever being irritated by the fact that so many things in language are constant and immutable. For instance, many properties of Finnish morphology and many common words have not changed at all. For centuries, even millennia, the language community has put up with the same numerals, the same names for animals as well as important objects and other phenomena.

Language users usually pay attention to individual traits or words in a language that have become so frequent that they hear them often enough. They notice them, and even resent them. What others find irritating, a linguist finds fascinating. A researcher begins to ask why such forms are used, what their function is in interaction, whether there are regional or social differences, what causes them, and so on. The reasoning behind such questions is that a new form will never catch on if there is no need for it in the language community: language doesn’t waste its resources. And even if it did live on for a little while, its fate is to make way for other expressions if the speakers don’t feel the need for it. In addition, a linguist often seeks language-internal reasons to explain why a certain phenomenon increases in frequency.

Pirkko Nuolijärvi giving a guest lecture at the University of Tokyo in 2000 (photographer unknown).​
Pirkko Nuolijärvi giving a guest lecture at the University of Tokyo in 2000 (photographer unknown).​

We can think of language use as a whole in which no change is unmotivated: the fact that a new form or word catches on means that it has its place; it will not spread if it is not needed in the community. This means that one person’s pet hate is a necessary tool for another. The fact that young people use words and forms that older people don’t use is the result of the different social and communal needs that young people face, and the same applies to the words and expressions used by grown-ups in their professional lives.

Our mother tongue is our home, and it is also the language whose traits and variation is the most accessible to us as first-language speakers. We are also stricter when it comes to our mother tongue, compared to any other language. Even people who are very proficient in many languages are much more aware of the diversity of their own mother tongue than that of other languages.

If a language were to undergo no changes or were subject to no new influences, it would become stilted or bland, and eventually it might dry up altogether. This is why each new form and word is, like, bring it on. Our mother tongue is in rude good health when it contains conflicting forces, getting closer and again farther from one another, vibrant and vivacious. The true sign of decay would be the moment when a language is showcased for its purity and untouchability, to be admired from a distance. We keep this decay at bay with constant and diverse usage.

Pirkko Nuolijärvi giving a guest lecture at the University of Tokyo in 2000 (photographer unknown).​
Pirkko Nuolijärvi giving a guest lecture at the University of Tokyo in 2000 (photographer unknown).​


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