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Riho Grünthal

Born 22 May, 1964, Helsinki

Master of Arts 1990 (Finnic Languages, joint honours in Finno-Ugric Languages, 1991), Licentiate of Philosophy 1996 and Doctor of Philosophy (Finnic Languages) 2003, University of Helsinki

Professor of Finnic Languages 2005-, University of Helsinki
Researcher, Institute for the Languages of Finland 1991–1992
M.A.Castrén seura (‘society’) and Ministry of Education project secretary 1992–1993
Finnic Languages Assistant 1993–99 and Researcher 1999–2002, University of Helsinki.
Secretary of Finno-Ugric Society 1994–2003
Professor of Finnic Languages 2003–2005 (fixed term), University of Helsinki

Publications and other academic activity

Research interests: Finnic languages and the Finno-Ugric of the Volga region, language change and change in speech communities, early history of languages, language typology, sociolinguistics and etymology.

Photo: Lena Salmi
Written by Riho Grünthal and Riitta-Ilona Hurmerinta (ed.)
Translated by John Calton

In search of an extinct speech community

What is left when a speech community has fallen completely silent, when no-one speaks the language as their mother tongue? It was precisely this question that professor Riho Grünthal set out to answer in his investigation of what remains of the Livonian language tradition spoken in the Kurzeme district, in northwest Latvia. The answer raised further questions, as so often happens in research.

– The Livonian language is a good illustration of how the repertoire of a multilingual community absorbs lexical material and grammatical features from different languages. When the speakers of the language have died off, it is still possible to reconstruct, with the help of language data, what the speech community was like.

At the turn of the 19th century in their daily lives Livonians, being bilingual, made frequent use of Latvian expressions, but also vocabulary with a Germanic base. The Livonian villages had been fiefdoms of German barons for centuries.

– In fact, the Livonian language data offers a clear demonstration of how local estate workers and town-dwelling Germans spoke variants of German, like the vernacular and standard forms. The roots of the vernacular go back to the middle ages, and the standard or ‘hochdeutsch’ stems largely from the last century or so.

The clearest sign of language contact are loan-words, but they usually leave a mark on other aspects of the language’s syntax and grammar. The speakers of Livonian can hardly be resurrected, but the language gives plenty of clues as to Latvia’s historical language setting.

Through the linguistic heritage of Finnic languages it is possible to detect contact between Livonian and Estonian as spoken by the inhabitants of the Baltic island of Saaremaa, just forty or so kilometres away.

In 2009 there was a news item in Estonia about the death of the last native speaker of Livonian. Soon after news emerged of an elderly Livonian speaker living in Canada; Kristiņ Grizelda, a Second World war refugee died in 2013 aged 102. The Livonians themselves had been conscious for some decades of the direction in which things were going, as recorded in interviews conducted back in the 1970s.


Further reading:

  • Riho Grünthal: Kielikuoleman jälkeen. (’Life after language death’) Elo. Tuglas-seuran jäsenlehti. 4/2014. (’bulletin of the Tugla Society’)
  • Riho Grünthal (2014) ‘Livonian at the crossroads of language contacts.’ Santeri Junttila (ed.) Baltic Languages and White Nights. Uralica Helsingiensia 7. Helsinki: Suomalais-Ugrilainen Seura. pp. 12–67.


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