Go Back

Ulla-Maija Forsberg

Ulla-Maija Forsberg (née Kulonen)
Born August 2, 1960, Helsinki.

Bachelor of Arts, 1983, Master of Arts 1984, Licentiate of Philosophy, 1986 and Doctor of Philosophy, 1989 (Finno-Ugrian Languages), University of Helsinki

Professor of Finno-Ugrian Languages, University of Helsinki, 1998-
Vice-rector, University of Helsinki, 2010–13
Dean, Faculty of Arts, University of Helsinki, 2007–09
Researcher / Special Investigator, Institute for the Languages of Finland (KOTUS) 1989–98
Research Assistant, Academy of Finland, 1984–89

Publications, research projects and other academic activity
Research interests: historical and comparative linguistics, etymology, terminology research, lexicography, syntax, Ob-Ugrian languages, Hungarian

Most significant publications (monographs and dictionaries)
The Passive in Ob-Ugrian (PhD thesis, 1989)
Suomen sanojen alkuperä; etymologinen sanakirja 1–3 (‘Etymology of Finnish words’ vols I-III, 1992/1995/2000, Principal Editor)
Johdatus unkarin kielen historiaan (’Introduction to the history of Hungarian’, 1993)
Johdatus saamentutkimukseen (’Introduction to Saami Research’, ed. with Juha Pentikäinen and Irja Seurujärvi-Kari, 1994)
Sanojen alkuperä ja sen selittäminen. Etymologista leksikografiaa (‘The origin of words. Etymological lexicography’, 1996)
The Saami: a Cultural Encyclopaedia (ed. with Risto Pulkkinen & Irja Seurujärvi-Kari 2005)
Itämansin kielioppi ja tekstejä (’Grammar of Eastern Mansi and texts’, 2007)
Fonesteemit ja sananmuodostus (’Phonesthemes and word formation’, 2010)
Suomi-unkari -sanakirja (‘Finnish-Hungarian dictionary’, Principal Editor with Magdolna Kovács, forthcoming 2015)

Awards and special achievements
State Award for Public Information, 2006
Knight (First Class), Order of the White Rose of Finland, 2009
Swedish Assembly of Finland Award, 2013

Photo: Ari Aalto
Written by Ulla-Maija Forsberg (Riitta-Ilona Hurmerinta, ed.)
Translated by John Calton

Words and their books

How many words are there in a language? Is the Finnish language particularly rich in vocabulary? You can search for the answers to these questions in a dictionary, but there is no definitive answer. The old Nykysuomen Sanakirja (Engl. dictionary of modern Finnish) has 200,000 headwords, while the newer three-volume version has only half of that. The archive of Finnish dialects has approximately 8 million entries.

The etymological dictionary of Finnish words has 10,000 entries, but a great part of the derivatives of basic words are grouped under one entry. It also gives information on a word’s possible Finno-Ugric counterparts or sources of borrowing, or both. There are also words of unknown origin such as saita (‘miserly’), itara (‘stingy’) and äveriäs (‘wealthy’), all perfectly familiar to Finnish readers of Donald Duck since they are all used to describe his uncle.

Words tend to slip out of the scholar’s and dictionary maker’s hands. More are being made as you read this text, most commonly by compounding and derivation. Expressive, affective and slang words especially are anarchists who have no intention of obeying the traditional rules of derivation, which is what makes them fascinating. Words are also constantly being borrowed from other languages.

Bilingual dictionaries are familiar to many language users. Those who compile them are faced with the need to pick out which 40,000 words are most needed and should be put in a medium-sized dictionary. To what degree can one be up to date and take the newest words when it is impossible to know how long they will be in use. The makers of the new Finnish-Hungarian dictionary have been wondering whether to include some (abbr. sosiaalinen media, ‘social media’) and sote (abbr. sosiaali- ja terveydenhuollon palvelurakenneuudistus, ‘structural reform of social and health care services’). An entirely new word might even replace the word ‘selfie’ next year.

Ulla-Maija Forsberg’s bookshelf at home. Photo: Ulla-Maija Forsberg.​
Ulla-Maija Forsberg’s bookshelf at home. Photo: Ulla-Maija Forsberg.​


Go Back