RATAS (Finnish)

RATAS: Variation in Finnish language from a letter corpus perspective

Project members: Taru Nordlund, Katja Litola & Johanna Marttila

The subproject examines the variation and development of the Finnish language in private letters from 1800 to 1921.


Modern standard of written Finnish was constructed within a brief time period of the 19th century and was connected to modernization, nation-building, industrialization, urbanization and the changes in the world-view. The Finnish language which was earlier restricted to the circle of family and religion, became a national symbol. The new status of Finnish as a builder of national unity and civilization also launched conscious actions to improve the written language: especially in the second half of the 19th century, the Finnish language developed rapidly and was deliberately standardized. Concerted efforts were also made to improve the status of the language and to modernize it, and by the end of the century Finnish had become a language of administration, journalism, literature, and science in Finland.

During the Russian rule only about 70 years of enthusiastic language plan­ning changed the state of standard written Finnish in a remarkable way: while the language at the beginning of the nineteenth century was characterized by foreign elements and narrow domains of usage, by the end of the century Finnish could be used in all domains from literature and culture to science, and its grammatical and morpho-phonological form had been stabilized through conscious construction, discussions and debates. Also the dialect basis of standard Finnish became the topic of heated debates resulting in an increasing impact of eastern Finnish dialects on the nature of the standard language.

Can the linguistic and social changes in 19th-century Finnish society be tracked down in every day correspondence? How do the age, gender, social status, or recipient of a letter influence the linguistic choices? Those are the research questions RATAS aims to find answers to. Our hypothesis is that because the new standard was rapidly, consciously and currently being built, linguistic variation can reveal how social meanings came to be connected to specific linguistic elements and how specific features became indexes of social power, prestige, solidarity, or stigma. By studying original manuscripts we will be able to observe the change as it happens. From a historical point of view, the written language is a window into the sociolinguistic reality of the past.


RATAS compiles a digital corpus of Finnish letters written in 1800-1921. That time frame covers the entire period from incorporation of Finland into the Russian Empire to the law for compulsory education. During this time, Finland changed from an agrarian society to a modern civil society. The aim of the project is to create a timely, geographically and socially balanced collection which, when completed, will form a digital letter corpus for researchers in various fields. Handwritten letters are being unearthed from public and private archives around Finland: our main sources will be the Finnish Literature Society’s archive, the National Library of Finland, the Institute of immigration, and local city archives.

The authors of the letters are both educated nobility and lower-class writers from all over Finland. The regional and social balance of the corpus aims to bring marginal writers and their variants into research. The corpus of 19thcentury correspondence can change the canonized perceptions of the linguistic development of the early modern Finnish and of what language meant to writers. The subproject also wants to highlight the low-educated writers from outside the elite circles of Southern Finland.

Digitized letters from the project or from the archives will be transcribed as faithfully as possible to the original. XML format transcripts follow both text layout and spelling of the letter. In the final version, these transcriptions are attached to images of original letters and metadata. The database for sociolinguistic metadata about the writers’ and the recipients’ social background and demographic variables, literacy skills and family dialect, will be constructed alongside.

This post is also available in: Finnish