[ End of article ]

The Retreat of Finnish

John Ilmari Kolehmainen

Western Reserve University

In the short time that there has been a linguistic contact between Finnish and English in America, two significant trends have appeared. One, the subject of this paper, is the gradual but inexorable retreat of Finnish before English; the other is the wholesale incorporation into the Finnish speech of words etymologically English.l

The replacement of Finnish by English is refleeted, on the one hand, in the increasing bilinguality of the foreign-born Finns. Formal instruction of the immigrants in the mysteries of the English language was begun early; language schools appeared in most Finnish settlements. Some of them were sponsored by such agencies as the Y.M.C.A. and local school boards; others were initiated by various Finnish societies and individuals. Yet the linguistic condition of the foreign-born Finns today is, however, less the outcome of the worthy labors of patient teachers in the language schools than of forces operating outside the classroom. The enforced use of English, broken as it may have been at first, in all contacts with the non-Finnish speaking world; the cessation of immigration and the weakened physical condition of the immigrant areas; the use of English by the native-born offspring and their disposition to contract mixed marriages, - all these interacted so as to duplicate on a more universal scale the results of the English language schools. While most Finns have thus acquired the new speech in varying degrees and after a number of more or less disconcerting experiences, their bilinguality is far from complete. Finnish remains, by and large, the conversational medium of the immigrant; the utilization of English seems to require the stimulation of necessity.

The retreat of Finnish is more graphically shown, on the other hand, in the decreasing bilinguality of the native-born Finns. The blame for the lingual retrogression obviously cannot rest with a generation which regarded the instruction of Finnish as a too "precious responsibility"2 to be entrusted to the home alone. The churches, temperance societies, and workingmen's institutions assumed as their natural duty the formal inculcation of the mother tongue to the rising generation through their respective Sunday and summer schools. Practically all the youth learned, through one agency or another, the fundamentals of the Finnish language. Indeed, the instruction at Leroy, Ohio, was efficacious enough to cause the ouster of four youngsters from a public school for their insistence upon "speaking Finnish outside of school, during recess ... contrary to the orders of the school board"3; the expulsion led naturally to a "Finn War".

English soon came to compete with Finnish. As the period of attendance in the public schools lengthened and as the Old World culture deteriorated, English undermined the youth's dominion of the original tongue. The rise of English classes in the Suomi Synod (Ohio-Pennsylvanla Conference) Sunday schools aptly illustrates this process. As early as 1916 a group of Sunday school teachers informed their pastor that many of the pupils about to enter confirmation school read Finnish with great difficulty.4 A few years later some children had managed, with inconceivable ingenuity, to get into the fifth grade without knowing the Finnish alphabet.5 Since the English language continued to make further inroads, the Fairport (Ohio) Suomi Synod Sunday school was forced in December, 1922, to inaugurate the two language system.6 The "Fairport Plan", approved and recommended for imitation elsewhere by the Ohio-Pennsylvania Sunday School Conference meeting at Warren in 1924, was a compromise and temporary solution: while an English Department was begun with English as the language of instruction, all reading was, nevertheless, to be done in Finnish. The advocates of the scheme hoped in this manner to assist the stumbling youth and in time to bring them back to the Finnish classes. But if the ultimate end was to defeat the introduction of permanent English language classes in the Sunday schools, the "Fairport Plan" has failed completely; since 1930 the English class has become a fixed feature of not only the Sunday schools of the Suomi Synod congregations of the Ohio-Pennsylvania Conference but likewise of all other Finnish churches in the Western Reserve. The proportion of pupils receiving instruction in English to taught in the immigrant tongue varies. The ratio in the Warren, Ohio, Sunday school is about 1 to 3.3; in Fairport (Suomi Synod Church) 1 to 8; while at the Finnish Congregational Church at Ashtabula Harbor instruction is almost completely in the new speeeh. The trend is unmistakably in the direction of a greater utilization of the English language.

Thus far only the early portion of the linguistic history of the second generation has been disclosed. What happened in later years to the small and laboriously earned Finnish vocabulary of the youth who completed at the age of fifteen the normal requirements of Finnish education? Did he increase his knowledge of the language; or was he even able to preserve the Finnish that had been taught him? The answer is suggested in numerous ways. English services - "to get the youth to church"7 - have become a regular part of the church program. The one question asked of every ministerial applicant is, "Does he have an adequate command of English?"; no longer, moreover, are pastors advertised for in the Old Country press.8 Everywhere immigrant societies have encouraged the founding of junior orders where the native born could use the English language since "they understand it best".9 In truth, English has replaced Finnish as the natural conversational medium of the American-born Finns.

No one will deny that the logical and unalterable consequence of the replacement of Finnish by English is the ultimate extinction of the mother tongue in America. The question is no longer "Will Finnish survive?" but "How long will it continue?" The natural disposition of the first generations "not to hurry the language question".10 The churches of the Ohio-Pennsylvania Conferenee, for example, were given liberty to deal with the problem as local conditions required but under no circumstances was a "sudden language change"11 to be made. In line with this general policy, Sunday school teachers were exhorted to make Finnish language instructions interesting and effective as possible. Several youth organizations have recently declared in their constitutions that Finnish was to be their official language but, more often than not, the clause has been honored more in spirit than in fulfillment. In truth, the era of spirited resistance to the encroachment of English has passed; the strategy of the day calls for, and American conditions demand, the slow and orderly retreat of Finnish before the dominant language.


[1] For the incorporation of English into the Finnish, see the author's "The Finnicisation of English in America", Amer. Sociol. Rev., 2, 62-67; F. J. Syrjälä, Historia-aiheita Amerikan Suomalaisesta Työväen-liikkeestä, Fitchburg, Mass., 1924, pp. 228-31.
[2] Kalle H. Mannerkorpi, Ashtabula Harborin Bethania Seurakunnan 25 Vuotis Julkaisu, 1891-1916, Hancock, Michigan, 1916, p. 116.
[3] Painesville (Ohio) Telegraph-Republican, February 15, 1907.
[4] Proceedings of the Fairport Suomi Synod Church September 22, 1916; April 5, 1918, MSS.
[5] Proceedings of the Fairport Suomi Synod Sunday School Teachers, October 3, 1919, MSS.
[6] Ibid., December 1, 1922.
[7] Proecedings of the Warren Suomi Synod Church, July 22, 1930, MSS.
[8] Proceedings of the Fairport Finnish National Church, April 18, 1924, MSS.
[9] Proceedings of the Warren Hedelma Temperance Society, January 6, 1935, MSS.
[10] Proceedings of the Fairport Suomi Synod Church, March 7, 1926, MSS.
[11] Proceedings of the Ohio-Pennsylvania Conference, October 29-30, 1932, MSS.

Published by American Sociological Review, 2(1937), p. 887-889.

[ Beginning of article ]