Five Facts That You Didn’t Know About J.V. Snellman

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“One nation, one language.”

The famous quote by the statesman, Johan Vilhelm Snellman (1806-1881), summarizes his pursuit for national identity and language. Today we commemorate Snellman’s efforts by celebrating the Day of the Finnish Identity. Here are five facts you should know about the man.

1. Snellman was viewed as a radical of the time – a kind of impressionist in the world of realists; an outsider among those who wanted to keep the Swedish language dominating in the country autonomous but technically ruled by Russia. In 1844, Snellman founded a daily newspaper called Saima. It was a newspaper of a different kind, designed to spread the message of the Finnish identity, but in Swedish. The literary language of Finnish was already developed by Mikael Agricola in the 16th century but its use extended mostly to books related to religion.

Flags Fly For the Father of Finnish Literature

2. Snellman had spent time in Sweden and Germany where the national identity was strong and was seen as the evidence of equality. In Germany, he had familiarised himself with the theories of the German philosopher Hegel who stressed the ideology of nationalism. This idea of a national identity fascinated Snellman. According to Snellman, Finland lacked literature in Finnish, which would have been crucial to developing a nation of high culture.

3. Snellman’s view, which he spread successfully through Saima, attracted many like-minded people to discussions about the necessity of a public life in domestic language. There were, however, many who opposed such an idea in a country where the Swedish-speaking Johan Ludvig Runeberg was considered the national poet. If the Finnish language would dominate, Runeberg would be discarded as yesterday’s news because he wrote exclusively in Swedish. (Runeberg is also famous for his addiction to a treat flavored with almonds and rum and raspberry jam – the delicacy that has become known as Runeberg’s Torte, a national treat enjoyed on Runeberg’s Day on February 5. According to the legend, Runeberg enjoyed the torte created by his wife Fredrika for breakfast with punch.)

4. Snellman wrote one of his snappiest remarks on the subject of Finnish language in Saima in 1845 when during a celebration of students the bishop of Porvoo, Carl Gustaf Ottelin, held a speech in Finnish, instead of Swedish. This was considered revolutionary among his contemporaries. Snellman was naturally pleased as well but found it funny, considering that a foreigner hardly gives a second thought to the fact that a Finnish bishop speaks Finnish in public.

5. Despite Snellman’s demand for language reforms, he never learned to write in Finnish and it wasn’t until 1870 that the Finnish language saw daylight in many public discussions.

Source: The History of Finland, Henrik Meinander, 2014

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