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


“One nation, one language.”

The famous quote by the statesman, Johan Vilhelm Snellman (1806-1881), sums up the man’s pursue for national identity and language. Today we commemorate Snellman’s efforts by celebrating the Day of the Finnish Identity.

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 as dominating, in the country autonomous but technically ruled by Russia. In 1844, Snellman founded a daily called Saima. It was a newspaper of 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.

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 hit Snellman. Hard. 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 (the guy famous for the Runeberg’s Torte) was considered the national poet. If the Finnish language would dominate, Runeberg would be discarded as yesterday’s news as he wrote exclusively in Swedish.

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 honorary guests such as the bishop of Porvoo, Carl Gustaf Ottelin, held speeches in Finnish. Snellman was naturally pleased but found it comical that a foreigner would hardly find it surprising that a Finnish bishop spoke the Finnish language in public.

5. Nevertheless, despite Snellman’s strict demands of language reforms, Snellman himself 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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