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«The Nordic countries form a region of five relatively small and sparsely inhabited kingdoms and republics in Northern Europe: Finland, Sweden, ...»

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〈Special Contribution〉

Mongolian Studies in the Nordic Countries: A Brief Historical Survey

Juha JANHUNEN

Helsinki University

The Nordic countries form a region of five relatively small and sparsely inhabited

kingdoms and republics in Northern Europe: Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and

Iceland. In spite of their small populations, these countries have made considerable

contributions to the exploration of the rest of the world. Sweden and Norway, in particular, but also Denmark with its possession of Greenland, have been active exploring the Arctic and Antarctic regions, but in addition to this line of research there is a great tradition of Asian studies, which also comprises Finland. Among the geographical targets of Finnish and Scandinavian scholars in Asia, Mongolia has always occupied an important place.

However, to some extent, the field of Mongolian studies in the different Nordic countries has had different backgrounds and motives. Particularly conspicuous differences exist between Finland, on the one hand, and the Scandinavian countries, on the other. The present paper summarizes the history of the field and highlights some of the results achieved.* The Beginnings of Mongolian studies in Finland Among the Nordic countries, Finland has the longest and broadest tradition in Mongolian studies. This is due to two circumstances: First, between 1809 and 1917 Finland was an autonomous Grand Duchy under the Russian Empire, and Finnish scholars were freely able to travel in the eastern parts of Russia and from there enter also Mongolia. Second, in the early 19th century, comparative linguists came to the conclusion that the origins of the Finnish language lie in the east. For this reason, many scientific expeditions were sent from Finland to the east, especially to Siberia, but also to Mongolia and Central Asia, to study the linguistic “roots” of the Finns. Today we know that Finnish belongs to the Uralic language family, the easternmost members of which were spoken in Northern Mongolia until the 18th century; the descendants of these people, once known as the Sayan Samoyeds, today speak various forms of Tuvinian and Mongolian. There are, however, structural features and historical connections that link the Uralic languages with the socalled Altaic languages (Mongolic, Turkic, and Tungusic, and also Korean and Japanese), which is why Finland has also played an important role in the development of Altaic comparative linguistics. Mongolian studies in Finland have mainly been conducted in combination with general Altaic and Ural-Altaic studies. In addition to languages, Finnish * An abbreviated version of the this paper will be published in Mongolian as two separate entries in the Inner Mongolian Encyclopedia of Mongolian Studies (Muvgqhul Sudulul uv Nabdargai Tuli.

Mengguxue Baike Quanshu. Huhehaote).

–  –  –

scholars have worked on Mongolian ethnography, ethnic history, and archaeology.

The first major Finnish scholar to have studied a Mongolic language was Matthias Alexander Castrén (1813-1852), who carried out two long expeditions to Siberia in the 1840s. He crossed the Russo-Mongolian border twice, once into Tuva, and the second time to Maimachen (Altanbulag). In the Baikal region he collected materials for a Buryat grammar, which was published soon after his death in German by his colleague Anton Schiefner (1817-1879) at the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg. This was the first grammar of any living Mongolic language.1 Apart from this Buryat grammar, Castrén collected materials on a dozen other languages, which were all published in his series of collected works under the title “Northern Travels and Studies” (Nordische Reisen und Forschungen). Castrén was the first to use the term “Altaic”, by which he understood all the Uralic and Altaic languages. Another Finnish scholar and a contemporary of Castrén, Herman (Hermann) Kellgren (1822-1856), was probably the first to use the term “Ural-Altaic” in a comparative monograph on the Finnish language, which also included material from Mongolian (Written Mongol), as well as from Turkish and Manchu.2 The generation of scholars immediately following Castrén worked mainly on the Uralic languages of Eastern Russia, but from the 1870s there arose interest in archaeological research, and several expeditions were sent from Finland to Southern Siberia and Northern Mongolia to study the local archaeological remains. The most important result of these expeditions was the discovery of the Orkhon and Yenisei Runic inscriptions. Initially, it was not known from what time these inscriptions were, and in which language they were written. After a corpus of the inscriptions had been published in Finland, the Danish linguist Vilhelm Thomsen (1842-1927) managed to decipher the Runic script and show that the underlying language was Ancient Turkic from the period of the Turkic empires of Mongolia (6th to 9th centuries AD). This discovery gave an important stimulus to Turkic studies, which have always accompanied Mongolian studies in Finland. Already Castrén collected material also on two Turkic languages, Koibal (a form of the Yenisei Turkic Khakas language) and Karagas (today known as Tofa, a language closely related to Tuvinian).

G. J. Ramstedt and His Contemporaries





In the 1890s, G. J. Ramstedt (1873-1950) took up Castrén’s heritage in the field of actual Mongolian language studies. Between 1898 and 1912 Ramstedt carried out altogether seven expeditions to Mongolian-speaking areas, mainly to Mongolia but also to the Kalmucks of the Volga region and to the Oirat of Eastern Turkestan (Xinjiang). Ramstedt was an extremely versatile scholar, who collected materials both on the language and on M. Alexander Castrén: Versuch einer burjätischen Sprachlehre [“A Buryat Grammar.” In German]. Edited by Anton Schiefner. Nordische Reisen und Forschungen 10. St. Petersburg 1857.

Hermann Kellgren: Die Grundzüge der finnischen Sprache mit Rücksicht auf den ural-altaischen Sprachstamm [“Principal Features of the Finnish Language with a View on the Ural-Altaic Language Family.” In German]. Berlin 1847.

Juha Janhunen Mongolian Studies in the Nordic Countries: A Brief Historical Survey the folklore of not only the Khalkha Mongols and Oirats, but also of a number of Turkic and Tungusic groups. Among his early publications were his materials on Kalmuck folklore,3 while his collection of Khalkha folklore was published only posthumously. 4 Ramstedt was the first to study the oral language of the Ulan Bator region (then known in Europe as Urga), on which he published both a phonetic study 5 and a grammatical study of the verbal conjugation.6 His main work in the field of Mongolian studies is his large Kalmuck dictionary.7 He was also the first modern scholar to collect and publish material on the language of the Moghol of Afghanistan.8 In his later years, Ramstedt focussed his research on the Korean language, as well as on the general principles of comparative Altaic linguistics. In the latter field, his main publication came to be the extensive handbook published posthumously in the 1950s and 60s.9 Ramstedt is duly regarded as the founder of both modern Mongolian studies and comparative Altaic studies.

While Ramstedt was mainly a linguist, several other Finnish scholars worked on other aspects of Siberia and Mongolia. The internationally most important of them were J. G.

Granö (1882-1956), a geographer, and Sakari Pälsi (1882-1965), an archaeologist. Granö travelled widely in Southern Siberia and Western Mongolia and published several important works on the landscapes of the region, especially in view of the effects of the glacial period. He carried out, however, also archaeological work, and collected material on the Runic inscriptions of Mongolia. Pälsi, on the other hand, accompanied Ramstedt on the latter’s expedition to Mongolia in 1909 and collected material on both archaeology and ethnography. His archaeological results were published only much later,10 but in his own

G. J. Ramstedt: Kalmückische Sprachproben: Kalmückische Märchen [“Samples of the Kalmuck Language:

Kalmuck folk tales.” In German, with the original Kalmuck text]. Mémoires de la Société Finno-Ougrienne 27: 1-2. Helsinki 1909-1919. Reprint: 2008.

G. J. Ramstedt: Nordmongolische Volksdichtung [“Northern Mongolian Folklore.” In German, with the original Mongolian text], vols. 1-2. Mémoires de la Société Finno-Ougrienne 153, 156. Edited by Harry Halén. Helsinki 1973-1974.

G. J. Ramstedt: Das Schriftmongolische und die Urgamundart [“Written Mongolian and the Urga Dialect.” In German]. Journal de la Société Finno-Ougrienne 21. Helsinki 1902.

G. J. Ramstedt: Über die Konjugation des Khalkha-mongolischen [“On the Verbal Conjugation of Khalkha Mongolian.” In German]. Mémoires de la Société Finno-Ougrienne 19. Helsinki 1903.

G. J. Ramstedt: Kalmückisches Wörterbuch [“Kalmuck Dictionary.” In German]. Lexica Societatis FennoUgricae 3. Helsinki 1935. Reprint: 1976.

G. J. Ramstedt: Mogholica: Beiträge zur Kenntnis der Moghol-Sprache in Afghanistan [“Contributions on the Moghol Language in Afghanistan.” In German]. Journal de la Société Finno-Ougrienne 23. Helsinki 1905.

G. J. Ramstedt: Einführung in die altaische Sprachwissenschaft [“Introduction to Altaic linguistics.” In German], vols. 1-3. Edited by Pentti Aalto. Mémoires de la Société Finno-Ougrienne 104: 1-3. Helsinki 1952-1966.

Memoria saecularis Sakari Pälsi: Aufzeichnungen von einer Forschungsreise nach der nördlichen Mongolei im Jahre 1909 nebst Bibliographien. [“The 100th Anniversary of Sakari Pälsi: Notes from a Field Trip to Northern Mongolia in 1909.” In German]. Edited by Harry Halén. Travaux ethnographiques de la 北方人文研究 第 5 号 2012 年 3 月 time he published a very successful popular account of Mongolia in Finnish.11 Ramstedt published likewise a volume of memoirs,12 an important work that has been translated to Swedish and English (soon available in Chinese, as well). In this connection, the work of C. G. Mannerheim (1867-1951) also has to be mentioned. As an officer of the Russian army, he was appointed to carry out a horseback expedition across China from Turkestan to Beijing, which he completed successfully in the years 1906-1908. During his journey, Mannerheim collected a large collection of ethnographical objects and made both anthropological and linguistic studies among several Mongolic groups. His study of the Shira Yughur was published as a small monograph. 13 The complete travelogue of his journey was published later 14 (and is today available also in Chinese). Mannerheim’s photographs from the journey have been published in a separate volume.15 Most of the Finnish expeditions to the east, and the publication of the research results, were financed by the Finno-Ugrian Society, though some of the archaeological expeditions were also supported by the Finnish Archaeological Society. The Finno-Ugrian Society was founded in Helsinki in 1883 by the Finnish comparative linguist Otto Donner (1835-1909). Though not a Mongolist himself, he realized the importance of both Mongolian and Altaic studies, and prepared young scholars, including Ramstedt, for the field. The golden period of Finnish field expeditions was between 1883 and 1917. After the October Revolution in Russia and the independence of Finland in 1917, and after the political changes in Mongolia and China, the Finnish field work tradition in the east was cut off for several decades, until it was resumed in the 1980s and 1990s. The Finno-Ugrian Society remains until today the principal publisher of Mongolian and Altaic studies in Finland, and many Finnish scholars in the field have held positions in the society.

Ramstedt himself was President of the Finno-Ugrian Society from 1943 till his death. The publication series of the society include the Mémoires (a series of monographs), the Journal (a periodical collection of learned papers and reports), the Lexica (dictionaries), and the Travaux ethnographiques (ethnographical monographs). The Finno-Ugrian Society has also published important works by foreign Altaists and Mongolists, including, for instance, the handbook by Nicholas Poppe (1897-1991) on Mongolian comparative studies.16 Société Finno-Ougrienne 10. Helsinki 1982.

Sakari Pälsi: Mongolian matkalta [“From a Journey to Mongolia.” In Finnish]. Helsinki 1912. [Later reprints.] G. J. Ramstedt: Seitsemän retkeä itään [In Finnish. Translated into English as Seven Journeys Eastward].

Helsinki 1944. [Later reprints.] C. G. Mannerheim: A visit to the Sarö and Shera Yögurs. Journal de la Société Finno-Ougrienne 10.

Helsinki 1910.

C. G. Mannerheim: Across Asia from West to East in 1906-1908. Travaux ethnographiques de la Société Finno-Ougrienne 8: 1-3. Helsinki 1940 (Index 2004). New edition: 2008.

Photographs by C. G. Mannerheim from His Journey Across Asia 1906-1908. Travaux ethnographiques de la Société Finno-Ougrienne 13AB. Edited by Peter Sandberg. Helsinki 1990.



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