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Finnish Gets a Degree

Story by
Nancy Joseph

For nearly two decades, Finnish language courses have been offered at the UW. But students wanting to major in Finnish were out of luck—until now.

A new bachelor of arts in Finnish has been approved as a degree program within the Department of Scandinavian Studies. Built around current faculty and existing courses on Finnish language, literature, and culture, the program provides a new option for students without additional cost to the University.

“Currently, there are only 11 universities in North America that teach Finnish,” says Terje Leiren, chair of Scandinavian Studies and Sverre Arestad Endowed Professor in Norwegian Studies. “We’re the largest program in Finnish in the U.S. We’ve become a major—if not the major—program in the country.” 

Finnish language is currently taught by Visiting Lecturer Karoliina Kuisma (right), Visiting Fulbright Finnish Teaching Assistant Anna Rönkkö, and Professor Andrew Nestingen (not pictured), who is on sabbatical in Finland.

Finnish language is currently taught by Visiting Lecturer Karoliina Kuisma (right), Visiting Fulbright Finnish Teaching Assistant Anna Rönkkö, and Professor Andrew Nestingen (not pictured), who is on sabbatical in Finland.

Finnish is not a Scandinavian language nor even an Indo-European language. It is a Finno-Ugric language, in the same family as Sammi, Estonian, and—more distantly—Hungarian. Yet Finnish courses are offered through Scandinavian Studies due to Finland’s location and history. Finland was a province of Sweden, governed from Stockholm, for 700 years. 

Two faculty teach Finnish language and literature, with one position funded jointly by the Finnish government and the UW. These and other Scandinavian Studies faculty also teach content related to Finnish politics, history, and culture. 

Why study a language spoken by relatively few people? Some students—about half of those taking introductory courses—have a familial connection to the region. Others “are captivated by the culture in some way,” says Leiren. And then there are those, primarily linguists, who welcome the opportunity to study a non-Indo-European language. 

In the past, interested students could minor in Finnish or major in Scandinavian Area Studies with an emphasis on the history and culture of Finland. The new major benefits those preferring to focus on Finnish language and literature.

“We know that many students who completed a Finnish minor in the past would have signed up for the major were it available,” says Leiren. “Student interest has been clear. We’re very pleased to be able to offer them this new option.”