Samiksha Jaiswal (Editor)

Karelian language

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Native to  Russia, Finland
Native speakers  36,000 (1994–2010)
Ethnicity  Karelians
Karelian language
Region  Republic of Karelia, Tver Oblast
Language family  Uralic Finnic Eastern Karelian
Writing system  Latin (Karelian alphabet) Cyrilic (Russia)

Karelian language (karjala, karjal or kariela) is a Finnic language spoken mainly in the Russian Republic of Karelia. Linguistically Karelian is closely related to the Finnish dialects spoken in eastern Finland and some Finnish linguists even classified Karelian as a dialect of Finnish. Karelian is not to be confused with the Southeastern dialects of Finnish, sometimes referred to as karjalaismurteet ('Karelian dialects') in Finland.


There is no single standard Karelian language. Each writer writes in Karelian according to their own dialectal form. Three main written standards have been developed, for North Karelian; Olonets Karelian; and Tver Karelian. All variants are written with the Latin-based Karelian alphabet, though the Cyrillic script has been used in the past.


The Karelian language belongs to the Finnic branch of the Uralic languages, and it is closely related to Finnish. Finnish and Karelian have common ancestry in the Proto-Karelian language spoken in the coast of Lake Ladoga in the Iron Age and Karelian forms a dialect continuum with the Eastern dialects of Finnish. Earlier some Finnish linguists classified Karelian as a dialect of Finnish, sometimes known in older Finnish literature as Raja-Karjalan murteet ('Border Karelian dialects'), but today Karelian is seen as a distinct language. Besides Karelian and Finnish, the Finnic subgroup also includes Estonian and some minority languages spoken around the Baltic Sea.

Geographic distribution

Karelian is spoken by about 100,000 people, mainly in the Republic of Karelia, Russia although notable Karelian-speaking communities can also be found in the Tver region northwest of Moscow. Previously, it was estimated that there were 5,000 speakers in Finland, mainly belonging to the older generations, but more recent estimates have increased that number to 30,000. Due to post-World War II mobility and internal migration, Karelians now live scattered throughout Finland, and Karelian is no longer spoken as a local community language.

Official status

In the Republic of Karelia Karelian has official status as a minority language and since the late 1990s there have been moves to pass special language legislation, which would give Karelian an official status on par with Russian. Karelians in Tver Oblast have a national-cultural autonomy which guarantees the use of the Karelian language in schools and mass media. In Finland, Karelian has official status as a non-regional national minority language within the framework of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.


The Karelian language has two main varieties, which can be considered as dialects or separate languages: Karelian Proper, which comprises North Karelian and South Karelian (including the Tver enclave dialects); and Olonets Karelian. These varieties constitute a continuum of dialects, the ends of which are no longer mutually intelligible. Varieties can be further divided into individual dialects:

  • Karelian Proper
  • North Karelian (spoken in the parishes of Jyskyjärvi, Kieretti, Kiestinki, Kontokki, Oulanka, Paanajärvi, Pistojärvi, Suomussalmi, Uhtua, Usmana, Vitsataipale and Vuokkiniemi)
  • South Karelian (spoken in the parishes of Ilomantsi, Impilahti, Korpiselkä, Mäntyselkä, Paatene, Porajärvi, Repola, Rukajärvi, Suikujärvi, Suistamo, Suojärvi and Tunkua; and additionally in the enclaves of Tver, Tihvinä and Valdai)
  • Tver Karelian
  • Dorža dialect
  • Maksuatiha dialect
  • Ruameška dialect
  • Tolmattšu dialect
  • Vesjegonsk (Vessi) dialect
  • Olonets Karelian or Livvi (spoken in the parishes of Kotkatjärvi, Munjärvi, Nekkula-Riipuškala, Salmi, Säämäjärvi, Tulemajärvi, Vieljärvi and Vitele)
  • Monophthongs

    Karelian language has 8 vowels, if not including vowel length:

    Only the close vowels /i/, /y/ and /u/ may occur long. The original Proto-Finnic long mid and open vowels have been diphthongized: *ee, *öö, *oo > /ie/, /yö/, /uo/ (as also in Finnish); *aa, *ää > /oa/, /eä/ or /ua/, /iä/ (as also in Savonian dialects of Finnish).


    North Karelian and Olonets Karelian have 21 diphthongs:


    In addition to the diphthongs North Karelian has a variety of triphthongs:

    Olonets Karelian has only the triphthongs ieu, iey, iäy, uau, uou and yöy.


    Karelian is today written using a Latin alphabet consisting of 29 characters. It extends the ISO basic Latin alphabet with the additional letters Č, Š, Ž, Ä, Ö and ʼ and excludes the letters Q, W and X. This unified alphabet is used to write all Karelian varieties except Tver Karelian. The very few texts that were published in Karelian from medieval times through the 19th century used the Cyrillic alphabet. With the establishment of the Soviet Union, Finnish, written with the Latin alphabet, became official. However, from 1937–39 Karelian written in Cyrillic replaced Finnish as an official language of the Karelian ASSR (see "History" below).


    Karelian is written with orthography similar to Finnish orthography. However, some features of the Karelian language and thus orthography are different from Finnish:

  • The Karelian system of sibilants is extensive; in Finnish, there is only one: /s/.
  • Phonemic voicing occurs.
  • Karelian retains palatalization, usually denoted with an apostrophe (e.g. d'uuri)
  • The letter 'ü' may replace 'y' in some texts.
  • The letter 'c' denotes /ts/, although 'ts' is used also. 'c' is more likely in Russian loan words.
  • Notice that /c/ and /č/ have length levels, which is not found in standard Finnish. For example, in Kalevala, Lönnrot's orthography metsä : metsän hides the fact that the pronunciation of the original material is actually /mettšä : metšän/, with palatalization of the affricate. The exact details depend on the dialect, though. See Yleiskielen ts:n murrevastineet.

    Karelian actually uses /z/ as a voiced alveolar fricative. (In Finnish, z is a foreign spelling for /ts/.) The plosives /b/, /d/ and /ɡ/ may be voiced. (In most Finnish dialects, they are not differentiated from the unvoiced /p/, /t/, and /k/. Furthermore, in Karelian, voiced consonants occur also in native words, not just in loans as in standard Finnish.)

    The sounds represented by č, š and ž are native to Karelian, but not Finnish. Speakers of Finnish do not distinguish /ʃ/ and /ʒ/ from /s/, nor /tʃ/ from /ts/ (medial) or /s/ (initial). For example, the native Karelian words kiza, šoma, liedžu and seičemen are kisa, soma, lietsu and seitsemän in standard Finnish.


    As all other Finnic languages, Karelian descends from Proto-Finnic, which in turn ultimately descends from Proto-Uralic. The most recent ancestor of the Karelian dialects is the language variety spoken in the 9th century at the western shores of Lake Ladoga, known as Old Karelian (Finnish: muinaiskarjala).

    Karelian is usually considered a part of the Eastern Finnic subgroup. It has been proposed that Late Proto-Finnic evolved into three dialects: Northern dialect, spoken in western Finland; Southern dialect, spoken in the area of modern-day Estonia and northern Latvia, and Eastern dialect, spoken in the regions east of the Southern dialect. In the 6th century, Eastern dialect arrived at the western shores of Lake Ladoga, and in the 9th century, Northern dialect reached the same region. These two dialects blended together and formed Old Karelian.

    Medieval period

    By the end of the 13th century, speakers of Old Karelian had reached the Savo region in eastern Finland, increasingly mixing with population from western Finland. In 1323 Karelia was divided between Sweden and Novgorod according to the Treaty of Nöteborg, which started to slowly separate descendants of the Proto-Karelian language from each other. In the areas occupied by Sweden, Old Karelian started to develop into dialects of Finnish: Savonian dialects and Southeastern dialects.

    Birch bark letter no. 292 is the oldest known document in any Finnic language. The document is dated to the beginning of the 13th century. It was found in 1957 by a Soviet expedition, led by Artemiy Artsikhovskiy in the Nerev excavation on the left coast side of Novgorod. The language used in the document is thought to be an archaic form of the language spoken in Olonets Karelia, a dialect of the Karelian language.

    In the regions ruled by Novgorod, the protolanguage started to evolve into Karelian language. In 1617 Novgorod lost parts of Karelia to Sweden in the Treaty of Stolbovo, which led the Karelian-speaking population of the occupied areas to flee from their homes. This gave rise to the Karelian speaking population in the Tver and Valday regions.

    19th century

    In the 19th century, a few books were published in Karelian using the Cyrillic script, notably A Translation of some Prayers and a Shortened Catechism into North Karelian and Olonets (Aunus) dialects in 1804, and the gospel of St. Matthew in South Karelian Tver dialect, in 1820. Karelian literature in 19th century Russia remained limited to a few primers, songbooks and leaflets.

    Soviet period

    In 1921, the first all-Karelian congress under the Soviet regime debated whether Finnish or Karelian should be the official language (next to Russian) of the new "Karelian Labour Commune" (Карялан тыöкоммууни in Cyrillic Karelian, Karjalan Työkommuuni), which two years later would become the Karelian ASSR. In the end they chose Finnish. In 1931, a Karelian literary language using the Latin alphabet was standardized for the Tver Karelian community. From 1937–39 the Soviet government replaced Finnish in the Karelian ASSR with Karelian written in the Cyrillic alphabet. During this period the newspaper Karjalan Sanomat was written in Karelian using Cyrillic, rather than in Finnish. The effort was dropped in 1940 and Finnish (written as always in the Latin alphabet) once again became official.

    In the 1980s, publishing began again in various adaptations of the Latin alphabet for Olonets Karelian and the White Sea and Tver dialects of Standard Karelian.

    Recent events

    In 2007 a standard alphabet was adopted to write all dialects.

    In 2008, Joensuu University launched Finland's first Karelian language professorship, in order to save the language. A year later, Finland's first Karelian language nest (pre-school immersion group) was established in the town of Nurmes.

    Media in Karelian

  • Oma Mua is published in Olonets Karelian.
  • Vienan Karjala is published in North Karelian dialect.
  • Karielan Šana is published in Tver Karelian dialect.
  • Karjal Žurnualu – A monthly Karelian language journal published by Karjalan Kielen Seura in Finland.
  • Yle Uudizet karjalakse – News articles and a weekly radio news program in Karelian are published by the Finnish Broadcasting Company.
  • North Karelian

    A sample from the book Luemma vienankarjalaksi:

    Vanhat ihmiset sanottih, jotta joučen on ihmisestä tullun. Jouččenet aina ollah parittain. Kun yksi ammuttanneh, ni toini pitälti itköy toistah. Vain joučen oli pyhä lintu. Sitä ei nikonsa ruohittu ampuo, siitä tulou riähkä. Jouččenet tullah meilä kevyällä ta syksyllä tuas lähetäh jälelläh suvipuoleh. Hyö lennetäh suurissa parviloissa. Silloin kun hyö lähettih, ni se oli merkki, jotta talvi on lässä. (Translation: Old people used to say that the swan is born of the man. Swans are always in pairs. When one is shot, other cries after another a long time. Swan is a sacred bird. Nobody ever dared to shoot them—it was a sin. Swans come to us in the spring and in the autumn they once again leave back to the south. They fly in large flocks. When they left, it was a sign that the winter is near.)

    Sample 1

    Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

    Kai rahvas roittahes vällinny da taza-arvozinnu omas arvos da oigevuksis. Jogahizele heis on annettu mieli da omatundo da heil vältämättäh pidäy olla keskenäh, kui vellil. (English version: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.)

    Sample 2

    A sample from the book Karjalan kielen harjoituskogomus III–IV luokku Livvin murdehel. Note the older alphabet:

    Tver Karelian

    A sample from the book Armaš šana:

    Puasinkoi on pieni karielan külä Tverin mualla. Šielä on nel'l'äkümmendä taluo. Šeizov külä joven rannalla. Jogi virduav hil'l'ah, žentän händä šanotah Tihvinča. Ümbäri on ülen šoma mua. – Tuatto šaneli: ammuin, monda šadua vuotta ennen, šinne tuldih Pohjois-Karielašta karielan rahvaš. Hüö leikkattih mečän i šeizatettih tämän külän. I nüt vielä küläššä šeizotah kojit, kumbazet on luaittu vanhašta mečäštä. (Translation: Puasinkoi is a small Karelian village in the Tver region. There are forty houses. The village lies by a river. The river flows slowly—that's why it's called Tihvinitša. The surrounding region is very beautiful.—(My) father told (me): once, many hundreds of years ago, Karelians from North-Karelia came there. They cut down the forest and founded this village. And even now, there are houses in the village, which have been built from the trees of the old forest.)


    Karelian language Wikipedia