Finnish researchers are using biological research methods to study dialects

Submitted on Thu, 12/08/2016 - 09:58

Finnish biologists and linguists examined an almost hundred-year-old data on dialects with methods borrowed from population biology. The interdisciplinary research is the first analysis of dialects in the world to use the methods of population genetics.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Professor Lauri Kettunen, a researcher of Finnish dialects and Finnic languages, gathered an atlas of Finnish dialects which covered the whole of Finland. The atlas describes the regional varieties of 213 linguistic characteristics in 525 Finnish speaking municipalities.

The research group consisting of linguists and biologists from the Universities of Tampere, Turku and Helsinki have now used methodology from evolutionary biology to examine this extensive data.

“The new form of data enables us to study the formation of dialects with methods from population genetics, and parallels can be drawn between intra-lingual variation and the formation of the populations of biological species,” says the principal investigator of the biological part of the project Outi Vesakoski from the University of Turku.

“In the next phase, we plan to study the mechanics of linguistic change by mapping the processes that resulted in the modern Finnish dialects and analyse the ongoing changes in present-day spoken language,” says Unni-Päivä Leino who is the principal investigator of the linguistic sub-project at the University of Tampere.

The Finnish dialect atlas was not published until 1940. It is an essential reference work for all those who study dialects, but thus far very few studies have made use of the entire data. The dialect atlas was rediscovered at the beginning of the 2000s when the Institute for the Languages of Finland digitised the atlas in cooperation with researchers from Toronto. The result was a unique digital dialect data describing the geographical variety of dialects before urbanisation.

The Finnish dialect atlas describes 213 linguistic characteristics, for example the various ways of expressing the first person pronoun in different places in Finland. In quantitative analyses, such linguistic variation is transformed into dialects, and it was found that Kettunen’s atlas corresponds quite well to the traditional views on Finnish dialects.

“We decided to test the application of biological research methods on the digitised dialect data. We were pleased to see that the clustering models of population genetics were suitable for the study of Kettunen’s data,” says Researcher Kaj Syrjänen from the University of Tampere.

“Our next studies will be built on these analyses, and we will also be able to study the reasons why the dialects differentiated in the first place,” Biologist Terhi Honkola from the University of Turku says.

“This is an excellent start for genuinely interdisciplinary research. Our research is also internationally significant because the formation of dialects, in other words, the initial stages of linguistic divergence, has not been studied with methods from population biology before even though that field would also provide a significant framework for such studies,” Vesakoski adds.

The research was funded by Kone Foundation. The first article reporting the research results was published in Syrjänen Kaj, Honkola Terhi, Lehtinen Jyri, Leino Antti and Vesakoski Outi: Applying Population Genetic Approaches within Languages. Finnish Dialects as Linguistic Populations. Language Dynamics and Change, 2016, Volume 6, Issue 2, pp. 235-283.

DOI: 10.1163/22105832-00602002

For more information, please contact:

Linguists from the University of Tampere: Researcher Kaj Syrjänen,, tel. +358 50 318 0664 and University Lecturer Unni-Päivä Leino,, tel. +358 400 812 354

Biologists from the University of Turku: Outi Vesakoski,, tel. + 358 40 719 7042 and Terhi Honkola,, + 358 40 741 0453