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Finnish is the language spoken by the majority of the population in Finland (92%) and by ethnic Finns outside Finland. It is also an official language in Finland and an official minority language in Sweden, in the form of standard Finnish as well as Meänkieli, and in Norway in the form of Kven.
Finnish is a member of the Finno-Ugric language family and is classified as an agglutinative language. It modifies the forms of nouns, adjectives, pronouns, numerals and verbs depending on their roles in the sentence.
HistoryIt is believed that the Baltic Finnic languages evolved from a proto-Finnic language, from which Sami was separated around 1500-1000 BC. It has been suggested that this proto-Finnic had three dialects: northern, southern and eastern. The Baltic Finnic languages separated around the 1st century, but kept on influencing each other. Therefore, the Eastern Finnish dialects are genetically Eastern proto-Finnic, with many Eastern features, and the Southwestern Finnish dialects have many genuine Estonian influences.
The first written form of Finnish was created by Mikael Agricola, a Finnish bishop in the 16th century. He based his orthography on Swedish, German, and Latin. Later the written form was revised by many people.
The Reformation marked the real beginning of writing in Finnish. In the 16th century major literary achievements were composed in Finnish by people like Paavali Juusten, Erik Sorolainen, and Jaakko Finno, as well as Agricola himself. In the 17th century books were written in Finland in Finnish, Danish, Norwegian, Estonian, German, and Swedish. However, the most important books were still written in Latin. Finnish and Swedish were small languages of lesser importance.
Geographic distributionFinnish is spoken by about 6 million people, mainly in Finland. There are Finnish-speaking minorities in Sweden, Norway, Russia and Estonia. A few hundred thousand recently emigrated Finns live in Sweden. Significant emigration took place in the 1970's, with Finland struggling under unemployment but Sweden providing jobs in e.g. the car industry. In the Americas, there are also immigrant communities. In North America, these are found in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and adjacent areas around Lake Superior. In South America small communities are found in Argentina and Brazil.
The number of the Finnophone population is stable and growing. The Finnophone population of Finland grows faster than the Swedophone population, and some language exchange to Finnish occurs (although the decline of Finland-Swedish is projected to cease in the near future). In Finland, Finnish has become dominant in previously Finland-Swedish areas, e.g. Helsinki. Furthermore, immigration to Finland – which usually integrates immigrants relatively well – also increases the population of Finnish-speakers.
Official statusFinnish is one of two official languages of Finland (the other being Swedish, spoken by a 5% minority) and thus an official language of the European Union. It enjoys the status of an official minority language in Sweden.
DialectsThe Finnish dialects are divided into two distinct groups, the Western dialects and the Eastern dialects. The dialects are entirely mutually intelligible and characterized only by minor changes in vowels, diphthongs and rhythm, and as such, they are better classified as accents. For the most part, the dialects operate on the same phonology, grammar and vocabulary. There are only marginal examples of sounds or grammatical constructions isolated to some dialect, not found in standard Finnish. Two examples are the voiced dental fricative found in Rauma dialect and the Eastern excessive case.
The classification of closely related dialects spoken outside of Finland is a politically sensitive issue that has been more or less controversial since Finland's independence in 1917. The speakers of Karelian language in Russia and of Meänkieli in Sweden are typically considered oppressed minorities. Karelian is different enough from standard Finnish to have its own orthography. Meänkieli is a northern dialect, entirely intelligible and interchangeable with any other Finnish dialect that got the status as a minority language in Sweden for historical and political reasons.