Newsletter of the Association for the Study of Language In Prehistory

Issue 26 · Spring 1996

Finnish Roots Differ from Lapps?

(Source: Thanks to Paul Benedict for sending this to me)

A certain willingness to distance themselves from Lapps has been observed in the Finns. Yet linguists keep lumping them together as Finno-Ugrians. Their manifest physical differences are usually explained by contacts with I-E speakers leading to the obviously European Finns.

DISCOVER magazine in its May 1996 issue, under 'Ethnography' entitled "Saami I Am Not", reports two biogeneticists, Antti Sajantila and Svante Pääbo, have found that "Finns are more likely to share identical 'microsatellites' -- repetitive DNA sequences -- with other Europeans than with the Saami (Lapps). Meanwhile, more than a third of the Saami in the study group carried three specific genetic 'motifs' that were found in only 1 in 50 Finns and in none of the other Europeans studied."

Instead of making the more ordinary assumption that "more recent European immigrants who mixed with an ancient populace of eastern origin", they think that "a better interpretation of the genetic evidence is that Finns colonized the land from the south some 2,000 to 4,000 years ago, adopting a proto-Saami tongue in the process."

And why would (civilized) Finns adopt the language of nomadic herders they had already pushed up into the Arctic? Well, "Sajantila points out that the Finns, who now outnumber the Saami by 100 to 1, may not always have been in the majority. In fact, studies of genetic diseases unique to the Finns indicate that at some point they went through a squeeze in numbers that, when the population later began to expand, resulted in the spread of rare, mutant genes. If this bottleneck occurred during their colonization of eastern Scandinavia, then the Finns might once have lived as a minority among the Saami."

"We know from history that the Finns have been pushing the Saami northward ... so it seems that the Finns were more powerful. But if it's true that the Finns have changed their language and obtained it from the Saami, it shows that the power game was not necessarily so simple or that the Saami were always the underdogs."

Well, Americans always cheer for the underdog, but I really like the Finns, so let us cheer for the truth. What is it in this matter? From over here the bias of the two Finns is breathtaking, while their moral support of the Saami is laudable.

The notion that the Finns are really Europeans but the Saami are not is quaint. Bodies are more basic than languages? This kind of assumption used to plague Omotic studies too. There, since so many Somotic speakers look more like central Africans than most Ethiopians do, European scholars were wont to believe that Somotic was Nilo-Saharan or such but surely not Afrasian. We got the same resistance about Chadic. Or how to explain the tall handsome 'Hamitic' Fulani speaking a Niger-Congo language.

Are north Russia and Scandinavia parts of Europe or not? Is Finnic not full of borrowings from Germanic, Baltic and Slavic? Have the Finns and Estonians not waged war and peace with Lithuanians, Swedes, and Russians for many centuries? Is much of southwestern Finland not still full of Swedes? Why do we need a migration from the south anyway? Twas gene flow, mes amis! Sexual folk contact.

Is Suomi (Finland) cognate with Saami (Lapp)? A spurious cognate? Methinks biogeneticists are starting to use 'bottleneck' as a deus ex machina, as a convenient device to explain things they cannot explain in normal terms. Shouldn't there be some rules for invoking this business of bottlenecks?

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(c) 1996 Association for the Study of Language In Prehistory