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Self-designation. The name Karelia first occurs in Scandinavian sources in the 8th century. In the mid-12th century Karelia and the Karelians are mentioned in Russian chronicles, referred to as Корела, кореляне. The Karelians are the original Baltic-Finnic tribe in the area between Lakes Ladoga and Onega. However, the Finns from Finnish Karelia have also been called Karelians, although they speak a Finnish dialect. The Izhorians are of the same origin as the Karelian people.

In early references the Karelian language is also Olonets or East Karelian. The speakers of Karelian proper (North and South Karelian) use the same name karjalaiset or karjalazhet for themselves and their language is karjalan kieli(i). The Olonets Karelians call themselves liüdi or liügi and livviköit, and their language is livvin kieli. The speakers of the Ludic dialect use lüüdiköit or luudikoit for themselves and their language is lüüdi or luudikiel.

Habitat. The Karelians are widely distributed over a large territory. The Karelians of Karelia live chiefly west of the St. Petersburg-Murmansk railway line in the Karelian ASSR and their administrative centre is Petrozavodsk or Petroskoi. The Tver Karelians inhabit areas west of Moscow where, they have enclaves in the districts of Likhoslavl, Spirovo, Rameshkovo and Maksatikha (in the 1960s they numbered approximately 90,000--100,000) A large group of Karelians lives in the districts of Vesyegonsky, Sandovo and Brusovo (in the 1960s approximately 20,000). There are Karelian villages in the districts of Molokovo, Krasny Holm and Vyshni Volochok, the southernmost of which are located in the vicinity of Rzhev. The southernmost Karelians live separately from other Tver Karelians in five villages on the Djorzha, a tributary of the River Volga. In 1890 there were 1,664 Karelians in the South Tver area, in 1911 they numbered 1,952. Today, their number has been reduced to 70 (according to J. Õispuu), most of whom return to their home villages only in summertime.

A list of Tver Karelian villages compiled by A. Vershinsky, published in 1932, includes more than one thousand Karelian villages. Some of them already had a mixed Karelian-Russian population even at that time. The Karelians in the Novgorod region live in the district of Valdai and there are Karelians in the district of Lodeinoye Polye in the region of St. Petersburg. A small number of Karelians is reported in Siberia where they are known as Korlaks. A couple of thousand Karelians are scattered throughout Finland where they are becoming finnicized.


In 1897208,100;
in 1926248,000of these, in the Karelian ASSR -- 100,781, in the Tver region -- 140,567, in the Novgorod region -- 858;
in 1939253,000;
in 1959167,30071.4 % speakers;
in 1970146,10063 % speakers, of these in the Karelian ASSR -- 84,200, in the Tver region -- 61,800;
in 1979138,40055.6 % speakers, of these in the Karelian ASSR -- 82,140, in the Tver region -- 30,400.

The use of the native tongue differs with the age of the speakers. According to some estimates, 90 % of children under the age of 10 regard Russian as their mother tongue. The Karelians make up only 10 % of the population in the Karelian ASSR and only about half of the Karelians in Karelia still consider Karelian to be their native tongue.

Anthropologically the Karelians belong to the East-Baltic race in which strongly European features are blended with some Mongolian traits.

Language. Karelian belongs to the North group of the Baltic-Finnic language, with the closest related language being Finnish. Some scholars do not regard Karelian as a separate language at all, but classify it as an eastern dialect of the Finnish language. However, it should be considered a separate language because of its geo-political location within the boundaries of another state.

As over centuries the Karelians have become dispersed over a wide territory, scores of dialects have been noted and their division has caused, and is still causing, great controversy among linguists. One breakdown of the dialectal differentiations is such: the North Karelian dialectal group (in the north of the Karelian ASSR), the South Karelian dialectal group (in the central part of the Karelian ASSR and enclaves in the Tver, Novgorod and Leningrad regions of the Russian Federation), the Olonets or livviko dialectal group (in the northwest of the Karelian ASSR, between Lakes Ladoga and Onega, and scattered in Finland) and the Ludic dialectal group (in the central and southern parts of the Karelian ASSR; Kontupohja, Mundjärvi, Shuoju, Pyhäjärvi and Vaashen -- approximately 10,000 speakers). The Ludic dialect is close to Veps and has sometimes been regarded as a separate language (P. Virtaranta). The dialects of North and South Karelia have been treated under the name of Karelian proper or the Vienakarjala dialectal group in academic literature.

According to the 1979 official census data about 81,300 Karelians were living within the borders of the Karelian ASSR, which was about 11.1 % of the population. Today, they number 80,000, making up 10 % of the Karelian population. They have thus become a linguistic minority in their native land. The percentage of Karelians living within the Karelian ASSR has been steadily decreasing:

189742.3 %
192638.2 %
193923.2 %
195913.1 %
197011.8 %
197911.1 %

The percentage of Karelians living in cities is smaller and that in the villages somewhat bigger (for example, 7.7 and 20.9 % respectively, 1970). In villages, the Karelian language has survived to a greater extent than in the cities. The flow of Karelians into cities continues. Speakers of the Olonets dialect form the largest and the most compact linguistic group. They number 40,000. Approximately 30,400 Karelians are diffused in bigger or smaller groups over Tver region.

The Valdai Karelians in the Novgorod region and the Tikhvin Karelians in the Leningrad region have been assimilated by the Russians. In the early 1960s, Karelian in Valdai was only spoken by people who were over 50. Fluent Russian speakers were in the majority to the extent that those who were not fluent in Russian were called 'wild Karelians' (djikoit karielazet).

According to P. Palmeos (1965) the Djorzha Karelians have preserved their language better than the Valdai Karelians, although in usage the language is limited topically. When they speak about school, cinema or literature, they switch to Russian. Outside the home Russian is preferred. Djorzha Karelian has survived to a greater extent because until 1930 Karelian was taught in the schools there. The Djorzha Karelian are bilingual. Young people use their mother tongue to speak about family life, food-drink, housework and everyday village life. The Valdai Karelian language has by now become extinct, the same fate awaits Djorzha Karelians in a matter of a few years.

The Russian influence on Karelian is great, especially in Central Russia. Russian loan-words in Karelian are innumerable.

History. In the first centuries AD the Karelians lived near Lakes Ladoga and Onega. From there they moved along the Dvina (Finnish Viena) up to the White Sea and thence northwest into Finnish Karelia and Savo. A part of the Karelians blended with the Veps. The East Slavic tribes came to live in the Karelia neighbourhood in the second half of the first millenium. From the 9th to the 12th centuries the southern part of Karelia was under the control of the Kievan Rus principality. In the 12th century the Karelians became dependent on the Novgorod feudal republic and were converted to the Russian Orthodox faith. In this conversion the Solovets monastery, located on an island in the White Sea, played an essential role. In the 13th century Sweden became interested in the area inhabited by the Karelians. The border between Russia and Sweden, later between Russia and Finland, has divided the Karelians since 1323. Despite disputes over the border being settled, Russian-Swedish warfare did not cease and Karelia continued to be plundered and devastated. With the end of the Russian-Swedish wars in the 17th century and the peace treaty of Stolbovo (1617), a part of the Karelians moved from the northwestern shores of Lake Ladoga to North Karelia, and a part of them moved to the Valdai Hills in Central Russia (the regions of Novgorod and Tver). It was a flight from the imposition of feudal taxes and the Lutheran faith.

The Karelian emigration from their war-torn country had already begun in the late 16th century, but it became extensive in the first half of the 17th century. It is assumed that the number of people who emigrated was enormous for that time -- about 25,000--30,000 people. Russia supported the exodus from Swedish lands giving the Karelians assistance and freeing them temporarily from taxes.

When the October Revolution broke out in 1917 the Karelians made several attempts to gain independence. They wanted to join Finland. On the initiative of Finland, the Karelian issue was put under discussion at the League of Nations in 1923, but the resolution supporting Karelian independence led nowhere. In the same year Karelia was declared an autonomous republic. After the end of the Winter War in 1940, Karelia was granted the status of a full union republic, but in 1956 this reverted to autonomous republic. During the War of Continuation (1941--44) the Finns captured a large part of Karelian territory.

During World War II Djorzha was the arena for many battles and the region's villages were razed to the ground. The people were scattered and only a small part of them ever returned to their home villages.

Ethnic culture. The traditional activities of the Karelians have been land tillage, fishing, hunting and timber cutting. As recently as the second half of the 19th century, the Karelians lived in big 25--30 member families. Large industries were developed in the Soviet period. As a result, there was a constant influx of Russian-speaking people and now the Karelians have become a minority in their native land.

Writing. The Karelians possess a rich and original folkloristic heritage. This has been preserved in its authentic form longer than the folklore of other Baltic-Finnic nationalities. Most of the Kalevala songs are of Karelian origin. Apart from academic publications concerning Karelian folklore and some research, very few Karelian-language books have been published. The oldest Karelian-language text -- a three-line birch bark letter -- dates from the 13th century. It was found during archaeological excavations in the Novgorod region in 1957 and it is believed to be the oldest Baltic-Finnic text. The first Karelian-language books were printed in the early 19th century in Cyrillic script (the translation of a prayer book and catechism into North Karelian and Olonets dialects, 1804, St. Matthew's gospel in South Karelian Tver dialect, 1820). Because of the unfavourable conditions, there is no common Karelian language.

Finnish has been used in the Karelian ASSR since 1920s when the local government was headed by Finnish communists in exile. The Finnish written language is closely related to the North Karelian dialects. The Tver Karelians had a written language using the Latin script which was based on the Tolmachu dialect in the South Karelian dialectal group. Between 1931 and 1937 more than 50 books were published in the Tolmachu dialect (mainly educational) and a newspaper, Karjalan Tozi, appeared regularly. In 1936--37 there was a sharp change in language policies: common Karelian began to be taught in the Karelian ASSR and Tver region. On the initiative of a Leningrad Finno-Ugric scholar, D. Bubrich, the norms of a new Karelian language were established. This Karelian language, which used the Cyrillic alphabet, was introduced to the Karelians in the Karelian ASSR and Tver region in 1938--39. About two hundred translations and a magazine were printed in this common language. In 1939 the experiment was officially ended. The written language in the Karelian ASSR was Russian or Finnish, and Russian in Tver and elsewhere in Russia. After Russian, the Finnish language is the second official language in the Karelian ASSR.

Such sharp changes and experiments naturally undermined the position of the already weak Karelian language and they have contributed to the decline of Karelian as a spoken language. There have been serious attempts to revive the Karelian language and culture in the past few years. This work has been directed by Karjalan Rahvahan Liitto (the Union of the Karelian People). Since 1989, Karelian has been the language of tuition in some Karelian schools. To train school teachers Petroskoi University has opened the Chair of Karelian and Veps languages. In the mid-1990s the publication of an Olonets newspaper Oma Mua (Our Land) was initiated as a tentative project. There have been Karelian-language broadcasts on radio and television. A primer has been published in the Olonets dialect, and another in Karelian-proper is being compiled.

In June 1991, the Karelian Congress was convened at Aunus. A 50-member executive committee was elected to introduce a bill proposing independent Karelian territories, within Karelia, for the preservation of the Karelian language and culture.

The Ludic-speaking Karelians have somehow been left outside this movement. The written languages based on Karelian proper or the Olonets dialect are not suitable for the Ludic-speaking Karelians. As there are no materials in the Ludic dialect, the teaching of Ludic to children at school depends on some enthusiastic teachers who are able and/or willing to use it (Kuujärve). The teacher training programme at the University of Petroskoi does not prepare teachers for this role. Oma Mua does not include Ludic language articles, nor are the Ludic-speaking people able to cope with its Latin script. The improvement might be made by creating a written Ludic language.

There is very little original literature in Karelian, just a little poetry (Olonets V. Brendoyev).

The systematic study of the Karelian language was begun relatively late, about one hundred years ago, when Finnish scholars began collecting linguistic materials (Arvid Genetz, Heikki Ojansuu). Later J. Kujola (a Karelian by origin), A. Turunen and P. Virtaranta have continued the work. A Dictionary of the Karelian Language in several volumes is being compiled in Finland. Since the 1930s the most important research centre in the U.S.S.R. has been Petroskoi. An Olonets Karelian dictionary was published here (1990), and another dictionary of Tver Karelian is currently being compiled.


  1. A. Künnap, P. Palmeos, T. Seilenthal, Põhja ja itta. Lehekülgi meie sugulaskeelte uurimisloost. Tallinn, 1974
  2. P. Palmeos, Karjala Valdai murrak. Tallinn, 1962
  3. P. Palmeos, Pilk kõige lõunapoolsemale karjala murrakule. -- Emakeele Seltsi Aastaraamat 11, 1965
  4. V. Uibopuu, Meie ja meie hõimud. Lund, 1984
  5. J. Õispuu, Karjala kirjakeele grammatikad ja lingvistika oskussõnavara. -- Emakeele Seltsi Aastaraamat 29, 1983
  6. J. Õispuu, Djorža karjala tekstid. Tallinn, 1990


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