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History of Vepsian ABC-book

1936. Bukvar’ (ABC-book)

Some pages from ABC-book

As is known, the Vepsian language is derived from a Baltic-Finnish language group. Finnish scientists began to study Vepsian more than 130 years ago. Elias Lönnrot published the first article about Vepsian in 1853. Is was the beginning of an actual study of Vepsian, including in addition to the language also the folk traditions. The Finns carried out a series of expeditions, which results gave birth a lot of research works, travel reports and articles. The most famous of them are "The Historical Phonetics of the Vepsian Language" by Eemil Aukusti Tunkelo and "A syntactic study of Vepsian dialects" by Lauri Kettunen. Also August Ahlquist, Arvid Genez and, all in the current century, Lauri Posti, Reino Peltola and Aimo Turunen visited the Veps region.

In the last century no one in Russia was engaged by Finno-Ugric language studies, although almost all Finno-Ugric nations lived in the territory of the Russian Empire. Only at the beginning of our century in some issues began to appear the ethnography publications, which which touched upon also the Vepses. Although they were not always indisputable. The first Vepsian-Russian dictionary appeared in 1913. It was prepared by Pavel Ouspensky, the teacher in village school.

Serious interest in the Vepsian culture woken up in the early 1930s only, when began the creating of a written language. As reported in 1932 the Leningrad magazine Revolytsiya i Pismennost (Revolution and Writing System), the Terminology Committee of the Academy of Sciences was tasked to prepare Izhorian and Vepsian terminologies, as well as dictionaries. The Sovetskaya Etnografiya (Soviet Ethnography) newspaper wrote in 1931 that two groups of linguists headed by academician Nikolay Marr created Izhorian and Vepsian alphabets, as well as textbooks. The alphabets were created on the basis of the Latin, because according to linguists, this corresponded to the phonetics of these languages.

In 1932-1933 in Vinnitsky, Oshtinsky, Kapshinsky, Sholsky and Oyatsky districts of the Leningrad Region were founded 49 Vepsian elementary schools and 5 secondary schools. Until the 1937 were published 19 textbooks, five thousand words Vepsian-Russian dictionary and several books for reading.

Of course, that such dynamic activity required qualified teachers. The Lodeynoye Pole teacher-training school was tasked to educate 60 Vepsian language teachers. Besides, the additional training was organized in Leningrad, nevertheless, was still a sorely lacking of teachers. At the beginning of 1937 only began a teaching of mother tongue for Onega Vepsians, in the Sheltozero district, but it continued two months only. Shortly before was issued a decision to move the Vepsian language alphabet to the Cyrillic base, but this project also remained unrealized, because the teaching of Vepsian language was completely terminated in 1937. The reason for the termination was the fact that in the national policy of our country caused a sharp turn, which seriously damaged the development of the culture of the minority nationalities. Thus the long-term work of scientists was annulled. Some of them even innocently suffered for years, as for example, ethnic Vepsian, ethnographer Stepan Makaryev and linguist, Associated Professor in Leningrad University Matti Hämäläinen.

Together with the Vepsian language teacher Fyodor Andreev, Hämäläinen prepared a Vepsian ABC-book, then published a grammar, a Vepsian-Russian dictionary and also research work about Vepsian dialects. Contemporaneously with his scientific work he lectured at the university the history of the Baltic-Finnish languages and the modern Finnish. After releasing from prison in 1940, Hämäläinen moved to Petrozavodsk, because returning to Leningrad was forbidden for the Ingrians, as well as for the Finns. Then he was in the military service during the World War II and returned to scientific research after the war. In addition, he lectured the historical phonetics and morphology of the Finnish, Karelian and Vepsian languages in the Petrozavodsk University. Matti Hämäläinen lived a long and eventful life. He died May 16, 1988 at the age of 85. Despite all the adversity he had succeeded to keep almost all the Vepsian language textbooks, actually it was achieved thanks to his wife Klaudia Andreevna.

Another prominent person in the Vepsian language field was Nikolay Bogdanov, one of the first researchers of the Vepses. He belonged to the group of linguists, headed by Marr, which developed the Vepsian alphabet and created the first textbooks. In those years he also supervised the education of future teachers. From 1946 until his death in 1959, Bogdanov worked in Petrozavodsk, at the Institute of Language, Literature and History, first as academic council secretary, then as head of the department.

Vepsian language teaching did not continued long and therefore did not left any noticeable trace, but its importance was extremely great. The Vepses earlier than others began an awakening of their national identity. It is glad to see that old people still keep as the sacred treasures they first mother tongue textbooks and books for reading. In those years was laid the foundation for researches of language, material and human cultural heritage. Exactly in the 1930s the Soviet scientists made their first research expeditions to the Vepsian inhabited areas. Nowadays, when discussing the returning of the Vepsian language to schools, it is necessary to take into account the achievements and mistakes of those years. The dialectal differences have already been taken into account and the Middle-Vepsian dialect, as it was in the 1930s, was chosen as the basis for the written language, but lost time was left without development.

Nowadays the problem of creating the alphabet is the actual stumbling block. There exists different opinions. For example, teachers of the Sheltozero school support the using of Cyrillic symbols. They argue their opinion by saying that the Latin script is alien for Vepses because the common language is Russian. Unfortunately, the Vepsians from the Leningrad as well as the Vologda regions have not yet expressed their opinions. However, linguists believe that the writing system should be based on the Latin symbols because this fully corresponds to the phonetic structure of the language, taking into account palatal consonants and hissing sounds. Also should note that the largest part of folk poetry has been written by the Latin characters. They were used in the creating of a dictionary.

Some time ago, similar heated discussions about the Karelian language took place and they ended by choice of Latin characters, because Karelian is the closest relative of the Finnish and Estonian languages. The same is applicable for Vepsian. Also this is an important circumstance when it comes to creating of terminology. Not need adopting everything from Russian, which already overly influenced to the Vepsian language. We must strive for the purity of the language, when we want to preserve it. And in this sense, the Latin alphabet could have a very positive effect.

Nina Zaitseva
Punalippu magazine, N2 1989

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