It’s Mutual

April 18, 2014

I was informed today that I’ve been accepted to both Master’s Degree programs that I applied for in Finland. It’s nice to know that Finland feels the same way.


I do not find this decision to be incorrect.

For the uninitiated (read: pretty much everyone), shortly before I left Finland last time I was convinced by several of my lovely Finnish friends to apply for one of the many English language Master’s Degree programs in Finland. At first I was hesitant, believing that I wouldn’t be able to find one that fit my interests, or that I wouldn’t have the time to pursue one, or a whole host of other potential problems. I finally came around and decided to at least take a look at the options available.

The system was surprisingly easy (it is Finland, after all), and all the programs aimed at international students across all Finnish universities are conveniently listed at one site, the aptly-named To my surprise, I immediately saw an international program in the Altaic Studies Department at the University of Helsinki. Too perfect? My thoughts exactly. I looked into it further and it looked like an awesome program which fit very closely with my interests in an awesome location. On top of that, like all higher education in Finland, it’s free. It was quite literally impossible to lose in a situation like that, so I decided to apply for it. As a contingency, I applied for the one other program listed that was aligned with my interests: A Master’s Degree program in “Linguistic Sciences” at the University of Eastern Finland in Joensuu (a small town about 4.5 hours by train from Helsinki). This program ended up being a close second, but the clear favorite is the Altaic Studies Department at the University of Helsinki.

What exactly is Altaic Studies, you ask? Well, it’s a bit convoluted, really. First, I should mention that few linguists consider the Altaic language family to be a legitimate genetic relationship. The family, first thought up in the mid-1800s has undergone many changes and revisions, but is generally believed (by supporters) to include the Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic language families (the legitimacy of each of these subgroupings is not disputed by most linguists). Some farther-fetched proposals have also lumped in Uralic languages, Japonic languages, and Korean. The problem with the Altaic language family is that there simply isn’t evidence to back it up. Each of the families have some clear similarities: lack of grammatical gender (=noun classes), pervasive vowel harmony, highly-agglutinative morphology, similar pronoun forms, etc, but that’s about as far as it goes.

In order to establish a likely genetic relationship between languages, we must rely on conclusive cognate sets that correspond narrowly in both form and meaning, creating a bidimensional criterion. Further, we must be able to establish a set of systematic historical sound changes that result in the observable forms in both languages that can be applied to an input of a hypothetical proto language. Without these unshakeable tenets of the Comparative Method, we’re left with a weak theory based on impressionistic and dubious evidence. While the typological similarities between all these language families are certainly striking, we simply cannot come up with a conclusive and believable theory based on comparing these unidimensional attributes when equally plausible explanations (areal influence, for example) are present. Does this mean that these modern language families are definitively not descendants of the same proto language? No, it certainly doesn’t, it just means that we lack the evidence to claim that they are. With that said, any further debate without more evidence is useless.

On the other hand, the Altaic label remains useful in describing these typologically-but-not-genetically-similar language families, and many departments at universities around the world continue to use it as a matter of convenience. Furthermore, Altaic Studies departments tend to be sort of a catch-all for cultural or linguistic studies that have no better place to live, so a lot of research on Caucasian languages, Eskimo-Aleut languages, Uralic languages, and typologically-similar isolates ends up being published from these departments. Being that my interests are pretty much Caucasian, Eskimo-Aleut, Mongolic, Tungusic, Turkic, and Uralic languages, I think this department suits me fairly well.

The department itself is quite flexible too. It doesn’t necessarily adhere to cultural or linguistic studies specifically, but it houses students interested in all aspects of these Central Asian ethnic groups and languages. I will likely be one of several other linguistically-oriented students.

Back to the real world… The next step in the process for me is to secure a residence permit for Finland. This is the paperwork that will allow me to stay in Finland for the entire duration of my studies. This is also the first time that I’ve attempted to legitimately stay for an extended period of time in another country, so the whole process is a bit new to me. There are several locations around the US that have the required administrative functions to hand out residence permits for Finland, one of which is in New York. I’m going to be in New York on business within the next couple of weeks anyway, so I plan to handle my residence permit application while I’m there.

The next few months will be a lot of bouncing around for me. In early May I’ll be leaving Seattle, spending a few days in Denver, several weeks in New York, followed by about a month in India (Mumbai and Bangalore for business followed by a couple weeks wherever my heart desires for vacation), after that I’ll be finally (and legitimately) settling down in Helsinki for the foreseeable future.

Stay tuned for blog posts in the near future about each of these places (although probably not Denver because it’s not very interesting).

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