June 1998

Person, Village and Culture: notes on the translation of three key concepts

by Tim Ingold

Basic concepts like 'person', 'village' and culture are loaded with different meanings in Finnish and British cultures.


This intriguing word, usually translated into English as ‘person’, is of relatively recent origin. It was coined in the 1840s by a prominent physician, Volmari Kilpinen, as part of a concerted attempt during this period to raise the status of Finnish to the status of a language of literature, science and administration. Indeed Kilpinen was also responsible for the invention of the words tiede (science) and taide (art). In order to produce an equivalent to ‘person’ in other European languages, Kilpinen attached the particularising suffix -to the much more ancient root, henki. Yet in their respective derivations the two terms, ‘person’ and henkilö, could hardly be more different. Person comes from the Latin per sona, literally ‘sounding through’, as the speech of the actor can be heard through the mask he is wearing. The person was originally the mask, the social role, the part played in society. By contrast the henki, the root of the Finnish concept, is a kind of inner essence or vital force, the breath of life that flies away when you die. And so the primary reference of henkilö is to this lifeforce, as opposed to the socially approved channels through which it is constrained to run.

Besides the word for ‘person’, there are a number of words in Finnish that may be translated in a collective sense as ‘people’. The most important are väki, which carries connotations of the force of power of mass action; and kansa, which is defined in terms of a common heritage of language, manners and institutions. From väki is derived the modern term for ‘population’, väestö; while kansa nowadays conveys, inter alia, the sense of ‘nation’.


To most people in Britain, the word ‘village’ conjures up an image of a close cluster of dwellings, including a church, a few shops, a pub, post-office and school, set in a rural landscape. The visitor to Finland is taught that the word for village is kylä, and a glance at the map reveals that the countryside is indeed dotted with ‘villages’. Suppose you wanted to visit a village called Järvenkylä. Setting off along a well-signposted road, which says ‘Järvenkylä 8 km’, you glimpse the occasional house of farmstead, and from time to time the blank wall of trees on either side of the road opens up to reveal a block of fields. Yet as you proceed nothing changes - still the trees, the blocks of fields, the scattered houses. After several more kilometres, you eventually reach a road junction where a sign pointing in the very direction from which you just came, says ‘Järvenkylä 6 km’. So where was the village? Unbeknown to you, you were in it all along.

The Finnish kylä, as it exists today, is largely an artefact of a complex history of land division. In the past, there were compact residential clusters, each surrounded by its fields and forests. The settlement pattern of today, with its widely scattered family farms, is an outcome of the enclosure movement (isojako), set in train in 1757 with the objective of replacing the old system of strip-farming with a more efficient system integrated and independent landholdings. With this, the village became a community in name only; for all practical purposes it survived only as the total block of land from which the estates of individual farms had been cut out. In short, since the isojako the village has been delineated primarily by its land base rather than by the social solidarity or residential propinquity of its people.

Despite the changes in the character of village settlement, the term kylä still retains a connotation of sociability, as in the phrase käydä kylässä, ‘to go visiting’. But the phrase carries no connotations about where one is visiting -- it could be someone’s home, or any other setting in which people gather to enjoy one another’s company. In effect, whereas village settlement and sociability once went hand in hand in the concept of kylä, today these two components of meaning have been split apart, so that the connotation of sociability is no longer tied to that of ‘village’.


There is, in the western humanistic tradition, a remarkable ambivalence in the relationship between notions of culture and civilisation. To be cultured is to be civilised, in the sense of a cosmopolitan refinement of knowledge, taste and manners; to live in a culture, by contrast, is to be condemned to a life of traditional monotony in some rural peasant backwater. Most non-western languages lack any term that readily translates as culture; however as nations around the world have converted the legacy of bygone ways of life into an internationally marketable commodity, ‘culture’ has become a term as globally ubiquitous as its counterpart in the world of finance, namely ‘bank’. Finnish is no exception, thus we have both kulttuuri and pankki.

There is also a Finnicised equivalent for culture in the sense of civilisation, namely sivilisaatio. Unlike kulttuuri, however, this is a word that is rarely heard. It is simply not needed. For Finnish has a word of its own, sivistys, for culture in this latter sense. Though the word sivistys and civilisation sound rather similar, fostering the impression that the one is derived from the other, the resemblance is in fact purely accidental. Sivistys is actually a word of indigenous origin, derived from siveä, meaning ‘chaste’ or ‘pure’, and is thereby also related to terms for cleanliness (siisti, siisteys). Thus, although adapted to convey the ideals of the society imported from continental Europe, sivistys has its real source in native notions of purity and pollution.

The writer is a member of the British Academy and Professor of Social Anthropology, University of Manchester

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