The terms Finns and Finnish people (Finnish: suomalaiset, Swedish: finländare) are used in English to mean "a native or inhabitant of Finland". They are also used to refer to the ethnic group historically associated with Finland or Fennoscandia, and they are only used in that sense here.
As with most ethnic groups, the definition of Finns may vary. In every definition, the term includes the Finnish-speaking population of Finland. The group can also be seen to include the Swedish-speaking population of Finland and the Finnish-speaking population of Sweden. Smaller populations that may or may not be seen to fall under the term Finns include the Kvens in Norway, the Tornedalians of Sweden and the Ingrian Finns of Russia. Finns can be divided according to dialect into subgroups sometimes traditionally called heimo, but such divisions have become less important with internal migration.
Linguistically, Finnish, spoken by most Finns, is most closely related to the other Baltic-Finnic languages Estonian and Karelian, while Swedish, spoken by Swedish-speaking Finns, is unrelated to the Finnish language and a member of the Indo-European language family. Finnish has loanwords from Swedish, other Germanic and broader Indo-European languages in different chronological layers while Swedish has few loan words from the Baltic-Finnic languages. Genetically, Finns seem to be a fairly homogeneous group with a genetic heritage mostly in common with the other European ethnicities.
With regard to language, in addition to most Finnish-speaking inhabitants of mainland Finland, also Kvens (people of Finnish descent in Norway), Tornedalians (people of Finnish descent in northernmost Sweden), and Evangelical Lutheran Ingrian Finns are usually considered Finnish people.
The Finnish speakers form the large majority of Finns.
The area of modern Finland was part of the Swedish kingdom for several hundred years, and about 290 000 present-day Finnish individuals speak Swedish as their first language. In Finland, language is typically considered the basic and even the only criterion that distinguishes the Finnish-speakers and the Swedish-speakers from each other. In general, Swedish-speaking Finns consider themselves to be just as much Finnish as the Finnish-speaking majority, but they have their own special identity distinct from that of the majority, and they wish to be recognized as such. In a 2005 survey by Svenska Finlands Folkting carried out among the Swedish speakers, when asked about the meaning of their identity, 82% of the respondents answered: "Both to belong to an own culture but also to be Finnish amongst the rest.
On the other hand, the Swedish-speaking Finns can be seen to fulfill some of the four major criteria for a separate ethnic group: self-identification of ethnicity, language, social structure, and ancestry..
These include recent immigrants from Finland and (at least originally) Finnish-speaking people that have lived in Sweden for centuries. An estimated 450,000 first- or second-generation Finns live in Sweden, of which approximately half speak Finnish. The majority moved from Finland to Sweden following the Second World War, with a peak in 1970 and declining thereafter. There are also historical Finnish-speaking minorities in Sweden, for example the Tornedalingar (Torne Valley Finns) and the Finns of Dalecarlia. As a result, the Finnish language has an official status as one of five minority languages in Sweden.
The Finnish and Swedish terms for the Swedish-speaking population of Finland are the expressions suomenruotsalaiset and finlandssvenskar respectively, which translate literally with regard to each other. In Finland Swedish usage and mindset the following distinctions are usually made: The nation (people) consists of Finnish speakers (Finland Swedish: finnar) and Swedish speakers (Finland Swedish: finlandssvenskar) who together with smaller minorities constitute the people of Finland (Finland Swedish: finländare). In Swedish spoken outside of Finland, in particular in Sweden, the term finländare is less known, and these distinctions are not always made.
Translating this terminology accurately into foreign languages, including Sweden's Swedish, is a tricky matter because the terminology closely reflects the nation's entire language issue, which played an intricate part in the process of the crystallisation of the nation's self-perception and in the interpretation of its history, and because it still affects these. Indeed, one of the very first domestic matters addressed during the process of national awakening in the 19th century was the language question.
It is therefore debatable which English terms best match the Finnish and (Finland-)Swedish terms suomalaiset (finländare, finnar) and finlandssvenskar (suomenruotsalaiset). Nevertheless, Swedish-speaking Finns seems to be the English term most commonly used today for and by the Swedish-speaking population of Finland, although the term Finland Swedes is in wide use too, at least in English written by non-native speakers in Scandinavia.
Similarly debatable is how to best designate the people living in Sweden who are current Finnish speakers or have Finnish or Finnish-speaking ancestors. The terms used include the traditional Sweden Finns and the more modern Finnish Swedes, instead of which it may be preferable to differentiate between (recent) Finnish immigrants and the indigenous Finnish ethnic minority in Sweden.
As the meanings of these terms have changed in time, these terms may well be used with other meanings than those given above, particularly in foreign and older works.
Historical references relating to Europe's north are scarce and the names given to its peoples obscure, and so the etymologies of the names of these peoples and geographic regions remain rather sketchy. Such names as Fenni, Phinnoi, Finnum, and Skrithfinni / Scridefinnum were used in a few written texts for almost two millennia in association with a people located in a northern part of Europe, but the real meaning of these terms is debatable. The earliest mentions of this kind are usually interpreted to have meant Fennoscandian hunter-gatherers whose closest successors in modern terms would be the Sami people. It has been suggested that this non-Uralic ethnonym is of Germanic language origin and related to such words as finthan (Old High German) 'find', 'notice'; fanthian (Old High German) 'check', 'try'; and fendo (Old High German) and vende (Old Middle German) 'pedestrian', 'wanderer'.. Another etymological interpretation associates this ethnonym with fen in a more toponymical approach. Yet another theory postulates that the words finn and kven are cognates. In the Icelandic Eddas and Norse sagas (dating from about the 11th to 14th centuries), some of the oldest written sources probably originating from the closest proximity, words like finnr and finnas are not used consistently. Most of the time, however, they seem to mean northern dwellers with a mobile life style.
Interestingly, an etymological link between the Sami and the Finns exists also in modern Finno-Ugric languages. It has been proposed that e.g. the toponyms Sapmi (Sami for Lapland), Suomi (Finnish for Finland), and Häme (Finnish for Tavastia) are of the same origin, the source of which might be related to the proto-Baltic word *zeme meaning 'land'. How, why, and when these designations started to mean specifically people in Southwestern Finland (Finland Proper, Varsinais-Suomi) and later the whole area of modern Finland is unknown.
Among the first written documents possibly designating western Finland as the land of Finns are two rune stones. One of these is in Söderby, Sweden, with the inscription finlont (U 582 †), and the other is in Gotland, a Swedish island in the Baltic Sea, with the inscription finlandi (G 319 M) dating from the 11th century.
With regard to the ancestry of the Finnish people, the modern view emphasizes the overall continuity in Finland's archeological finds and (earlier more obvious) linguistic surroundings. Archeological data suggest the spreading of at least cultural influences from many sources ranging from the south-east to the south-west following gradual developments rather than clear-cut migrations.
The possible mediators and the timelines for the development of the Uralic majority language of the Finns are equally uncertain. On the basis of comparative linguistics, it has been postulated that the separation of the Baltic-Finnic and the Sami languages took place during the 2nd millennium BC, the proto-Uralic roots of the entire language group dating perhaps from about the 6th to the 8th millennium BC. When the Uralic or Finno-Ugric languages were first spoken in the area of contemporary Finland is a matter of debate but the current opinion is leaning towards the Stone Age.
Because the Finnish language itself reached a written form only in the 16th century, not much primary data remains of early Finnish life. For example, the origins of such cultural icons as the sauna, the kantele (a harplike instrument), and the Kalevala (national epic) have remained rather obscure.
Finland's Swedish speakers descend from peasants and fishermen who settled coastal Finland ca. 1000–1250, from the subsequent immigration during Swedish sovereignty over Finland, and from Finns and immigrants who adopted the Swedish language.
The historical provinces of Finland and Sweden can be seen to approximate some of these divisions. The regions of Finland, another remnant of a past governing system, can be seen to reflect a further manifestation of a local identity.
Today's (urbanized) Finns are not usually aware of the concept of 'heimo' nor do they typically identify with one, although the use of dialects has experienced a recent revival. Urbanized Finns do not necessarily know a particular dialect and tend to use standard Finnish or city slang but they may switch to a dialect when visiting their native area.
With regard to the Y-chromosome, besides the markers found in other European populations, the haplotype N3 appears in Finland at clearly higher frequencies than in most other European populations. Haplotype N3 is a subgroup of the haplogroup N (Y-DNA) distributed across northern Eurasia and estimated in a recent study to be 10,000–20,000 years old and suggested to have entered Europe about 12,000–14,000 years ago from Asia.
According to an earlier study conducted by four scientists, including Cavalli-Sforza LL:
Principal coordinate analysis shows that Lapps/Sami are almost exactly intermediate between people located geographically near the Ural mountains and speaking Uralic languages, and central and northern Europeans. Hungarians and Finns are definitely closer to Europeans. An analysis of genetic admixture between Uralic and European ancestors shows that Lapps/Sami are slightly more than 50% European, Hungarians are 87% European, and Finns are 90% European. There is basic agreement between these conclusions and historical data on Hungary. Less is known about Finns and very little about Lapps/Sami.
According to recent autosomal (genomewide, 10,000 markers instead of few looked at Y-DNA and MtDNA-studies) give distinct picture of Finnish genes. Finns are a genetic isolate. It could be said that all other Europeans have Finnish genes but Finns don't have all the genes found in other Europeans. Finns show very little if any Mediterranean and African genes but on the other hand almost 10% Finnish genes seem to be shared with some Siberian populations. Nevertheless more than 80% of Finnish genes are from single ancient North-European population, while most Europeans are admixture of 3 or more principal components.
In a recent study (2008) a joint analysis was performed for the first time on Swedish and Finnish autosomal genotypes. Swedish-speakers from Ostrobothnia (reference population of the study representing 50% of all Swedish-speakers in Finland) differed from the Finnish-speaking populations of the country and formed a genetic cluster with the Swedes. Moreover, Acccording to a recent y-dna study (2008) Swedish-speaking reference group from Larsmo, Ostrobotnia, differed significantly from the Finnish-speaking sub-populations in the country in terms of Y-STR variation.
In the 19th century, the Finnish researcher Matthias Castrén prevailed with the theory that "the original home of Finns" was in west-central Siberia. Later, the theory of an ancient homeland of all Finno-Ugric speaking peoples situated in a region between the Volga and Kama rivers in the European part of Russia appeared more credible. Until the 1970s, most linguists believed Finns to have arrived in Finland as late as the first centuries AD. Accumulating archaeological data, however, suggested that the area of contemporary Finland had been inhabited continuously from the ice-age onwards contrary to the earlier idea that the area had experienced long uninhabited intervals. One conclusion was that the ancestors of the Finns arrived in their present territory thousands of years ago, perhaps in many successive waves of immigration. During this immigration, the possible linguistic and cultural ancestors of the hunting-gathering Sami were pushed into the more remote northern regions.
Kalevi Wiik, a professor emeritus of phonetics at the University of Turku, postulated a controversial theory in the 1990s. According to Wiik, the ancestors of the Finns lived during the Ice Age in one of three habitable areas of southern Europe, so-called refugia, the two other habitable areas being the homes of the Indo-European and Basque languages. According to this theory, Finno-Ugric speakers spread to the north as the ice melted. They populated central and northern Europe, while Basque speakers populated western Europe. As agriculture spread from the south-west into Europe, the Indo-European languages spread among the hunter-gatherers. In this process, both the hunter-gatherers speaking Finno-Ugric and those speaking Basque learned how to cultivate land and became Indo-Europeanized. According to Wiik, this is how the Celtic, Germanic, Slavic, and Baltic languages were formed. Due to their isolated location, the linguistic ancestors of modern Finns did not switch their language. Wiik's theory, the main supporters of which are Ago Künnap, Kyösti Julku and Angela Marcanio, has attracted strong criticism from other scholars. Especially Raimo Anttila, Petri Kallio and brothers Ante and Aslak Aikio have renounced Wiik's theory with strong words, even hinting on right-wing tendencies among Wiik's supporters. The most heated debate took place in the Finnish journal Kaltio during autumn 2002. Since then, the debate has calmed, each side retaining their positions.