DONNER, Otto. Kokkola 15.12.1835 — Helsinki 17.9.1909. Finnish Indologist and Finno-Ugrian Linguist. Professor in Helsinki. Son of Andreas D., a wealthy businessman and shipowner in Kokkola in the west coast of Finland, and Olivia Matilda Dahlström. Matriculated in 1857 from Vaasa, then studied Finnish at Helsinki and passed his M.A. in 1861. On his own, he also tried to learn Sanskrit from books as it was then considered to be the key to comparative linguistics. In 1863 he presented his doctoral dissertation based on —> Kellgren’s ideas of Finnish-Aryan mythological connections. The extremely modest work was hesitatingly accepted (by Ahlqvist) for a Ph.D. In 1864-65 further studies of Indology (Weber) and language philosophy (Steinthal) at Berlin. As a result he presented in 1865 a habilitation thesis (pro venia docendi), which was deemed poor by Böhtlingk (“eine höchst mangelhafte Schrift”). After further studies in 1867-68 under Roth at Tübingen and a visit to Paris and London he was, at last, capable of presenting an acceptable dissertation in 1870, and was given a docentship in Sanskrit at Helsinki. In 1872 he visited Hungary and in 1874 conducted fieldwork in Lappland, the only time he himself collected primary material (language and folklore). In 1875 he became the first Professor of Sanskrit and Comparative Philology at Helsinki, in 1878 his subject was accepted as an examination subject. Retired in 1905 (succeeded by Reuter). In 1905-08 Senator. Married 1862 Hilda Rosina Louise Malm (1834–1884, the widow of his elder brother) and 1887 Wilhelmina Sofia Charlotta (Minette) Munck (1848–1922), 11 children, with both, i.al. Otto D. Jr. (1871–1932, participated in a Central Asian expedition) and Karl Reinhold (Kai) D. (1888–1935, Siberian explorer and scholar of Samoyed and Yenissey languages).
As a Professor Donner taught comparative linguistics, Sanskrit, and Indology, but in his research he concentrated on comparative Fenno-Ugrian linguistics. In fact, his original motive for Sanskrit studies seems to have been just to learn the methods of comparative linguistics in order to apply them to Fenno-Ugric studies. Nevertheless, in the beginning of the 20th century his teaching still included the Rig- and Atharvaveda, further general linguistics, phonetics and Altaic philology. In his early years he was very much interested in the then fashionable theory of the supposed “Turanian” affinities of Sumerian, but took himself a critical standpoint to this as well as to Oppert’s idea of the Altaic affinity of the Elamic. In his own studies he was too many-sided, but nevertheless could often tackle important questions. He was the first to notice the Samoyedic ablaut, although the theory of it was then created by E. N. Setälä. He made important preliminary work on the Old Turkic Runic inscriptions, soon used by Thomsen in their decipherment.
Donner was a clever organizator, who directed several important achievements. In 1874 he was among the founders of the future Finnish National Museum, in 1883 of the Finno-Ugrian Society. Under his guidance several young scholars conducted expeditions to Russia, Central Asia, Siberia, Mongolia, and China. He was the teacher of the most of future Finnish Finno-Ugrian linguists, in Indology there were only few students, among them —> Ramstedt and Reuter.
Publications: Diss. Indernas föreställningar om verldskapelsen jemförda med finnarnes. 77 p. Helsingfors 1863.
– Diss. pro venia doc.: Sîtâharaṇam, episodium ur Râmâyaṇa. Text, öfversättning och förklaringar. 40+71 p. Helsingfors 1865; Piṇḍapitṛyajña. Das Manenopfer mit Klössen bei den Indern. 36 p. B. 1870.
– “Qvinnan i den indiska dikten”, Litt.blad för allmän medborgerlig bildning 1862, 204-214; Om jemförande språkforskning. Två inträdesföreläsningar. 39 p. Hf. 1871; “Om Indernas dramatiska poesi”, Öfversigt af Finska Vetenskaps-Societetets förhandlingar 28, 1885-86, 142-154.
– Das Personalpronomen in den Altaischen Sprachen. 1. Die finnischen Sprachen. 56 p. B. 1865; “Kalevipoeg jumalaistarulliselta ja historialliselta kannalta katsottuna”, Suomi 2:5, 1866, 145-207; “Der Mythus von Sampo”, Acta Soc. Scientiarum Fennicae 10, 1871, 135-163; Öfversikt af den Finsk Ugriska språkforskningens historia. 109 p. Helsingfors 1872; “Om finnarnes forna boningsplatser i Ryssland”, Bidrag till kännedom af Finlands natur och folk 24, 1875, 109-149; “Lappalaisia lauluja”, Suomi 2:1, 1876, 1-160 = Lieder der Lappen. 1876; “Die gegenseitige Verwandtschaft der finnisch-ugrischen Sprachen”, Acta Soc. Scientiarum Fennicae 11, 1880, 409-567.
– Vergleichendes Wörterbuch der Finnisch-Ugrischen Sprachen. 1-2. 192+160 o. Helsingfors 1874-76; 3. 202 p. 1888 (unfinished).
– Wörterverzeichniss zu den “Inscriptions de l’Ienissei”. 69 p. M.S.F.Ou. 4. 1892; “Sur l’origine de l’alphabet turc du nord de l’Asie”, JSFOu 14, 1896.
– With others: Les inscriptions de l’Orkhon. Helsingfors 1892.
– Dikter. 113 p. Helsingfors 1863; A brief sketch of the Scottish families in Finland and Sweden. 47 p. Helsingfors 1884; Släkten Donner i Finland. 33 p. Helsingfors 1891.
– Articles, reviews, etc., also poems and writings on politics and government.
Sources: Aalto 1971, 72-76; H.C[ordier], TP N.S. 10, 1909, 698-700; *R. Gauthiot, BSL 16:2, 1910, 239-242; *A. Kannisto & G. J. Ramstedt, JSFOu 49:1, 1937-38, 1-28 (in Finnish and French); K. Karttunen, “From the early days of Finnish Indology. Metrical translations from the Rigveda by Otto Donner”, StO 55, 1984, 499–512 & “Donner, Angelo De Gubernatis, and Comparative Linguistics”, M. Taddei (ed.), Angelo De Gubernatis. Europa e Oriente nell’ Italia umbertina. Vol. 3. Collana di “Matteo Ripa”. Napoli 1998, 399–406; *S. Lévi, JA 10:14, 1909, 559, 562f.; *P.E. Pavolini, GSAI 22, 1909, 333-335; E. N. Setälä, JSFOu 27, 1912, 2×14 p. (in Finnish and French); *E.N. Setälä, FUFAnz 9, 1909, 214-220; *K. Tiander, ŽMNPr 25, 1911?, Sovr. Let. 40-46; M. Väisänen, Suomen kansallisbiografia 2, 2003, 409-411 (with rev. Internet version); Bibliography by K. R. Donner and T. Kaukoranta, JSFOu 28, 1912, No. 4, 18 p.; Wikipedia briefly, with bust (more details in Swedish and Finnish versions); photo e.g. in JSFOu 23.