Oinas, Felix J.

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Felix Oinas, a world renowned scholar in the areas of Slavic linguistics, Finno-Ugric language, literature, and folklore, was a professor of Uralic and Altaic Studies and Slavic Languages and Literatures at Indiana University from 1950 until his retirement in 1981.

From the description of Felix J. Oinas papers, 1949-2005. (Indiana University). WorldCat record id: 677984698

Felix Oinas was born on March 6, 1911 in Tartu Estonia to Ernst and Marie Oinas. Marie was a homemaker, and Ernst was a dairy farmer who had an interest in literature and maintained a small library. Oinas became an avid reader in elementary school, his father made sure that Felix made time to read in between tending to the animals on their farm. Oinas' father felt that learning Russian was so important that he paid for his son to have a private tutor. As a young boy, Felix remembers:

"It was at Maltsa that I first heard about pisuhänds (‘spark-tail, a flying, fiery treasure-bringing demon). People insisted that they had seen a pisuhänd, like a streak of light, fly across the sky and then land at Tõnumärdi. This was the wealthiest farm in the area, and it was believed that a pisuhänd had brought wealth to the farm. Later at Saare farm (talu) I heard spine tingling stories about revenants, specters, and ghosts from farmhands." (Account of My Career)

Oinas' early exposure and interest in literature, language, and folklore foreshadow his distinguished academic career. Indeed,Felix Oinas attended Tartu University and received his M.A in Finno-Ugric, comparative literature, and folklore in 1938 while Estonia was still an independent nation. He taught Estonian in Hungary, conducted research on Hungarian literature, and translated Hungarian and Estonian works. Oinas stayed in Estonia during the Soviet Occupation of 1940-41and the German occupation of 1941-44; however, the turbulent and volatile political environment in Estonia caused the Oinas family to flee their home for the West in early 1945. Felix Oinas writes:

"I was one of those lucky Estonians who was able to escape with my family to the West before the Russians occupied my home country in 1945. Although refugee life has been full of hardships, I received the chance to continue my life and work in freedom being able to strive to reach my goals and aspirations." (Account of My Career)

Oinas studied Slavic linguistics and literature while in living in Germany, and in 1949, the Oinas family sailed to the United States after Oinas was hired as a research assistant for the Slavic Department at Wayne University in Detroit. Oinas stayed in Detroit for one year before moving to Bloomington, Indiana. Finno-Ugric languages and folklore were taught at Indiana University, and this influenced Oinas decision to move to Indiana in 1950. Oinas became a Russian instructor while simultaneously studying theoretical and Slavic linguistics and working at the Folklore Institute with Stith Thompson.

In 1952, Oinas received his PhD in linguistics; his dissertation, The Development of Some Postpositional Cases in Balto-Finnic Languages, was published by the Finno-Ugric Society in Finland. Oinas taught Russian and Old Church Slavonic in the IU Slavic Department in addition to folklore. He was also the chairman of the Language Laboratory Committee from 1957-60 and organized the first USA-Canada language laboratory conference at Indiana University. In 1961 he received Fulbright and Guggenheim grants to do research at Helsinki University, and in 1964 he received a second Guggenheim fellowship, which he used to conduct research in Zagreb, Croatia.

In 1960 Oinas was appointed chairman of the Ural-Altaic Department. He later became a full professor in the Slavic and Ural-Altaic Departments and in the Folklore Institute. In the Slavic Department he taught Church Slavonic, Old Russian Literature, reading of Old Slavonic texts, and history of Russian literary language. In the folklore department he taught Russian, Finnish, and Balto-Finnic folklore; Finno-Ugric, and Siberian mythology and religion.

Felix Oinas has published 23 books, 250 articles, 130 reviews, and translated four books from Hungarian and English. There were many basic themes of Felix Oinas' research. Some of the most important included Balto-Finnic and Slavic folklore, the relation of Balto-Finnic folklore as compared to Baltic (Lithuanian and Latvian) folklore, the Estonian epic Kalevipoeg (including the study of Slavic parallels to that epic), mythology (including the study of spirits, ghosts, devils, and vampires), and the study of Slavic and Finnic etymologies.

Professor Oinas received many honors during his life, which are too numerous to mention in full. In 1998, Professor Oinas was presented the highest Estonian civil honor, the Order of the State Coat of Arms II class by Estonian ambassador Kalev Stoicescu. In 1985, he received the Kalevala medal from the Finnish government. In 1986, he was made an honorary member of the Folklore Institute of Pázmány Péter University in Budapest, Hungary. He was honored by many more organizations in many countries. He had many visiting and guest appointments in such institutions as the University of California at Berkeley (1976), various Finnish universities (1962), Stockholm University (1962), and Belgrade University (1974). He also gave lectures at numerous other universities across the United States and Canada. In 1977, he was elected as a foreign member of the Finnish Academy of Sciences. He participated in many international conferences and was active in professional organizations, such as the Modern Language Teachers Association. He played a major editorial role as review editor and board member for the Slavic and East European Journal, the journal of AATSEEL, and the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages. On the occasion of his 70th birthday Oinas was honored with an international Festschrift Folklorica: Festschrift for Felix J. Oinas, edited by V.E.Zygas and Peter Voorheis.

Felix Oinas passed away on September 25, 2004 at his home in Bloomington, Indiana; he was 93 years old.

[written by Ronald F. Feldstein, Revised July 25, 2005]

From the guide to the Felix J. Oinas papers, 1949-2005, (Indiana University Office of University Archives and Records Management http://www.libraries.iub.edu/archives)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Felix J. Oinas papers, 1949-2005 Indiana University Office of University Archives and Records Managementhttp://www.libraries.iub.edu/archives
creatorOf Oinas, Felix J. Felix J. Oinas papers, 1949-2005. Indiana University
referencedIn Folklore and Ethnomusicology Publications records, 1942-2004, (bulk 1968-2004) Indiana University Office of University Archives and Records Managementhttp://www.libraries.iub.edu/archives
referencedIn Dorson mss., 1925-1981 Lilly Library (Indiana University, Bloomington)
referencedIn IU Folklore Institute, 1987 Indiana University, Bloomington. Center for the Study of History and Memory
Role Title Holding Repository
Place Name Admin Code Country
Slavic languages--Etymology--Study and teaching (Higher)
Baltic--Finnic languages--Etymology--Study and teaching (Higher)
Mythology, Finno--Ugrian--Study and teaching (Higher)
Mythology, Slavic--Study and teaching (Higher)
Finno--Ugrians--Folklore--Study and teaching (Higher)


Birth 1911-03-06

Death 2004-09-25

Baltic languages,





Slavic languages,



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