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AFS Review: In Memoriam

Arvo Krikmann (1939-2017)

Tuesday, September 5, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rosalind V. Rini Larson

By Wolfgang Mieder (University of Vermont) — 

It is with much sadness that the international community of paremiologists received the news that one of its very best passed away on February 27, 2017, at Tartu, Estonia. Arvo Krikmann was a giant among the world’s folklorists and paremiologists, and he will most certainly be dearly missed. His scholarly accomplishments are legendary, of course, but he will also be remembered as one of the kindest colleagues among all of us. My personal friendship with this great man, who used to give me strong bearhugs whenever we met at Tartu, Tallinn, Tavira, and elsewhere in Europe, meant the world to me, and it is so very difficult for me to come to terms with his departure. There are so many of my paremiological heroes who have predeceased me – Archer Taylor, Grigorii L’vovich Permiakov, Démétrios Loukatos, Matti Kuusi, Kazys Grigas, Alan Dundes, Lutz Röhrich, Roger Abrahams, and others – and I must admit that while I remember them all fondly I also feel ever lonelier as my own life continues to advance towards its end.

I still remember celebrating Arvo Krikmann’s seventy-fifth birthday when we honored him with volume 31 (2014) of Proverbium as a very special Festschrift on that occasion on July 21, 2014 (see my laudation on pp. 1-10). I also published a tribute to my dear friend with the fitting title “‘Friends, Though Absent, Are Still Present’,” Folklore (Tartu), 58 (2014), 209-212. But the most telling account of our special friendship can be found in our moving correspondence that I edited about two years before his death: “‘Old Friends Are Best!’ Epistolary Highlights Between the Paremiologists Arvo Krikmann and Wolfgang Mieder,” in Anneli Baran, Liisi Laineste, and Piret Voolaid (eds.), Scala Naturae. Festschrift in Honour of Arvo Krikmann for His 75tb Birthday (Tartu: ELM Scholarly Press, 2014), pp. 17-56. These letters are not only a testimony of our lasting friendship, but they also show how much such friendships mean among scholars beyond any borders and distances. Friendships are the humane side of research that add emotion and compassion to the scholarly world.

The Estonian folklorist and academician Arvo Krikmann was born on July 21, 1939, in the village of Pudivere in the small Baltic country of Estonia. By the time his incredibly productive life ended on February 27, 2017, at Tartu, he had earned himself a distinguished place in the hall of fame of international folkloristics. He graduated from the Department of Estonian Philology of Tartu University in 1962. From 1962-1969 he worked as a researcher and senior re­searcher at the Literary Museum in Tartu, from 1970-1972 he took postgraduate courses, from 1973-1993 he was a junior and senior researcher at the Institute of Language and Literature, from 1994-2000 he was head researcher at the Institute of Estonian Language, and since 2000 to his death he remained very active as a senior researcher at the Estonian Literary Museum. Having obtained much acclaim for his excellent folkloristic scholarship, he became distinguished professor in 1992 at Tartu University and in 1997 he received the high honor of becoming a member of the Estonian Academy of Sciences. Among his numerous other honors are: member of the Finnish Literature Society (1979), member of the editorial board of Proverbium (1984), National Science Prize (1999), Cultural Endowment of Estonia Annual Award (2000 and 2004), member of the Academia Scientiarum et Artium Europaea (2003), Baltic Assembly Prize for Science (2004), and honorary member of the Inter­national Society for Folk Narrative Research (2005).

His major research endeavors were concerned with culture and society, having conducted his scholarly work primarily from the point of view of folklore, humor, linguistics, paremiology, philology, semantics, and semiotics. His many studies on jokes and riddles were based on a sincere interest in ethnicity and stereotypes that often played a role in them. He also spearheaded the sophisticated analysis of the geographical distribution of verbal folk­lore genres by means of computer technologies to map the appearance and density of rich arrays of variants as they have been recorded in different regions. The resulting publications and fascinating lectures on these matters in Estonian, Russian, and perfect English were erudite achievements with an unquestionable influence on Baltic, European, and global scholarship. Clearly Arvo Krikmann was one of the greatest folklorists of the twentieth/twenty-first centuries who brought international recognition not only for his own scholarship but also for the superb work that is going on by other folklorists in Estonia.

But to be sure, Arvo Krikmann was also among the leading paremiologists in the world, and his accomplishments place him next to such distinguished and departed proverb scholars as Alan Dundes, Kazys Grigas, Matti Kuusi, Démétrios Loukatos, Grigorii L'vovich Permiakov, Lutz Röhrich, Archer Taylor, and others. He belonged to the group of such renowned paremiographers as Gyula Paczolay, František Čermák, and many others who are still at work on the national and international compilations of proverbs. Of course, these scholars and many more, among them Valerii Mokienko, Charles Clay Doyle, Outi Lauhakangas, Peter Grzybek, Richard Honeck, Anna T. Litovkina, and Shirley L. Arora, have all benefited from his invaluable work.

It is above all as a theoretical paremiologist that Arvo Krikmann made his lasting mark on the international scene, publishing major papers on the linguistic aspects of proverbs. His seminal monograph On Denotative Indefiniteness of Proverbs (1974) and its sequel Some Additional Aspects of Semantic Indefiniteness of Proverbs (1974) represented milestones in the semantic and semiotic study of proverbs. Of course, Krikmann also made major contributions to the study of metaphors in proverbs, their geographical distribution, their variants, their classification, their structure, their syntax, and their significance as preformulated pieces of traditional wisdom. While many of these significant papers were published in his native Estonian tongue or in Russian, his important findings also appeared in English and German, reaching students and scholars of proverbs around the globe.

Together with Ingrid Sarv he published the monumental Estonian proverb collection Eesti vanasõnad (1980-1987) in five massive volumes. Both were also part of the international team of paremiologists who, under the direction of Matti Kuusi at Helsinki, put together the unsurpassed comparative proverb collection Proverbia septentrionalia. 900 Balto-Finnic Proverb Types with Russian, Baltic, German and Scandinavian Parallels (1985).

It is not possible in this short necrology to list all of his paremiological publications, but his entire scholarly accomplishments and honors can be found in Karin Maria Rooleid’s Arvo Krikmann. Bibliograafia 1963-2009 (Tartu: Eesti Kirjandusmuuseumi folkloristika osakond, 2009) and on the internet under!D=654&lang=en. It is mindboggling to survey his rich contributions to paremiology alone! It has been one of my very special and treasured honors to edit eight of his seminal essays in a special celebratory volume at the time of Arvo Krikmann’s seventieth birthday: Proverb Semantics. Studies in Structure, Logic, and Metaphor. Ed. Wolfgang Mieder. Burlington, Vermont: The University of Vermont, 2009. It is in this volume where he described his scholarly life and work better than what is said here, to wit his personal comments of “How I Started and Continued, and to Whom I Am Indebted” (pp. 1-14).

The title of these reflections indicates the humility and kindness of this big man, who to me was like a benevolent and friendly giant bear with an incredible mind that revolutionized modern paremiology. Proverb studies would not have reached today’s impressive theoretical level were it not for the seminal paremiological work of our treasured, respected, and admired Estonian friend Arvo Krikmann. His legendary scholarship will survive and continue to influence generations of paremiologists and folklorists. And those of us who had the fortune, privilege, and honor to know him personally and belong to his circle of friends, will most certainly carry Arvo Krikmann in our minds and hearts until the end of our own lives.

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