Researcher of the Month: Terhi Ainiala

Terhi Ainiala
Photo: Ilmari Fabritius

Kielipankki – The Language Bank of Finland is a service for researchers using language resources. Terhi Ainiala tells us about her research on city and place names and how multidisciplinary onomastics research is done.

Who are you?

I am Terhi Ainiala, a researcher of onomastics and university lecturer of Finnish language at the University of Helsinki. I am also the head of the department of Finnish, Finno-Ugrian and Scandinavian Studies at the Faculty of Arts.

What is your research topic?

I have researched place names for most of my career, starting from my student days. Towards the 2000s, I started to focus on urban place names, as the earlier research had concentrated on rural place names. I have studied particularly the layering of urban place names and the roles of names as part of the conceptualization of the environment and the identities of urban dwellers. Urban place names have many layers: formal and informal names, names from different eras and from different languages, and names used by different groups. Names play an important part in guiding and conceptualizing the urban space, as well as in constructing urban meanings and mental images.

The official urban nomenclature is readily available to the researcher in town plans and other official documents. There are even published books on street names. However, the informal names used in city dwellers’ everyday speech have been collected only sporadically. In my own research, I have also wanted to access the contexts in which places are spoken about, not just the lists of names. I have therefore collected the data for my studies primarily through questionnaires and interviews. The main focus of my research has been on qualitative analysis.

And how do people talk about places on the numerous social media channels? I wanted to address this question with more extensive data, and this is where my collaboration with professor Jarmo Jantunen has proved fruitful. We have combined the starting points and tools of onomastics, statistical methods and corpus-based discourse research to explore what kind of city or other place names are used in digital discourses, and how these names are used. This kind of corpus-onomastic research is a new opening in onomastics research.

In our first joint study (Ainiala, T. & Jantunen, J. H., 2019), we found that the common slang names used for Helsinki, Hesa and Stadi, share common discourses. However, they also have their own discourses. Hesa is used when Helsinki is viewed from the outside and is, for example, a destination of migration or travel. Stadi, on the other hand, reflects a native and authentic Helsinki identity, which supports previous findings on the use of the name. Stadi is most often used when referring to ”us Stadians” and looking at the city from the inside.

We have continued our research in even more multidisciplinary way and in a group of four researchers, as geographer Salla Jokela and linguist Jenny Tarvainen have joined us. In our recent article (Jantunen, J. H., Ainiala, T., Jokela, S. & Tarvainen, J., 2022), we explore the ways in which Finns talk about the cities of the Helsinki metropolitan area and the meanings attached to them. According to our results, the most common discussion topics related to Espoo, Helsinki and Vantaa are places and directions, living and mobility. However, there are differences between the cities. For instance, Helsinki and Helsinkians are often compared to Finland in general and even to the rest of Europe, but Espoo and Vantaa are not discussed in this way. Also the names of provinces and foreign cities, such as Savo, Lapland, Stockholm and London, are only associated with Helsinki in the data.

Our research provides more insight into the meanings associated with cities. The results can be used for urban planning and development, and branding.

How is your research related to Kielipankki?

The data used in our corpus-onomastics research comes from the extensive Suomi24 corpus, consisting of about 2.7 billion words. The corpus is formed from the Suomi24 discussion forum and is available in Kielipankki. As the data is not compiled for research purposes but consists of spontaneously generated online discussion, it provides a comprehensive view on civil discourses.


Ainiala, Terhi & Jarmo Harri Jantunen 2019: Korpusonomastinen tutkimus slanginimistä Hesa ja Stadi digitaalisissa diskursseissa. Sananjalka 61(61), 57–79.

Ainiala, Terhi (2021: Nimet kaupunkimaisemassa: Kerrostumat, merkitykset ja mielikuvat. In T. Vahtikari, T. Ainiala, A. Kivilaakso, P. Olsson, & P. Savolainen (toim.), Humanistinen kaupunkitutkimus, 119-142. Tampere: Vastapaino.

Ainiala, T. & Sjöblom, P. 2020, Nimistöntutkimus. in M Luodonpää-Manni, M Hamunen, R Konstenius, M Miestamo, U Nikanne & K Sinnemäki (eds), Kielentutkimuksen menetelmiä I-IV. Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seuran Toimituksia, Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, pp. 800-830.

Jantunen, Jarmo Harri, Terhi Ainiala, Salla Jokela & Jenny Tarvainen 2022: Mapping Digital Discourses of the Capital Region of Finland: Combining Onomastics, CADS, and GIS. Names 70:1, 20–39.


More information on the aforementioned resources


The FIN-CLARIN consortium consists of a group of Finnish universities along with CSC – IT Center for Science and the Institute for the Languages of Finland (Kotus). FIN-CLARIN helps the researchers in Finland to use, to refine, to preserve and to share their language resources. The Language Bank of Finland is the collection of services that provides the language materials and tools for the research community.

All previously published Language Bank researcher interviews are stored in the Researcher of the Month archive. This article is also published on the website of the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Helsinki.