The most Finnish snippet of the entire Finnish-English dictionary:
If you're unsure why cupboards are so Finnish, please review the last entry.
The topic of language appears frequently in my blogs, because bewilderment is my most reliable muse. As soon as I understand what people are saying, I realize that all we humans are essentially kindred, and there's nothing funny about that. I have already composed authoritative guides to Russian (in two parts) and English, but Finnish stands out in two significant aspects - it's crazy, and I don't understand any of it. But general dogsbody that I am,
I'm spending the summer and the next few years trying to figure it out. I don't know much yet. But between you the reader and me, I'm the foremost authority on both Finnish and the larger Finno-Ugric language family, so you can trust everything written below. An exception is made, of course, for my Finnish professor, to whom I apologize in advance.
Finnish is one of few European languages that is not a European language. That is to say, Finnish is not of the Indo-European language family, which includes such favorites as the Romance languages, the Germanic languages, the Slavic languages, the Indo-Iranian languages, and most other languages spoken in the area between Nepal and my apartment in Berkeley, CA. Finnish is an outlier - it belongs to the Finno-Ugric family. It relates closely to Estonian, and less closely to Hungarian, Saami, and an array of northern Siberian languages. Linguists have not established any connection between the Indo-European and the Finno-Ugric families.
This last point is an important one - historical linguistics can reach back maybe 10,000 years, but not much further, before languages change beyond recognition. This means that the Finns' linguistic ancestors said 'moi moi' to our Anglophone linguistic ancestors at least 10,000 years ago, but possibly as long as 60,000-125,000 years ago during the first successful migration of humans out of Africa. I'm more inclined towards the latter view, because it makes my story more dramatic. The truth is that it's impossible to know - it's a mystery of prehistory. However long ago it was, the Finns and the Indo-European speakers would not meet again until the first Winter Olympics in 1924.
In practical terms, this means I can't buy a cabbage roll without an intensive summer course. At the moment, I've taken a year's worth of Finnish, and I'm at the awkward transitional stage where I can ask questions, but I never understand the answers. This is endlessly frustrating, but to make it less stressful I've turned it into a game: I ask the Finn a question, and then while he or she answers, I nod, and act like I'm easily following them. I'll say 'yes' and 'good' in Finnish, and when they start to pause, I'll pretend to start asking a follow-up question, like "but where..." or "and if..." in the hope that they'll continue. I'll keep a totally straight face, and see how long I can keep them going. And then at the end when they finally stop, I'll say "I didn't understand anything." Gets 'em every time.
Eventually the game will become unnecessary, because I'll begin to understand what's being said. I've already passed one significant milestone. Because of the small Swedish-speaking minority, both Finnish and Swedish are official languages in Finland. As such, all street signs are posted in Finnish and in Swedish. When I arrived, I found myself only trying to read the Swedish, as if it were just funny-English, because my odds were better that way. Now I read both, and try to combine them into something that makes sense.
Finnish looks like this and sounds like this (or to a Finn, this. Give it a minute to load).
Finnish is what's called a synthetic language, which means that the Finns can smash words together wheneverthehell they want, to the point where dictionaries are just an inside joke played on foreigners by Finnish publishers. For example, when I went to the bank to get some Euros, the teller asked me for my henkilöllisyystodistus. It's pronounced just like it looks. As it turns out, my henkilöllisyystodistus is Finnish for my personidentitycertificate. Henki is breath or spirit. Henkilö is a person. Henkilöllisyys is a person's identity. Henkilöllisyystodistus is a personidentitycertificate.
Another interesting quality shared by all Finno-Ugric languages is called consonant gradation. I should say, interesting for you, but it makes me want to cry. Certain consonants, depending on the word's role in the sentence, can morph into other consonants or disappear completely. This overlaps and mingles with a famously large number of grammatical cases - fifteen in all, though counts vary - which I have explained in my guide to Russian and don't want to talk about right now. But these, too, change the word dramatically, by adding a specific case-ending (which itself causes the consonants to morph in other parts of the word.) There are also strong regional dialects, such that anything I learn here in Turku will rendered useless by the bus ride to Oulu in July.
All that said, Finnish has certain saving graces, and there may be reason to hope. First of all, henkilöllisyystodistus really is pronounced just like it looks. Every Finnish word has its stress on the first syllable, and every letter has only one possible pronunciation. As such, after a few lessons in Finnish 101, anybody can read Finnish aloud, even if they won't know what they've read for several years. The synthetic nature of the language, in theory, will pay off in the end, because I have to learn fewer words and roots to broaden my vocabulary - if I know the root for "together" and the word for "work," it's easy to remember the word for togetherwork. That is to say, for "cooperation."
I'm learning Finnish for my job - I need to read documents from the Finnish national archives, in order to write a dissertation about sovietfinnishrelationshistory. To give a sense of how steep the climb is, I will conclude this post with a real life example. While flipping through the latest issue of Meidän Suomi, I saw a bunch of crazy nonsense next to a picture of ZZ Top:
General dogsbody that I am, I decided to learn how the two were connected. But in reading, I hit a road block. I understood the first three words of a sentence, then this happened:
This is how many Finnish lessons begin. Here is an experiment - let's try to figure out the meaning of sisävesiristeilylaivojen with a timer running. It is 7:40 p.m.
My first impression is that sisä looks like the root meaning "into" or "inside," and vesi is water. The 'n' at the end suggests the genitive case, meaning possession or belonging, and -ojen suggests it may be the genitive plural. The other roots are unfamiliar. So I'll grab my dictionary.
Okay, so the root sisä does mean inside, internal, interior, domestic. Vesi we know. Dictionary reveals that risteily is from the verb risteillä, "to cruise." Thus, a vesiristeily is a water-cruise! It is 7:47.
So far, we have an insidewaterboatcruise. Next word is laivo or something similar. But be careful! Due to consonant gradation, "v" could very well have been a "p" in a different form, including in the dictionary form. In fact, because the word seems to be genitive, it's likely to be "laipo" in the dictionary.
No, I was wrong about that - not all words morph, and the 'o' comes from the ending, not the root. The dictionary form is laiva, a word I should have known but forgot - a ship. It's 7:51.
So, laiva will become laivoja in the partitive plural case, from which we can deduce laivojen - genetive plural of laiva. That part I learned in grammar class.
So finally, we have 'insidewatercruiseships,' which I think might mean 'inland cruise ships,' on the many rivers and lakes of Finland. The next word combines 'theme' and 'night' - theme-nights.
Alas - the theme-nights on inland cruises. It is 7:57. The sentence is about theme-nights in city restaurants and on inland cruises. That took me 18 minutes. Imagine that this had been a live conversation. The Finn would have left already. My legs would be sore from standing still, my head would hurt, and there'd be no guarantee that I got it right. The sun would have moved 15 degrees sideways, my cabbage roll would have gotten warm and slimy, and without a concerted effort, it's very unlikely that I would remember the word. This is a daily occurrence for me here in Finland. Sometimes, there is a certain satisfaction in finally deciphering the words. But just as often, they end up meaning wrongcareerpath.
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