Sunday, March 27, 2011

The language(s) of Finland

J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote of his discovery of Finnish grammar in a letter to W.H. Auden in 1955: "It was like discovering a complete wine-filled cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavor never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me..."

I'm certainly not going to argue with a linguistic giant like Mr. Tolkien: in fact I'm going to say that his assessment is spot on, from a non-native speaker's point of view. That rush is what keeps me chugging through class after class, trying to force my brain to forget thirty years of English and understand language in an entirely different way. It's no secret that Finnish is considered one of the most difficult languages to learn for an English speaker, but I have to disagree with that. Finnish isn't difficult at all; the small children on the bus babbling away in Finnish to their mothers proves that. And if small children can learn this language, then I don't have much of an excuse to whine about it being hard. Tensor calculus is hard, and toddlers can't do that. But they can speak Finnish. What makes it seem hard is how different it is from English. Once you accept that it's completely different and you'd better give up looking for any cognates anywhere, you start to make your own connections. You can scare people by saying that Finnish has sixteen grammatical cases, or you can simply map them around the meanings of various prepositions in English and realise that they have the same overall function. In fact, they usually map directly to particular prepositions. Suddenly, it seems less like a hard language, and one where the same things are expressed but using a completely different grammar. In certain ways it's even easier than English. For one, the language was written down so recently that it's maintained a completely phonetic alphabet: what you see is how you say, one hundred percent of the time. None of this nonsense where vowels act in all manner of ways depending on which other letters surround it or which word family it's in. It's also a very mathematical and regular language, and with most of the grammar rules there are only one or two exceptions to remember. There's also no gendered nouns, like English and unlike most Germanic and Romantic languages. There's not even a separate pronoun for "he" and "she".

Finnish does have a spoken form that differs quite a bit from the written language. In all of my classes so far, there's been precious little discussion of spoken language so far - even in our Practical Finnish course, though we're supposed to cover it a bit at the end. If using the spoken language isn't practical, I don't know what is! I suppose they're keeping that for the last classes; once you've mastered the grammar you're allowed to tear it apart again. But it's quite different from the written language, and if you speak the written language it's going to sound funny to native speakers, as if you went around in the US speaking Shakespearean English. But at least you can make yourself understood. Half of the difficulty in learning the spoken form is that, well, you actually have to speak, and that requires getting over one's own shyness about using a language you're still learning. It's the difference between learning to drive a car in the middle of a farm field and then heading out on the beltway during rush hour. It's much easier to understand foreign languages than to actually produce them, but there's no other way to improve - especially when it comes to spoken forms.

Once you get the hang of the spoken language you have a whole new world of Finnish still to be discovered: the local dialect. As in the US, some dialects are pretty spread out while certain towns (I'm looking at you, Rauma) have their own distinct language. Some are slight accents upon the Helsinki-based spoken language, while some sound more similar to Estonian or something else entirely. Current slang in Helsinki is more or less incoherent to anyone not living there, so I'm with plenty of native Finnish speakers in my complete non-understanding of Hesa-speak.

Then there's the growing amount of people like me who are learning Finnish, using our various native accents from all around the world, with varying levels of skill. You hear this in classrooms and at Finnish for Foreigners clubs. I find myself resorting to Finglish all the time, and to paraphrase a classmate of mine: "If Finglish is wrong, I don't want to be right!" I suppose that even at a more advanced level of fluency, dropping in a bit of English here and there is just going to be the way I do things, because some things just don't translate very well. The same goes in the other direction.

Someday I'd love to learn Finnish well enough to teach it to English speakers. That day is pretty far off, but the more I learn, the more I love it - even as my classes become more complex and difficult. Somehow, continuing to wrestle with this language instead of throwing my hands up in defeat, just makes me love it more and more. I look forward to when I can claim some kind of victory and use it fluently.


  1. Mainiota! Kiva kuulla että Suomen kielen opiskelu on edelleen antoisaa. Lykkyä tykö!

  2. Oh yes! Finnish is darn logical, when you get right down to it. But I do sometimes suspect it's also a really good language for not communicating things -- a while ago I was talking to somebody and they casually mentioned they'd vacuumed their flat. They did this in one single elegant word: Imuroin.

    But that can mean anything! It can mean they've done it, it can mean they're going to do it, or it can mean they're actually presently doing it! It doesn't make life any easier that there's no real future tense. And don't even get me started on the Finnish passive, which has got to be the perfect way of signalling that somebody did something without so much as dropping a clue about who it might've been...

  3. Wouldn't that be the passive-aggressive case? ;)

  4. That above commenter made me realize how there's quite some similarities to Japanese. No real future tense, and I guess you would say they use something like a passive form, not saying exactly who did it. Really though, it's about context. I think it's pretty easy to figure out who the person is you're talking about.

  5. Oh, the spoken language... I sometimes watch documentaries about nature on Yle, and I understand a lot, even though there're scientific terms and such. Then, when I hear young Finns talking all I understand is profanity :) I cannot even guess the topic!

  6. Have you heard the word "kalsarikännit"? It means getting drunk alone at home wearing only underwear. =D