City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Old and New Finnish Grammar

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I’ve been learning Finnish for over a year now, and am getting nowhere fast. Finnish is a notoriously difficult language to learn — certainly amongst European languages — and so perhaps this is to be expected. But as an Englishman, one starts from the position of all other languages being a bit of an unnecessary hassle anyway.


However, it is hard. Leaving aside its almost unique structures, the difficulty of learning the language is exacerbated by most Finns possessing excellent English — certainly in Helsinki, anyway — such that there is little chance to try it out on the street. And although the organisation I work for is resolutely Finnish, all our work is conducted in a form of International English. For these and other reasons, I’m unlikely to be able to speak Finnish for business.

So I’m actually learning Finnish to understand the culture better, language being one of the core structural components within a regional or national culture.

My understanding of Finnish is drawn from near-weekly lessons with my excellent tutor, Outi, who has the patience of a saint and a sense of humour, both of which are probably required attributes for language tutors anywhere. But particularly with Finnish, perhaps. She is kindly suffering my endless inquisitions as to the origins of particular words or phrases, which must be frustrating given the clear direction to teach me a more useful everyday Finnish. But with such an ancient and distinct language, it’s impossible to resist. I also try this on with long-suffering Finnish friends too, who tend to be equally gracious, and perhaps more knowledgeable about their language than native English speakers tend to be about English.

But you can put a lot of this down to reading Diego Marani’s genuinely extraordinary novel, New Finnish Grammar. It’s one of the most affecting books I’ve read. Set in World War II, it’s the story of someone who wakes from a coma after a head injury to discover himself without memory or language. He is discovered by a Finnish doctor working on a German ship in Trieste, from where he is ultimately shipped to Helsinki, whereupon he is immersed in Finnish language and culture in an attempt to recreate the man by recreating his language. The novel is beautifully written and constructed, and although it’s about the most unlikely guide to Finnish you can imagine, I personally found it invaluable and inspirational in understanding Finland. At least as much as I can claim to.

Despite the title, the book is indeed A Proper Novel, with characterisation, plot development, scenes and suchlike. James Woods has stated that the novel as a form exists “to be affecting, to shake us profoundly”. New Finnish Grammar certainly does that. So please don’t be misled by the excerpts I’m deploying below, which are selected passages about the Finnish language. Even if you have no reason for caring about Finland, or Finnish, it’s a wonderful book. For more on New Finnish Grammar, the review that made me pick it up was Nicholas Lezard’s in The Guardian. Lezard also describes a little of the intriguing author, Diego Marani, who, somewhat amazingly given the fathoms-deep insight into Finnish, is an Italian. Kudos also to the translator Judith Landry.)

Before I continue: to any Finns reading this: please be aware I know many of the following statements on your language are subjective, interpretative and not exactly the work of a scholar, let’s put it that way. And equally, please take my comments on Finns, Finnish and Finnishness as the generalisations they often are. For each sweeping generalisation here, I have met the (North) polar opposite, of course. Having been here almost two years, I’m in the dangerous state of having lost the naïve clear-sightedness of the new arrival but not yet gained the deeper understanding of the long-term resident. So please forgive the linguistic errors or cultural faux-pas (and feel free to correct below or elsewhere.)

My fascination with Finnish is also down to our children both becoming fluent Finnish-speakers within a few months of getting here, which was astonishing to observe. C has also been learning Finnish with rather more rigour than I, but we’ve both been shown a clean pair of heels by our children.

Our five year-old son apparently has a very convincing southern Helsinki accent. Our three year-old daughter has effectively been learning English and Finnish simultaneously. Their progress doesn’t reflect too well on my own glacial progress with the language, but I prefer to think instead of the amazing facility with language in the young child’s brain. They feel like fresh, taut drum-like organs absorbing data across vast bandwidth, neural networks being forged at dazzling pace. By comparison, my tired old brain feels more like a soggy ashtray the morning after, words and phrases listlessly subsiding into a confused, muddy melange of stumbling Finnglish.

(NB. Other than my photos, the images accompanying the following are generally from either the hugely popular ‘Tatu and Patu’ Finnish childrens’ books or from my standard issue Finnish language textbook.)

Language as timeline, story, map

Like any European language, Finnish is an assemblage of old words from all over the continent, the Middle East and Asian subcontinent. Yet although there are clearly words inherited from the various Norse and Germanic langauges, and from former imperial masters Sweden and Russia, Finnish often remains quite distinct, even compared to neighbouring nations.

In fact, visiting the other Nordic countries, never mind Holland or Germany, during the last two years, I’ve been amazed by how English their languages are suddenly revealed to be; or rather, vice versa: the clear influence of the Norse and Germanic Anglo-Saxon, as well as Latin and Romance languages like Langues d’oïl, on the development of English.

The Viking influence is clearest of all in Scotland and the North East of England, where local words like beck, kirk and bairn are all still in daily use and direct lifts from Old Norse, which covers a language movement from Proto-Norse around the 8th century, until it ultimately becomes the North Germanic languages by the 14th century. You may prefer to think of it as Viking (I do). So a stripe of culture and geography, hemming in the Baltic and North Seas, shares very similar etymology.

And those other languages now seem so easy, so familiar! When you learn that the Swedish for “start here” is starta hår or the Dutch for “apple tart” is appeltaart or the Danish for “thanks for that” is tak fer dat, it’s even more daunting to come back home to Finland and not be able to comprehend anything you read or hear. I know this comparison is grossly insensitive so apologies in advance, but it’s a little like you’ve had a very particular kind of stroke, affecting only one component of your cognition — a surgical stroke, if you will — such that you find yourself walking around in a near-daze, thinking “Well, this looks like a perfectly normal Northern European city, with plenty that I instinctively recognise, but WAIT A MINUTE I CAN’T UNDERSTAND ANY OF THE LANGUAGE!!!

(Aside: While we’re on Viking, a colleague tells me of a favourite English word derived from Norwegian: “window”, which comes from the Norwegian vindauga which means “wind eye” or “eye on the air”. Which is just beautiful.)

In comparison, the essential Finnish language remains utterly foreign, quite separate. Given this separation, the history of the region can perhaps be perceived within the language, almost as clearly separated waves of cultural development and interaction.

Surveying the structure of the language as a whole, I end up thinking of it as the concentric rings of a tree, each ring defined by clear patterns in groups of words and phrases, each belying a particular history. The core of the tree is an ancient Paleo-European language, perhaps 6000 BCE or more, followed by a ring of Finnic language from 1500–1000 BC. Then, moving outwards, a ring of Old Norse either side of 8th or 8th century, leading into the language of trade and nobility, under the Swedish empire, from around 13th century onwards. This administrative language develops further in the 16th century, before the Russian rule, and the language of municipalities, during the 19th century. Finally, the outer rings of the 20th century, and its language of Fordism, modernity and nationalism, becoming the 21st century language of postmodern globalisation. In this sense, it’s possible to see the Finnish language as a timeline, a story, a map.

Nao Tamura edition of Artek 60 stool (via)

The ancient core

The centre of the rings is an ancient core of Finnish, in some cases thought to be several thousand years old (though this is hotly debated.)

These old words seem immediately distinct. They are small words, one syllable ending in “u” or “ä”, or two syllables mostly ending in “a” or “i”, as if formed by unformed mouths, or more likely, people who have survival to worry about first and foremost, for whom interpersonal communication is a matter of life and death rather than poetic embellishment. I don’t believe in Maslow’s hierarchy — leaving aside the charges of individualist bias, it’s clear that self-actualisation and shelter come together in cave art, even from the earliest, most endangered times; there is no hierarchy — but if you did, you might see these as the words found on the lower rungs of that ladder.

Yet there is a poetry to these basic building blocks. They’re some of the more beautiful parts of the language. Here’s my collection of such words:

suu (mouth), pää (head), varsi (arm), käsi (hand), silmä (eye)

kuu (moon/month), sää (weather), jää (ice)

lahti (bay), järvi (lake), saari (island), metsä (forest), vuori (mountain), ruoho (grass), kivi (stone), mäki (hill), joki (river), harju (ridge), suo (swamp)

puu (tree), kukka (flower), lehti (leaf), oksa (branch), koivu (birch), mänty (pine), oak (tammi), spruce (kuusi)

tuli (fire), tuuli (wind), lumi (snow), sata (rain), vesi (water), pilvi (cloud)

tori (market), talo (house), koti (home), suku (kin), heimo (tribe), kuka? (who?), oma (own/homeland), vene (boat)

karhu (bear), kala (fish), kissa (cat), koira (dog), kotka (eagle), kana (chicken), kani (rabbit), pupu (bunny), vuohi (goat), sika (pig), jänis (hare), liha (meat), marja (berry), sieni (mushroom), lintu (bird), lohi (salmon)

yksi (one), kaksi (two)

leski (widow), poika (son)

Ikä (age), luja (strong/firm), pikku (little)

(You pronounce all the letters clearly, punchily, such as met-sa, lah-ti, jär-vi and so on, with a rumbling roll of the Rs if you get the chance. The “h” is lahti is clearly, if breathily pronounced, which is tough for the English speaker. “Y” is a variant on English “u”, perhaps like “ew”, whereas a “u” is more of an “oo” and “i” is an English “ee”. “J” is English “y”. “Ä” is a short “a”, and Finnish “a” is a long “a”. A word with two Ls in the middle gets each one pronounced. Emphasis on the start of the word, then let it tail off, tumbling it down the hill until it’s a deep mumble by the time it reaches your chest — but still pronouncing each letter.)

Some of these very old words, like “vesi”, apparently still betray their age in their various declensions; vesi becomes vetta when you’re talking about a glass of water. That “s” to “t” switch between cases is an old manouevre, according to Outi. Same with käsi (hand) to käteeni (in my hand). Outi swears there are the relatively few exceptions in this allegedly consistent language, to which I can only say “riiiiiight”.

Snuck in amongst these words is an intriguing set: jänis (hare), musta (black), mäki (hill), saari (island), suo (swamp).

Some etymology scholars think that these words are entirely unique, and so are thought to be pre-Indo-European words. This means they are part of a genuinely ancient language, words from a prehistoric Europe, part of a Paleo-European language spoken in Fennoscandia, which places them anywhere upwards from 6000 years ago. I like the idea of these particularly ancient words almost randomly studded in this opaque fabric of the rest of the language. (Basque might be the only other well-known European example of a language with word groups this old.) As I mentioned, however, these theories are hotly debated, and I have lost hours to Wikipedia, fascinated by the arguments over the history of the Baltic Finns and Finnic peoples.

Mother is äiti, father is isä. Big is iso, such that grandfather is isoisä, which is rather nice. There are some possibly poetic resemblences, like maito (milk) and äiti (mother).

See also ukko, which is variously a god, a slightly shabby old man, thunder and lightening, and a not-particularly-common boy’s name.

Looking at this ‘core of the tree’ does begin to readily conjure up the pre-historic Finnish landscape and culture. There is the pressing need to name things, starting with the body, working outwards to the family and tribe relationships, with what you can eat and what might kill you, what we can make and with what tools, with the vagaries of weather, with subtle variations in landscape, climate, vegetation, ultimately to descriptions of others and the creation of a culture through making your own kind distinct …

I presume a scholar of English might be able to read similar histories within the patterns of that language, but here these old words seem very distinct. The short, brief, evocative words of a primitive time, a time of naming the essentials: human and celestial bodies: pää, suu, kuu, sää, jää; a landscape of lahti, jarvi, saari, vuori

“I was still in thrall to those chipped sounds, those words eaten away by ice and silence.” (From “New Finnish Grammar”, by Diego Marani)

Perhaps it was literally shaped by the environment. In Andrew Brown’s book on Sweden, Fishing in Utopia, he writes:

I remembered winters further south, when snot would freeze hard on my moustache and I imagined Swedish as a language pinched and chopped off by the cold, arranged so that you spent as little time as possible with your tongue exposed.

Back in early Finland, you can imagine standing, probably shivering, on the edge of a forest, looking over a settlement of low stone buildings with smoke curling from thatched roofs. What words do you need to conjure the world around you, and to live within it?

Star, goat, hill, ridge, breast, moon, god, cloud, axe, bear, rain, month, bear, cold, kill, lost, far, berry, sick, two, foreign, mother, mushroom, fire, stone, house, strong, hedgehog, boat, milk, water, sweet …

The obvious presence of these ancient words reconstruct a mythical landscape and culture, rendering it somehow perceptible at the heart of Finnishness today. Squaring this with the reality of Finland’s contemporary culture is not always easy, but that core is still there, despite the odds.

Later, reading Marani, I discover a shared thought, voiced by one of the primary characters, reflecting on the bloody Civil War in the midst of a World War:

“Linguists say that all languages tend towards simplification, aiming to express the maximum of possible meaning through the fewest possible sounds. So the shortest words are also the oldest, the most worn away by time. In Finnish, the word for war is sota, and these two syllables are eloquent pointers to how many we have indeed waged.” (Marani)

Ancient patterns hidden in plain sight

I got Outi to explain the etymology of the names for months, and it reveals a poetic connection to working with the land, with a pre-modern pattern of living and working. So, from January to December:

Tammikuu (tammi means oak, but previously also the centre or core of a tree, so this is January, heart of winter)

Helmikuu (helmi is pearl, like jäähelmia or ice pearl, which makes one think of the trees frozen in glistening ice. Can also be girl’s name)

Maaliskuu (maa meaning earth, so the month in which you begin to see the ground as the snow melts)

Huhtikuu (this is a very old meaning for “the new field”, the month in which one prepares the field)

Toukokuu (touko meaning the first week in spring. Can be a man’s name.)

Kesäkuu (Literally, summer month!)

Heinäkuu (hay, so the month for gathering the hay)

Elokuu (harvest month, possibly also “life”?)

Syyskuu (Autumn month!)

Lokakuu (loka meaning dirt, or mud, which is most apt for a wet, cold month. Mud month.)

Marraskuu (Apparently, marraskuu means “dead month”, which is how November feels, sometimes.)

Joulukuu (Simply, Christmas month!)

I started writing this piece around Toukokuu, perhaps, a time for starting things, but am now finishing it caught between dirt month and dead month. Looking out the window, over the faded brown buildings and cold, grey Baltic disappearing into a heavy sea fret, it’s accurate, let me assure you.

So this connection to nature is there in the rhythm of life, even. Quite different to the English collection of slightly random Roman emperors, gods and numbers, from which we dervice our months’ names.

Forgive a long quotation from Marani, from the character of Koskela the shamanastic pastor, after several glasses of koskenkorva:

“The forms of a language inevitably have repercussions upon the speaker, it is they which mould his face, his land, his habits, where he lives, what he eats. The foreigner learning Finnish distorts his own bodily features; he moves away from his original self, may indeed no longer recognise it. This does not happen studying other languages, because other languages are merely temporary scaffolding for meaning. Not so for Finnish: Finnish was not invented. The sounds of our language were around us, in nature, in the woods, in the pull of the sea, in the call of the wild, in the sound of the falling snow. All we did was to bring them together and bend them to our needs. When God created man, he did not bother to send any men up here. So we had to do what we could to struggle free of defenceless matter on our own. In order to gain life, we had to suffer. FIrst came trees, lakes, rocks, wind. Becoming human all on our own was no joke. Finnish is a sold language, slightly rounded at the sides, with narrow slits for eyes, like the houses in Helsinki, the faces of our people. It is a language whose sounds are sweetish and soft, like the flesh of the perchis and trout we cook on summer evenings on the shores of lakes whose depths are covered in red algae, the colour of the hunters’ houses and the berries which bead from bushes in summer …” (Marani)

He continues, at length, and it’s wonderful. In the midst of reading it, lost to the alcohol, candlelight, snow and air-raids Marani conjures up, it feels the most accurate and evocative description of Finnish language and culture possible. And yet it’s all bogus, fictional, mythical — like Finland itself, part-contrived by the Fennoman movement from a peculiar stew of ancient oral tales enriching the modernist need to describe a nation state.

Finns I work with will occasionally say something like, “Ah well we Finns still have one leg in the forest”. And indeed, many urbane, cosmopolitan Finns I know are suddenly entirely at home in the forest, on the lake, gutting a fish, flicking away ticks, far more in touch with nature than, say, the English and Australians, both of whom claim to have an affinity for countryside and bush/outback respectively, but who rarely actually inhabit it. Finns can often be close to their land, just as Finnish is, still conveying the qualities that the bon vivant Koskela revels in above.

Middle Finnish

Later Finnish words are often a little, well, wordier, and often compounded, as if the development of culture itself is essentially a matter of compounding concepts.

Moving beyond those ancient words, many of those compounds must still be old. You can see it in the names given to significant resources that are not that common here, such as coal, which is kivihiili, which means “stone of carbon”, roughly.

Equally, a quick glance at Wikipedia indicates early Finnish borrowing widely, including some intriguing borrowings such as vasara, a common word for hammer, which actually comes from Iranian (Avestan) vadžra. There’s a story there.

In “New Finnish Grammar”, there is the admittedly slightly crazed suggestion that the Finns are a product of Altaic-speaking tribes, who drove up through Asia from the Urals and then split two ways, with one group going east to settle Japan, and the other driving west to Turkey, and then up through what is now Hungary and Estonia before ending up in Finland. Hence the Finno-Ugric language group comprising Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian and not much else. And more ludicrously again, the alleged similarities between contemporary Finland and Japan. Like many things in Marani, it’s so unlikely that it’s possibly true. The book balances on this knife-edge of plausibility beautifully, throughout.

I’m not sure if the numbers betray anything… except… Numbers for one to six are all two syllables, but from seven to ten are all three syllables. Why? I traced one vague theory that kahdeksan (eight) is actually derived from saying 10–2, and uhdeksan (nine) is 10–1. With this theory, the “deksan” or “dek” is seen as close to Indo-European variations on ten, and kah is two (kaksi) and uh close to yksi (one), particularly when the shorter spoken versions (yks and kaks) are used. A stretch, but a possible explanation. Doesn’t necessarily explain why ten is kymmenen, though. Seitsemän, for seven, might be from sieben, sept, sette etc. But why just that? The language often deflects attempts to shine light on it, just as Finnish culture can be relatively opaque to the newcomer.

Languages of trade and empire

Back to those rings. Following this shift from ancient to Early Middle Ages Finnish, we encounter the language of trade, of a different kind of exchange to that offered by the Vikings. Of empire, in fact.

Finland, and Helsinki in particular, didn’t figure much in the Hanseatic League, unlike Tallinn to the south, so this ring of the tree feels like the middle ages rather than the dark ages, the beginnings of globalisation and concurrent with the discoveries of the New World.

The word for customs is tulli, which is essentially Swedish tull, which is essentially the English toll. Similarly, the word for pepper is pippuri (peppar in Swedish), salt is suola (salt is salt in Swedish and Danish), coffee is kahvi (kaffe in Swedish), tobacco is tupakka (tobak in Swedish) and so on. These words are traces of the Old Norse, yes, but also the northern empires of Britain, Denmark, Holland and particularly Sweden, ruler of Finland for 700 years, from the 12th to the 19th century.

Olut is beer, which seems older then, that kakku, for cake. Banaani tells its own story, of course.

Orange is appelsini, which is loosely “Chinese apple”, from the Swedish apelsin, who I guess must have first thought of seeing the orange as an apple from China. Also, Dutch has sinaasappel and old Northern German apfelsine. (As it happens, the apple itself actually originates in Kazakhstan, while the orange probably is from China originally. Whereas the English word “orange” probably comes from Sanskrit, passing through numerous intermediate languages before hitting English.)

Perhaps geography is also perceptible in the contours of the language. Those countries that are a boat-ride away have what seem to me to be old Finnish names, in that they bear little relation to Anglo-Saxon/Norse names I.e. Russia is Venaja, Sweden is Ruotsi, Germany is Saksa, and so on. Whereas later countries, whether as far away as Portugal (Portugalli) or as really far away as Australia (Australia) have progressively more familiar Anglo names. The intermediate countries — a long boat ride away — have names which are halfway there: Norja for Norway (like the Norwegian Norge) and Tanska for Denmark, which is on the way to the Swedish Danmark.

So again, the language is like a diagram of the roots of a tree, but here in space not time. Or some confluence of both.

Interestingly, sea is meri, which would seem to have something in common with the common mer, mare, meer and mar in French, Italian, German and Spanish respectively. And totally different to Swedish or Danish for sea, which is hav, from which we get havn, the word for port or harbour, which is well on the way to harbour. And of course, these are all quite different to the English word sea itself, which may actually be from Norwegian or Icelandic sjø or sjó I.e. that western branch of Vikings again.

Appropriately then, the Finnish word for sea nods to this sense of a European melting pot, just as the words for its more internal land features do not. Sea is a carrier of culture as well as physical resources, and perhaps the word itself reflects that fluidity and transaction, whereas the words for, say, hill, forest and ridge do not.

Some Finnish words are totally of this time i.e. kuningas meaning king, which is from Germanic, and ultimately English, via Danish (konge), Swedish (kung) and so on (as opposed to the southerners with their re, roi, rey.)

Beyond language briefly: the stereotypical Finnish relationship with Sweden seems to involve putting oneself down in comparison — “Of course, Sweden is at least a decade ahead in terms of x”, where x might be sustainable cities and renewable energy, football, food, privatising their railways etc. This is often not actually true, except in sustainable cities, but it’s interesting to observe the kneejerk deference to the western neighbour and former ruler.

Again, these are generalisations and I apologise for any offence caused or errors made — but I’ve heard this many times. The relative positioning of the language may even have a reinforcing role here, as under Swedish rule Finnish was the language of peasantry and perhaps clergy, with Swedish the language of nobility, administration and education. That is a long hegemonic half-life, if so.

Whereas it’s actually difficult, to me anyway, to discern Russian traces. This could reflect the more awkward cultural relationship that Finland has with Russia. While elements of the culture betray the Russian influence, like the fondness for getting plastered on vodka, the language does not. Apparently, the formal Russian influence is more bureaucratic, involved in setting up the municipal governments, and so on. I have heard interesting theories about how the Russian Empire saw Finland, after it was taken over in 1809, whereupon it was set up as the Grand Duchy of Finland, rather than becoming simply a part of Russia. This provided a kind of experimental space for administration, rather like China used Shenzhen to explore new models, as a Special Economic Zone. So the Grand Duchy was a Special Administrative Zone, enabling Russia to observe the outcomes of different governance models. (This insight from Martti Kalliala’s wonderful little book in the Sternberg Press Solutions series, Solution 239–246: Finland: The Welfare Game”.)

There is good reason for the awkward relationship, partly given the tortured history of Empire, but perhaps more so the brief but brutal Civil War, the prison camps afterwards, the simply horrendous Winter War and Continuation War in World War II, and the era of “Finlandization” afterwards. The fact that, in a world of BRICs, neighbouring Russia is the most obvious trading partner for Finland is still not readily accepted. Architects I know here say they are more likely to do work in China than Russia, as if the latter is the most impossibly vast take on a “flyover state”.

So, aside from some neighbourhoods where Russian culture is more visible, some close to where we live as it happens, it’s not so easy to see, and certainly can’t be heard in Finnish much.

Apparently, some Helsinki slang borrows from Russian, however. And the square Narinkkatori outside the Kamppi (army “camp”) mall in the heart of Helsinki, comes from the Russian на рынок (na rinok), which means “on the marketplace”, which is then followed by tori, the FInnish for “marketplace”, so it literally means “marketplace marketplace”, which is rather nice.

The crazed, unreliable, sozzled pastor character in Marani’s novel has a take on all this, predictably:

“The word east means nothing on its own. In our language you have to be more specific. Ita means the east in general, Kaako means the specific point where the sun rises. If we have two distinct words for east in Finnish, it is so as to avoid having to use the same word for dawn, and for the direction from which the Slav invasions come.” (Marani)

Again, language as a timeline, a story, a map.

Modern Finnish

Finnish independence from Russia in 1917, while the latter was slightly distracted, quickly became a nationalist movement, driven by the Fennomans and wrapped up in language and culture, and in some instances the active creation of folklore. Their motto?

Swedes we are no longer,
Russians we do not want to become,
let us therefore become Finns!

The Finnish language had flourished under Russia, ironically, at the expense of Swedish. Swedish had been the mother tongue of around 15% of Finns at the beginning of the 19th century, but is around 5% today (there are still fierce political debates today about whether to keep Swedish an official language; personally, one pleasing feature of Helsinki streets are the street signs in both Finnish and Swedish — and in a few old places, in Russian too.)

We can also see an emerging language of industralisation. This includes the names of companies, which often have a touch of Finnish pragmatism i.e. Nokia is the name of a small town in the west of Finland where Nokia comes from (though Nokia the firm only started using Nokia the name in 1967). Fiskars is a village where the company Fiskars was founded, in 1649. Even more so, Kone, the leading elevator manufacturer, simply uses the Finnish word for machine, kone.

Other leading Finnish firms betray the position of Swedish nobility, such as Ahlstrom, or German industralists, such as Paulig and Stockmann. Whereas Artek is a genuinely 20th century Finnish name, drawn from “Art + Technology”.

Is cultural development simply a matter of compounds?

In terms of the words, by the time we roll forward to the 20th and 21st century, compounding and borrowing is rife. So contemporary work is surrounded by words like the following. They have a different ring to that early core above:

puheenjohtaja (chairperson)
tietokone (computer; literally, “information machine”)
lentokentta (airport; literally: “flight field”) or lentoasema (“flight station”)
toimisto (office)
puhelin (telephone) 
toimitusketjun (supply chain)
sähköaseman (substation)

There are fewer Finnish words than most other European languages. And although its structure is bewilderingly different to someone steeped in English and with a smattering of French, Italian, German etc., the rules are generally predictable, with few exceptions and little room for ambiguity. It’s only confusing in comparison. Structurally, it makes sense when you get it, and tends to be consistent. Pronunciation is quite simple too, so what you read is what you say, once you understand the letter sounds. Compared to English, it’s quite pragmatic, consistent and simple. It’s just massively different.

As a result of all this, Finnish feels like a comparatively rudimentary language, yet is clearly capable of great poetry.

Here, by the way, it’s worth noting the noun cases; there are at least 15. In Finnish, the noun seems to do all the work, carrying the information about context (temporal, spatial, intentional etc.) This is a little disconcerting at first, when you realise your name changes based on context, as does the name of places. When talking about living in London (Lontoo), London becomes Lontonissa, whereas welcoming someone to London involves Lontooseen, and so on. So London can theoretically be any of the following, depending on the noun case: Lontoo, Lontoon, Lontoota, Lontoossa, Lontoosta, Lontoseen, Lontolla, Lontolta, Lontoolle, Lontoona, Lontooksi and Lontootta. And if someone is from London, it’s Lontoolainen.

(I like to think that this casual disregard for the sovereignty of names demonstrates the emphasis on the collective at the heart of Finnish culture; to hold one’s name intact would be individualistic, and to illustrate that it, and you, are insignificant compared to the wider shared context, we’re going to knock it around a bit.)Whilst they’re relatively consistent (more or less), these noun cases feel very foreign, almost structurally orthogonal to the instincts of the English speaker. But this is where the poetry is, not least, as Marani points out, in the abessive case.

“Yes, a declension for things we haven’t got: koskenkorvatta, toivatta, no koskenkorva, no hope, both are declined in the abessive. It’s beautiful, it’s like poetry! And also very useful, because there are moe things we haven’t got than that we have. All the best word in this world should be declined in the abessive!” (Marani)

The abessive modifies the noun to describe the condition of being without something — it’s a case whose melancholy disposition is easy to stereotype as a very Finnish way of thinking. (Though see also Estonian and Hungarian. And by the way, melancholy should not be interpreted as necessarily negative here. We must resist the bland nullity of everything being seen to be wonderful, or inexorably heading that way, the pursuit of happiness at almost all costs, whether through medication, therapy or election campaign promises — when, of course, without melancholy, happiness cannot meaningfully exist, just as loud means little without quiet.)

So, an entire case for the condition of not having something. It’s a -tta or -ttä suffix on the noun. So raha becomes rahatta (“without money”). Or you might have Juna jäi tulematta (“the train didn’t show up”) or Itkin syyttää (“I cried for no reason”.) “Oh yes, we need a noun case for all that stuff.”

(As I type, I’m secretly thinking of the absessive as the most Finnish of noun cases, after Nigel Tufnel describing D Minor as “the saddest of all keys”.

Finnish in practice

“In the Finnish sentence the words are grouped around the verb like moons around a planet, and whichever one is nearest to the verb becomes the subject. In European languages the sentence is a straight line; in Finnish it is a circle, within which something happens. In our language every sentence is sufficient unto itself, in others it needs surrounding discourse in order to exist, otherwise it is meaningless.” (Pastor Koskela again, in Marani’s “New Finnish Grammar”)

Language teacher Michel Thomas says that verbs give you the backbone of a language, yet in Finnish, the noun seems a more fundamental carrying structure, the spine of meaning running through discourse. By now, it will come as little surprise to you that Pastor Koskela has a theory about this:

“The noun suggests an idea of something, it helps us know it. In Finnish to know is tietaa, and tie means road, or way. Because for us Finns knowledge is a road, a path leading us out of the woods, into the sunlight, and the person who knew the way in the oldest times was the magician, the shaman who drugged himself with magic mushrooms and could see beyond the woods, beyond the real world. It is of course true there is more than one possible path to knowledge, indeed there are many. In the Finnish language the noun is hard to lay hands on, hidden as it is behind the endless declensions of its fifteen cases and only rarely caught unawares in the nominative. The Finn does not like the idea of a subject carrying out an action; no one in this world carries out anything; rather, everything comes about of its own accord, because it must, and we are just one of the many things which might have come about.” (Marani)

We’ve all been in meetings like that, eh.

These fundamental bedrock nouns are augmented by a series of hard-working suffixes, which is are the corollary of not having any of those superfluous preposition or article types — there is no “the” or “to” or “an” and so on. Famously, along with the fact that there is effectively no word for please, the lack of prepositions and articles means everyday transactions can initially seem a little curt.

(Stage left: Man enters coffee shop, desiring coffee)
Man, to barista: “Kahvi.”

Not “I’d like a coffee, please.” Just “coffee.” Just a statement of a subject — coffee — and the context of me being here in a shop indicates that I want some, for indeed, what else would I be here for, exactly? In reality, This emphasis on hard-working context makes sense, but I find that it also renders the culture a little opaque again. In this case, the context is clear; in others, not so much, and given that the great challenge for Finland, and Finnishness, is to continue to open up and diversify, this opacity needs working at.

Back to the coffee shop. it’s not often like that, but “officially” it is like that. Some of those “joining” words, which in English would be core to politeness, just do not exist.

Then again, as with any language, there are numerous ways of saying hello/goodbye: moi, moi moi, moikkä, morints, moro, hei, hei hei, heippa, terve etc. The last is a shortening of “welcome”, but can also be used as a general greeting, apparently. Moi, by the way, may be related to the common Moin greeting across Denmark, Jutland and N Germany, and so could be a Hanseatic hangover. I haven’t been able to get to the bottom of which is more appropriate in different contexts, or formal/informal, in terms of the basic greetings — “moi”, “moi moi”, “hei” and “hei hei”.

Contemporary Finnish

I have rarely had to really use Finnish in my work here, and in the city, almost everyone speaks near-flawless English, which Finns are keen to demonstrate, or perhaps practice, so it’s quite difficult to speak Finnish there “on the street”. Yet Finnish has begun to seep in, and Finns one ends up working with will of course often pause to consider the right translation for a more complex or technical Finnish word.

“… A light dusting, a sprinkling of sounds had gradually settled on the smooth rock of my mind, becoming denser and more full-bodied over time. A rich, deep humus had formed, where words were now taking root and thriving.” (Marani)

So, in a meeting earlier this morning, I get the word lapsiperheiden meaning “families with children” which is just the words for child and families concatenated, more or less. Also, kukkaisjäätelötehdas or”flower ice-cream factory”, for Open Kitchen. Both perfectly logical, once you see it. But can equally get out of hand quite quickly.

In an old copy of the Finnish magazine Kotiliesi (“home stove”, or maybe “hearth”?) we find the column Isoäiti vastan elämänkysymyksiin, which is something like “Grandmother answers your everyday life questions”, with the single word elämänkysymyksiin meaning “everyday life questions”. This is explicable, just, if your ear is tuned in, as the way it’s pronounced tends to be with deliberate clarity, enabling you to perceive the joins. Structurally, words, or word-parts, are not so much dovetailed or interleaved as stacked or simply sequenced.

Yet, just as when visiting a foreign city, or attending a Shakespeare play, your ear does eventually tune in, and what seemed an impenetrable wall of noise suddenly has pinpricks of comprehension momentarily embedded in it, like twinkling stars in darkness.

The stereotypical male FInn helps by tending to speak slowly, in a low, deep, monotone (there are many exceptions.) But in the mouth of the more sociable, gregarious female of the species (there are many exceptions), it’s like being gently attacked by a rat-a-tat flurry of sing-song syllables, unpredictably fluttering around your head like delicate butterflies on speed, shot from a machine-gun (konekivääri, machine-rifle).

You don’t stand a chance.


More recently, there are some delicious words that are clearly Finnglish, simple adoptions and adaptations of English words into Finnish (if you’re lost for a word, and it’s a contemporary subject, trying sticking an “i” on the end (pronounced “ee”) and there’s a chance it’s right.)

So we have bleiseri for blaser and fleesi for fleece. Or geometria and magneetit. Or blogi, Facebookissa, Dropboxi, platformi. Muffinsi, pizzat ja kebabit. Televisio. Seminaari. Rasteri. Masochisti. Alumiinifolio, Bussi. Jasmiiniriisi (jasmine rice). And so on.

A more direct appropriation of English one hears a lot is the simple lifting of a phrase in English. It’s not that there is no Finnish translation for these phrases — it just must have extra resonance, irony or emphasis when delivered in English in the midst of a rat-a-tat sentence of Finnish, or suomeksi.

So an office, studio or café can often sound like this:

“Suomeksi suomeksi walk down memory lane suomeksi suomeksi.” / “Suomeksi suomeksi suomeksi business as usual suomeksi?” / “Suomeksi suomeksi suomeksi single point of failure suomeksi!” / “Suomeksi suomeksi big picture suomeksi suomeksi!” / “Suomeksi executive summary suomeksi” / “Suomeksi suomeksi suomeksi perfect bind suomeksi suomeksi.” / “Suomeksi Out-of-office suomeksi suomeksi.” / “Suomeksi suomeksi suomeksi get a hold of yourself!”

I also find words that make me actively reflect on the language’s inherently pragmatic poetry, such as rautatie for railway, which is the evocative “iron road”. Or the pleasing word for photograph: valokuva, which literally means “light picture”. But then I realised that the word “photograph” itself was also quite pleasing — photo graph — and means largely the same thing. So learning Finnish has also made me appreciate English in a new way.

Some of these variations make etymological sense, being familial relationships e.g.

Keittää — to boil, cook
Keittiö — kitchen
Keitto — soup

But then there are those words that seem entirely different, which still sound exactly the same to the casual and inexperienced listener, e.g.

Tuli — fine
Tuuli — wind
Tulli — customs

Silli is herring whereas siili is hedgehog, which could lead to all manner of amusement in a fish restaurant. Or a hedgehog restaurant, for that matter. (And while we’re here, while the further subtle variation silli means silicone, siili, which still means hedgehog, can apparently also allude to some kind of heat sink on a motherboard. OK.)

Pussi means bag, which can lead to some pink-cheeked embarrassment. And in fact did, with a colleague whose Finnish teacher kept insisting on asking him what was inside her pussi. He was mildly traumatised by this line of questioning, to the point of stopping his Finnish lessons right there, and is presumably still a little shaky when approaching a supermarket checkout.

While the pronounciation may be clear, and variation in dialect is less common than in, say, Britain, there is still slang to further disorentate, The way it is performed. In Helsinki, words are shortened.

Minä olen (I am) becomes mä oon. Yksi (one) is shortened to yks, kaksi (two) becomes kaks. Kaksikymmentä (20) becomes something like kaks-koot, and so on.

Flatness and flourishes

There can be a flatness to the patterns of speech, it’s true — a general point I delicately posited about the flatness of Finland in “Dark Matter & Trojan Horses” (seeing it in some way an allegory for the flatness of structure in Finnish society, the terrain, the urban landscape.) But this doesn’t really represent the relish with which some words are unfurled by the speaker.

Similarly, one could write about the famous “Finnish silence”, particularly drawn from the taciturn nature of many Finnish men and the quietness of urban life, the interiority of domestic life, the slightly barren neatness of the Helsinki street … but this would be in contrast with the proclivity those same men have for robust baritone singing at the drop of a hat.

“Singing these words was my way of taming them. Since I could not ferry them to the shore of meaning, I had to approach them cautiously, ensure that they would not slip from my grasp, be lost in the unbroken flow of the singing.” (Marani)

There’s a clear delight taken in rolling some of the compounds off the tongue, particularly given the emphasis on the first, and the chance to roll a few Rs along the way. The need to pronounce every letter means each word can be dramatically baroque and bold structure, a tumbling drum roll, or actually something akin to the oddly ornamental heavy warped art deco of Helsinki’s Jugendstil buildings; somehow ostentatiously expressive, with artful, magical embellishments, but also heavy, grounded, of the people, a dialect for folklore. Marani’s protagonist describes them as “round, plump words,” which feels right, not for those ancient primitives described initially, but for the later words, like ravintola (restaurant) or lämpimämpi (warmer) or huomiseen (tomorrow) or bussiasema (bus station) or pohjola (north).

(I haven’t mentioned the Kalevela, the national epic of mythologised mythology, whose influence is invisibly pervasive in Finnish daily life, as well as more obviously in Tolkien, Sibelius, and numerous others. It features several times in “New Finnish Grammar”. But I’m yet to read it.)

Yet Finnish is often performed in the flat monotone, tilted slightly upwards at the beginning of the sentence, and with the minimal physical accompaniment common to the northern latitudes. In this, it perfectly exemplifies this often overplayed contrast between southern and northern Europe.

For instance, when Tobias Jones says of Italian neighbourhoods that “after a while, other countries begin to seem eerily quiet”, his counterpoint might well be the non-Vappu Finnish street. Similarly, his contention that, in Italy “to be logorrroico, incredibly wordy, is esteemed more than anything that’s actually being said”, also has its counterpoint in a particular genre of brutally pragmatic, analytical Finn.

And the way that Italian is delivered provides another interesting counterpoint, not least through its physicality of course, through its gestural body language, but in this striving for ornament

“Learning Italian can be hard because there’s so much flamboyance and rhetoric in the language that words, as one English friend observed, have colours and sounds rather than actual meanings. Sentences search for brilliant effect more through musicality — the rhythm and pitch — than through actual sense. The blunt expedient of communication, guaranteed through brutish straight-talking, is secondary to the beauty of the sound. That’s why it’s often almost impossible to render in English a passage of Italian: you have to search for a meaning which often isn’t even there.” (From “The Dark Heart of Italy”, Tobias Jones)

This is not a problem, if it is seen a problem, in Finnish. But again, this doesn’t mean the language is not animated; it is animated in a different way. It is not more subtle, as this would be to deny what Munari’s accompaniment to the Italian dictionary makes clear: how subtle body language can be, as well as the “colour” in patterns of Italian speech described by Jones. But there is a poetry and delicacy in Finnish speech, once your ears tune in. (Again, it’s intriguing that Marani is an Italian.)

Koskela the pastor, trying to help (possibly):

“These are not just words! This is a revealed cosmogony, the mathematics that holds the created world in place! Outs is a logarithmic grammar: the more you chase after it, the more it escapes you down endless corridors of numbers, all alike yet subtly different, like the fugues of Bach! Finnish syntax is thorny but delicate: instead of starting from the centre of things, it surrounds and envelops them from without. As a result, the FInnish sentence is like a cocoon; impenetrable, closed in upon itself; here meaning ripens slowly and then when ripe, flies off, bright and elusive, leaving those who are not familiar with our language with the feeling that they have failed to understand what has been said. For this reason, when foreigners listen to a Finn speaking, they always have the sense that something is flying out of his mouth: the words fan out and lightly close in again; they hover in the air and the dissolve. It is pointless to try and capture them, because their meaning is in flight; it is this that you must catch, using your eyes and ears. Hands are no help! This is one of the loveliest things about the Finnish language!” (Marani)

Equally, it must be said, a Finnish taxi driver — just to unfairly pick on them at random — punctuating a suffocating blanket of silence with gutteral grunts is one of the least lovely things about the Finnish language.

The street as language exam

The city provides another accompaniment to the dictionary. The often wonderful signs that still pepper Helsinki’s streets — and see my earlier notes on Helsinki being a second-glance city of details such as signage and public lettering — are slowly shifting from word-shapes which seemed entirely foreign — and still largely do, it must be said — into vaguely familiar meanings. Thus the city, which was once simply architecture, becomes closer to an article, a series of messages arranged in paths. Marani sees the landscape as a kind of mnemonic structure, in the words of his central protagonist:

“From the sea shore we turned to look at the Uspenski Cathedral once more before turning down the Esplanadi. With some difficult, one by one, I was taking in Koskela’s words. In the pauses between them, I head them die away. I watched them floating down into the landscape of the city around us, so as to note where they fell, so that I could go and collect them later: a belltower would remind me of a verb, I wasted a whole ship on an adjective and entrusted the all-important subject to a tram. The pastor’s though was scattered throughout Helsinki, and I could reread it every time I pleased.” (Marani)

So over time the city itself becomes a kind of everyday vocabulary test. Walking my children to päiväkoti (daycare) this morning, past Ullanlinna’s neon signs and art deco lettering, I reflect that the kids can understand Finnish and English but can’t read, whereas I can read but not understand Finnish. Together, we can figure it out.

Originally published at on October 26, 2012. If you valued this piece, please recommend it — in other words, press below, so that others may find it too.


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