I met an exchange student who was studying for a languages degree at a German university. She was required to do a European language and one other language. So she chose Spanish and Finnish.
Finnish is supposed to be the inspiration of Quenya, JRR Tolkien’s high elvish language in The Lord Of the Rings – learn more here.
Finnish has no future tense. No possessive apostrophe. No prepositions. Instead it has 15 cases. To Helsinki Helsinkiin, in Helsinki Helsingissa, from Helsinki Helsingista. And the commas are in, a completely different, place.
This makes it very difficult for foreigners to learn because it doesn’t follow Latin, Romantic or Germanic grammar. Unless of course you are Australian who never studied grammer anyway. In a bizarre way, I found my “Survivor’s Finnish” course easier than my polyglot European classmates who just found the grammar too strange.
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The grammar makes it very difficult to look up words in a dictionary, because the word on the sign, in the supermarket, on the form, in the newspaper headlines has a case. You first have to figure out the case and then strip out the suffix to try and discover the root word that will be the word in the dictionary.
And the words are something else. Sure, there are some borrowed words – bussi, posti, bankki. But there are other words and you just think – where did that come from? And you can forget trying to guess what it means by running through your scant knowledge of backpackers German, Italian and French. It won’t help.
Mother is madre, is mamma, is mummy, is mutter. In Finnish it’s aiti. Aiti?
Electricity is sähko, university is yliopisto, bread is leipa.
There’s seven vowels, and a fetish for k.
Grocery shopping is an adventure. Oranges are appelsini. But apples are omena. You read the Swedish labels because Swedish is kind of close to German, which is kind of close to English. Kind of. You become very grateful for the picture signs in the fruit and vegetables section.
But the lack of scientific Latin roots or borrowed English can make the language beautifully internally consistent. Finnish has that descriptive German “join the words together” approach, without the corruption of borrowed words. Computer or tietokone is “knowledge machine” – tieto=knowledge, kone=machine. Dictionary or sanakirja is “word book” – sana=word, kirja=book. Mobile phone or matkapuhelin is “travel talk/speak object” – matka=travel, puhu=talk/speak.
Strictly speaking Finnish is not its own language. Finnish is part of the Finno-Ugric languages – click here. Which is Hungarian, Finnish, Estonian and a number of other obscure dialects. However, Finnish and Hungarian don’t share words – the only thing they have in common is their grammar. And at the risk of being very provocative, Estonian and Finnish are almost dialects of each other. Finns grumble about the fact that some call centres have outsourced to Estonia – they can pick the Estonian accents. However, given how few people speak Finnish, and how difficult it is to learn, I think they are damn lucky they found somewhere to outsource to.
In fact, when Finland joined the EU, the EU had to change the system of translation. The EU used a system of translation that the translator had to translate into their mother tongue. However, when Finland joined, the EU could not find enough native French, Italians, Germans, Spanis, English who knew enough Finnish to translate the Finnish into their mother tongue. So the EU started using a two tier system of translation, just for Finland. The Finn translates into English, and the English is translated by other EU nationals into their own mother tongue – click here. One of my husband’s students is an Italian who came to Finland to do his PhD in telecommunications. After three years, he is leaving Finland and telecommunications to move to Brussels to work as a translator. Anyone can do a PhD in telecommunications. But an Italian/Finnish translator….
Do most people speak English in Finland? Yes. Shop assistants, bus drivers, people on the street when you want to ask directions. Finns speak Finnish and at least some Swedish, the other official language. Most Finns speak English. Many Finns also speak German and Russian.
Most business professionals are almost fluent. Almost. And, dear reader, its that “almost” that will drive you slowly round the twist.
I’ts like that scene in Amelie, where Amelie breaks into the grocer’s flat and moves things around. Just a little bit.
Maybe it wouldn’t bother most people. But my early training was in tax law. I am a little particular. And this is not a stray comma or an extra apostrophe – this is whole sentences. It looks like English. They are English words. But not the right word. Close. But not the right word. And the grammar is almost perfect. Almost.
You are asked to do widget. You know widget. Widget is a word. Widget is a well-known word with a well-known meaning. And you do widget. But they didn’t mean widget. That wasn’t what they meant, that wasn’t it at all. They meant widget kinda sorta, widget and around widget, minor variations of widget, Euro widget,. And you never know when this is going to happen. Because widget is not an ambiguous word. Widget is not a confusing word. Widget is very clear. Its just the wrong word.
Finessing almost to fluent takes much effort with little reward – most people don’t even notice. The Euro business professional is happily oblivious. The German business man and the French lawyer agree a deal. They understand each other kinda sorta. They prepare an agreement which reflects the deal kinda sorta. They understand what the agreement says kinda sorta. It’s only the native English speaker reviewing it who is worried.
And sometimes it goes beyond awkward style, and becomes incomprehensible. I read emails where the engineer direct translates and the businessman direct translates. And they understand each other perfectly. But I have no idea what they are talking about. My husband’s French students, German students and Italian students happily talk to each other in their almost English. But they struggle with his Queenslander English.
In the kingdom of the blind, the one eyed man is king. But two eyes is a burden, two eyes see too much. I recently negotiated with a Finnish lawyer who said he found it more difficult to negotiate with me than with German lawyers or French lawyers because I see subtleties no-one else notices.
But gradually your own fluency deteriorates. It starts small. Finnish puts the emphasis on the first syllable. So you start with HELsinki, COMpany, SYStem. You stop using words like “inadvertant” and start saying “accidental” even though you know deep down that they are slightly different. And then you give in and start saying SKENario, instead of scenario, just like everyone else.
Language is about communication. But ironically, sometimes you have to be less than fluent to communicate effectively.