Puhun vähän suomea (I speak a little Finnish)

This blog entry focuses on the beautiful and enigmatic suomi (which means “Finnish” in Finnish) language. It bears mentioning right up front that Finland is a multilingual country, with suomi and Swedish as the two primary official languages. There are also multiple Sámi languages spoken largely in Lapland, and then of course other world languages from various immigrant communities. Additionally, almost everyone speaks English.  A person may greet you saying, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak English,” and then begin speaking to you in English.  It puts U.S. ‘English-only’ politics to shame.

In fact, in Finland’s officially bilingual cities – where at least 8% of the population speaks the minority language (Swedish or Finnish, or in Lapland, one of the Sámi languages) – all of the street signs are in both languages.

Many thanks to my new Finnish friend Aija Salo for this information about language in Finland. For readers interested in queer Finnish politics, she worked for many years at Seta and is now a Senior Officer at Valtuutettu Non-Discrimination Ombudsman.

Immediately upon learning that we would be coming to Finland for a year, my Kumppani (companion) and I started downloading podcasts and engaging in the awkward practice of attempting to learn schoolbook suomi.  We also relied heavily on google translate (which by the way reads the words aloud for you).  Suomi words are often multisyllabic and have endless conjugations (that’s an understatement).  

We learned how to say:

Turku on kaunis kaupunki!

Turku is a beautiful city!

We learned this phrase for two reasons:  First, we wanted to compliment everyone we met in our new city, whether or not this turned out to be true (and it did, Turku is really lovely).

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Second, we enjoy any word that ends in “punki.”  It’s a lot of fun to say “punki.”  Try it.

Suomi shares a unique relationship with Hungarian as part of the Uralic language system, as this artist beautifully illustrates:

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(image originally posted here)

 Suomi  sounds nothing like Hungarian.  It sounds nothing like anything I have ever heard.  It is a very, very challenging language, although even after a few weeks I have started to recognize words.  Feeling proud.

So you can can understand when we were *extremely* proud of ourselves for learning the word mielenkiintoinen just by using google translate.  I have messaged this word so many times it is now in my autocorrect.

Mielenkiintoinen means “interesting,” and it is a helpful way to respond to almost any situation, although when using it to refer to a particular idea or instance it must sometimes be conjugated as mielenkiintoista (or maybe one of the other five hundred conjugations–I’m still working on this).  This word immediately presents multi-use value.  There is a reason we have to work so hard to eliminate “interesting” from our students’ vocabularies.

What did you think about the salted licorice ice cream bar?

Mielenkiintoinen.

How is your experience using the washing machine?

Mielenkiintoinen.

What do you think about the recent radical shifts in Finnish politics?

Mielenkiintoinen.

My approach in learning this word and scattering it liberally throughout my English was the hope that my new Finnish colleagues and friends would be so impressed that I had learned such a long and multi-syllabic word that my response would not only suffice but would actually seem like a substantial contribution to the conversation.

Kumppani and I have found it especially mielenkiintoinen that there are no gendered pronouns in Finnish, and for this reason, there are no gendered endings to nouns. There is only hän, which could refer to any gender.  It’s no secret that Finland and other Nordic and Scandinavian countries exist in the left-leaning North American imagination as the new Canada (sorry, Canada).  Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has recently, unapologetically said that we should be aiming for democratic socialism, and it would be great if the U.S. would look more like Scandinavia.  

A very important clarification here is that while parts of Finland may be culturally Scandinavian, it is technically a Nordic country, although this is a more complex discussion that I hope to be better able to address in the future.

These are the places we dream (we, being much of the U.S. left) will finally realize all of our socialist fantasies like health care for everyone, free higher education (no more student loans!), and a truly gender equitable society.  As an example, last year Sweden added a gender neutral pronoun to the dictionary.  For me, the discovery of an inherently gender neutral pronoun only added to my new found love for Finland.  A language where we do not have to say he, she, hir, ze, or etc.  We can just say, hän, or they, which is something that feminist and queer activists have been arguing for a while should be an acceptable way to refer to a singular person.

Of course, Kumppani and I have also learned how to say many basic things like hei (hello), kiitos (thank you), hauska tutustua and  hauska tavata (nice to meet you), and nähdään pian (see you later).  Sometimes just repeating a word can change everything, for example, moi (hello) and moi moi (goodbye).  

On a personal note, Kumppani wants to volunteer at the local animal shelter so she can learn commands in suomi because like me, she had to leave a beloved furry companion at home for a year.

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I want to to be liked (a resulting intersection of my U.S. and southern identities) and I want to have as authentic (we can critique this at the next cultural studies roundtable) of an experience as I can.  And I have a fear of being *that American.*  You know, the loud one who takes up all the space and never assumes anyone speaks anything but English.  

It was when we actually arrived in Finland that the real linguistic fun began, because that’s when we started learning idiomatic expressions.

Some people might immediately be drawn to naughty language.  I’m not saying I haven’t given in to learning “bad” words in other languages in the past, but now that I’m a serious scholar, I prefer to learn colloquialisms that I can randomly throw into a conversation as though I regularly visit my grandparents on their farm in rural Finland.

As a native southerner from the U.S., I have a lot of favorite colloquialisms.  I think it’s common knowledge by now that “bless your heart” has a weighty subtext.  In fact, on a recent trip to Alabama when I said “awwwwww” in response to someone at a dinner party, they replied, “I think ‘awwwwww’ might be the yankee version of ‘bless your heart.’”  

In other examples: my grade school physical education teacher used to tell us, “my momma didn’t raise no fool”; my mother’s best friend was fond of saying, “fools’ names and fools’ faces always appear in public places” and if I were looking for something that turned up right in front of me, my mom would say, “If it was a snake it would have bit you”; and, as my parents would remind us when we said that something wasn’t fair, “the fair comes in October.”

It turns out that Finns have many wonderful colloquialisms, too!  For example, when asked,
mita kuluu? (how are you?) you might respond:

Niin kuin jäitä polttelisi!

This means, “like burning ice,” the point being, nothing is going right.  This of course is an oxymoron because ice does not burn (not yet, anyway).

Or, you might answer:

Ei tässä kurjuutta kummempaa.

This means, “no more than the usual misery.”  I suppose it’s something like responding in English, “fair to middlin’,” “hanging in there,” or, “well, I’m still alive.”

Our new Finnish friends have been more than pleased not only to share idioms, but work with us in general on pronunciation.  I suspect this provides a great deal of entertainment.  I tend to be obsessive and want to learn everything immediately, and suomi is no exception.  Wish me luck.

And here’s one to live by:

Ei kysyvä tieltä eksy.

The person who asks will never be lost.

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A special thanks to the Finnish Fubright Center Team for the crash course in suomi during orientation–and especially Johanna, for indulging my love of colloquialisms!




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