Finnish for beginners
Finnish language doesn`t only look like one big mystery to outsiders, it actually is a maze of complicated constructions. Words can take 16 different endings, depending on their location in the sentence and the preposition that would have preceded them in English. `House` translates as `Talo`, 'in the house' makes `Talossa`, `(away) from the house` becomes `Talosta`, and 13 more of those. I am on a mission today to find out some more features of the Finnish language.
On the train from Rovaniemi (Lappland) to Vaasa in the west of Finland, I am talking to Marjo (43) who helps me write down some tongue twisters that people had been telling me about earlier on my trip: Vesihiisi Sihisi Hississ? meaning some mythical animal is whispering in the elevator, and Kokoo Koko Kokko. - Koko Kokkoko? - Koko Kokko, a short discussion between to people about who is supposed to make a bonfire.
`Silkkiuikku is supposed to be the most beautiful word in the Finnish language`
Like Estonians, the Finns are good at pasting words together. They may consider to issue newspapers in horizontal format rather than vertical so thay don`t have to break up the words too often. Luckily, you do not need to guess which syllable to stress. It is the opposite of French: always the first one. Words are pronounced in a rather flat way, completely in line with the Finnish way of not getting too excited or worried about anything. Gestures are not very common: content goes before form.
Leena (28, photo) tells me about the Finnish words that have been voted `most popular`. Silkkiuikku, `grebe` in English, is the most beautiful word. Alavilla mailla hallanvaara, (flat grounds risk freezing), is the most beautiful sentence, while Sy?p?, cancer, is the least favourite one. The most common family name is Virtanen which has got something to do with current of either electricity or water. Words that may have foreigners raise their eye brows are the KKK Market and the designation Mega Pussi which means big bag, most often containing crisps or popcorn.
Marjo tells me that learning Finnish is not expected of people who visit Finland temporarily. It is recommended for people who come to work or otherwise plan to stay longer. They may do without the endings of all the words. The Finnish people will make an effort to `guess` the prepositions to fill up the gaps.
Also expected to learn Finnish are the Swedish minority in the West of Finland. In Vaasa, the city I am visiting at present, many people actually do not even speak Swedish. Swedish Finns have the right to follow education in Swedish and to access all government institutions in Swedish. Many decide that they want to learn more Finish at a later stage in their life, but the difficulty of the language is holding them back. Finns and Swedish-Finns are sometimes forced to speak English between themselves because neither party knows the other`s language well enough to engage in conversation.
Barbro (56), a Swedish Finn, compares the situation to the language struggle in Belgium, with the difference that the Swedish speaking are a real minority rather than the close-to-50/50 situation in Belgium. The one Swedish-Finnish political party FST are invited to be part of the government even while their usually only collect a very small amount of votes. Barbro says that the Swedish party is rather neutral and a good negotiator, so they serve well as assistants to two parties that wish to govern together but do not have sufficient votes on their own.
Barbro specifies that, in her opinion, the bilingual nature of the west of Finland should be seen as a richness rather than a difficulty. She speaks both language fluently. Most of her friends are Finnish Finns, but she speaks Swedish at home and reads Swedish newspapers. `They write about the same subjects in the same way`, she explains - leading me to conclude that the Finnish media are much more developed than those in the Baltics.
It already became clear to me on the very first day that many Finnish people speak perfect English, and are not afraid to practise it. I would have expected that the complexity of Finnish would make it very easy for them to understand the structure behind other languages, but from what I am told today, the huge difference between Finnish and English composes a substantial barrier. Extensive exposure to English in TV programs and media are of much more help. Almost all English programs are subtitled instead of dubbed, hardly anybody outside Finland speaks Finnish. All of that increases the need to know foreign languages and so the Finns do: English and Swedish are widely spoken, German a little less.Based on personal interest, people may even learn French, Spanish or Russian on top of their own language. Yet the one they are most happy with and proud of still remains their own language: Finnish.
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