Thursday, May 31, 2012

Kielipää (On the Finnish language)

The most Finnish snippet of the entire Finnish-English dictionary:

If you're unsure why cupboards are so Finnish, please review the last entry.


The topic of language appears frequently in my blogs, because bewilderment is my most reliable muse.  As soon as I understand what people are saying, I realize that all we humans are essentially kindred, and there's nothing funny about that.  I have already composed authoritative guides to Russian (in two parts) and English, but Finnish stands out in two significant aspects - it's crazy, and I don't understand any of it.  But general dogsbody that I am,

I'm spending the summer and the next few years trying to figure it out.  I don't know much yet.  But between you the reader and me, I'm the foremost authority on both Finnish and the larger Finno-Ugric language family, so you can trust everything written below.  An exception is made, of course, for my Finnish professor, to whom I apologize in advance.


Finnish is one of few European languages that is not a European language.  That is to say, Finnish is not of the Indo-European language family, which includes such favorites as the Romance languages, the Germanic languages, the Slavic languages, the Indo-Iranian languages, and most other languages spoken in the area between Nepal and my apartment in Berkeley, CA.  Finnish is an outlier - it belongs to the Finno-Ugric family.  It relates closely to Estonian, and less closely to Hungarian, Saami, and an array of northern Siberian languages.  Linguists have not established any connection between the Indo-European and the Finno-Ugric families.  

This last point is an important one - historical linguistics can reach back maybe 10,000 years, but not much further, before languages change beyond recognition.  This means that the Finns' linguistic ancestors said 'moi moi' to our Anglophone linguistic ancestors at least 10,000 years ago, but possibly as long as 60,000-125,000 years ago during the first successful migration of humans out of Africa.  I'm more inclined towards the latter view, because it makes my story more dramatic.  The truth is that it's impossible to know - it's a mystery of prehistory.  However long ago it was, the Finns and the Indo-European speakers would not meet again until the first Winter Olympics in 1924.

In practical terms, this means I can't buy a cabbage roll without an intensive summer course.  At the moment, I've taken a year's worth of Finnish, and I'm at the awkward transitional stage where I can ask questions, but I never understand the answers.  This is endlessly frustrating, but to make it less stressful I've turned it into a game: I ask the Finn a question, and then while he or she answers, I nod, and act like I'm easily following them.  I'll say  'yes' and 'good' in Finnish, and when they start to pause, I'll pretend to start asking a follow-up question, like "but where..." or "and if..." in the hope that they'll continue.  I'll keep a totally straight face, and see how long I can keep them going.  And then at the end when they finally stop, I'll say "I didn't understand anything."  Gets 'em every time.

Eventually the game will become unnecessary, because I'll begin to understand what's being said.  I've already passed one significant milestone.  Because of the small Swedish-speaking minority, both Finnish and Swedish are official languages in Finland.  As such, all street signs are posted in Finnish and in Swedish.  When I arrived, I found myself only trying to read the Swedish, as if it were just funny-English, because my odds were better that way.  Now I read both, and try to combine them into something that makes sense.


Finnish looks like this and sounds like this (or to a Finn, this.  Give it a minute to load).

Finnish is what's called a synthetic language, which means that the Finns can smash words together wheneverthehell they want, to the point where dictionaries are just an inside joke played on foreigners by Finnish publishers.  For example, when I went to the bank to get some Euros, the teller asked me for my henkilöllisyystodistus.  It's pronounced just like it looks.  As it turns out, my henkilöllisyystodistus is Finnish for my personidentitycertificate.  Henki is breath or spirit.  Henkilö is a person.  Henkilöllisyys is a person's identity.  Henkilöllisyystodistus is a personidentitycertificate.

Another interesting quality shared by all Finno-Ugric languages is called consonant gradation.  I should say, interesting for you, but it makes me want to cry.  Certain consonants, depending on the word's role in the sentence, can morph into other consonants or disappear completely.  This overlaps and mingles with a famously large number of grammatical cases - fifteen in all, though counts vary - which I have explained in my guide to Russian and don't want to talk about right now.  But these, too, change the word dramatically, by adding a specific case-ending (which itself causes the consonants to morph in other parts of the word.)  There are also strong regional dialects, such that anything I learn here in Turku will rendered useless by the bus ride to Oulu in July.

All that said, Finnish has certain saving graces, and there may be reason to hope.  First of all, henkilöllisyystodistus really is pronounced just like it looks.  Every Finnish word has its stress on the first syllable, and every letter has only one possible pronunciation.  As such, after a few lessons in Finnish 101, anybody can read Finnish aloud, even if they won't know what they've read for several years.  The synthetic nature of the language, in theory, will pay off in the end, because I have to learn fewer words and roots to broaden my vocabulary - if I know the root for "together" and the word for "work," it's easy to remember the word for togetherwork.  That is to say, for "cooperation."


I'm learning Finnish for my job - I need to read documents from the Finnish national archives, in order to write a dissertation about sovietfinnishrelationshistory.  To give a sense of how steep the climb is, I will conclude this post with a real life example.  While flipping through the latest issue of Meidän Suomi, I saw a bunch of crazy nonsense next to a picture of ZZ Top:

General dogsbody that I am, I decided to learn how the two were connected.  But in reading, I hit a road block.  I understood the first three words of a sentence, then this happened:

This is how many Finnish lessons begin.  Here is an experiment - let's try to figure out the meaning of sisävesiristeilylaivojen with a timer running.  It is 7:40 p.m.  

My first impression is that sisä looks like the root meaning "into" or "inside," and vesi is water.  The 'n' at the end suggests the genitive case, meaning possession or belonging, and -ojen suggests it may be the genitive plural.  The other roots are unfamiliar.  So I'll grab my dictionary.

Okay, so the root sisä does mean inside, internal, interior, domestic.  Vesi we know.  Dictionary reveals that  risteily is from the verb risteillä, "to cruise."  Thus, a vesiristeily is a water-cruise!  It is 7:47.

So far, we have an insidewaterboatcruise.  Next word is laivo or something similar.  But be careful!  Due to consonant gradation, "v" could very well have been a "p" in a different form, including in the dictionary form. In fact, because the word seems to be genitive, it's likely to be "laipo" in the dictionary.  

No, I was wrong about that - not all words morph, and the 'o' comes from the ending, not the root.  The dictionary form is laiva, a word I should have known but forgot - a ship.  It's 7:51.

So, laiva will become laivoja in the partitive plural case, from which we can deduce laivojen - genetive plural of laiva.  That part I learned in grammar class.

So finally, we have 'insidewatercruiseships,' which I think might mean 'inland cruise ships,' on the many rivers and lakes of Finland.  The next word combines 'theme' and 'night' - theme-nights. 

Alas - the theme-nights on inland cruises.  It is 7:57.  The sentence is about theme-nights in city restaurants and on inland cruises.  That took me 18 minutes.  Imagine that this had been a live conversation.  The Finn would have left already.  My legs would be sore from standing still, my head would hurt, and there'd be no guarantee that I got it right.  The sun would have moved 15 degrees sideways, my cabbage roll would have gotten warm and slimy, and without a concerted effort, it's very unlikely that I would remember the word.  This is a daily occurrence for me here in Finland.  Sometimes, there is a certain satisfaction in finally deciphering the words. But just as often, they end up meaning wrongcareerpath.


Postscript:  While researching that last sentence, I discovered that the Finns use the same word for both "career" and "rut."

Thank you to everybody that has subscribed thus far.  I also realized there is a 'share' button below,  for Facebook or Google+.  I only mention Google+ so that Google doesn't shut me down, but do share on Facebook!

To unsubscribe, simply write a Finnish-language paragraph in the comments, explaining why you were unsatisfied with the blog.  I will remove you in five years when I can read it.


  1. "Sisävesilaiva" is a boat that's sailing on inland waters, mostly rivers and lakes - but I guess you figured that out by now :) This is something we would call "sisävesilaivaristeily" ->

  2. Voisitsä millään vaihtaa tän sivun värejä? Tavaaminen ku käy nyt öögan päälle!

  3. Onks toi muuten jäbän kuva tos profiilissa? Salee heruu tolla naamavärkillä Suomessa!

  4. Oh god I have no idea what anybody is saying, except possibly something about the layout/colors of the blog?

  5. Translation of HH's comments:

    "Could you change the colours of this page at all? Now, reading it is a strain on the eyes."

    ("Ööga" is slang and a loan from the Swedish "ögon" = "eye". "Tavata" means both to spell and to read syllable-by-syllable, like first-graders in school do.)

    "By the way, is that a picture of this chap in the profile? Surely he's going to score with that face in Finland."

    Apropos of nothing, today Finnish sounds like this to me:

    The song is by Gösta Sundqvist for his band Leevi and the Leavings, and it was originally published i 1986. Lyrics at

    1. Thanks for the translations, especially the second one (though I'll see what I can do about colors if I get more complaints - they look alright to me.)

      Problem is you can only impress a Finnish girl so much with a four-year-old's vocabulary.

    2. I think the readability of the blog is just fine.

      A Finnish girl will likely be much more impressed by a native English speaker speaking English than anyone speaking broken Finnish. Seriously, you should take full advantage of this.

      Of course, the lingo-sexual method of language acquisition (i.e. pick it up from your girlfriend) is the best thing, if you can form such relations with someone.

    3. Yeah, but I've vowed not to speak English, so I might learn Finnish. Talk about a catch-22.

  6. You puzzled out sisävesiristeilylaivan correctly, but there's one detail that you missed helps understanding the word. The part 'vesi' is actually primarily associated with 'sisä' and not 'risteily' (sisävesi means inland water). So, the word is constructed as


    And no, there's no way of knowing that without knowing it beforehand. It is source of some Finnish humor. One typical example is that 'varatilintarkastaja' could be understood as 'deputy auditor' or 'auditor of the secondary/emergency/hidden accounts' depending on whether you read that as vara-(tilin-tarkastaja) or (vara-tilin)-tarkastaja. Both are (grammatically) correct forms.

    Happy learning.

    1. Inland water - that makes a lot of sense. Kiitos!

    2. On a similar note, can you figure "Kesätyöaika" out? or what is the difference between lihamakaroonilaatikko and liha-makaronilaatikko? I.e. which one is correct!

      To make the compound word matter in Finnish even worse, if you spell some compound words separately they change meaning. So "kissanhiekka" is not the same as "kissan hiekka" and "harhaanjohtava" is not the same as "harhaan johtava" although both are commonly misspelled.

    3. Määränpää/päämäärä is the pair between which I can never remember to distinguish correctly.

    4. Summer workplace! Cat... sand. Cat litter! Something.... leading. somethingleading!

  7. Oh, by the way, here's a well-known Finnish iskelmä song with a well-known line about "kielipää" in it.

    Anita Hirvonen: De va kukku de

    "De va kukku de" is partly mangled Swedish. E.g. Swedish "det var sant, det" would mean "that was true, that". The t in "det" and the r in "var" are often silent in pronunciation. Finnish "kukku" means nonsense, or possibly more accurately, bullshit. The beginning of the song goes

    De va kukku kuulette

    Ei tuu mittää, uso se

    Ei mun tulis mieleenkää

    Lähteä ny ruattiin kun ei oo kielipää

    Rough translation:

    That was bullshit, you hear

    That won't do, believe me

    It wouldn't cross my mind

    To go to Sweden, when I have no kielipää

    The song is from 1982 and it was written at the tail end of a period when Finns were moving to Sweden to work, especially in the Swedish car industry. The song refers to Volvo, too, later on. The character singing in the song is a wife trying to convince her husband that his big idea of going to Sweden is madness. "De va kukku" was a relatively common expression in spoken Finnish, but I guess it's starting to get forgotten now.

    One of the Finnish labour market quirks that survives from the 70s is "lomaltapaluuraha", a bonus that was originally paid for returning to work after vacation. This was implemented in order to keep industrial workers from disappearing to better-paid jobs in Sweden over the summer vacation. Of course, once such a thing was negotiated, the trade unions held on to it, so it's paid in many places even today, when the original reason for it is long gone. The "paluu" (= return) has been dropped from the name, so it's nowadays called "lomaraha" and it's usually paid before the vacation.

  8. This blog is excellent, thanks for bothering, found it on reddit btw, dunno if you knew that.

  9. ...that somebody posted your blog on Reddit, not the fact that I personally found it there. Obviously. Sorry.

    1. I've tried sharing the old (Russia) blog on Reddit, but it never went anywhere. It would appear Finland has more redditors.

  10. Alright, yes I should read the comments before posting comments here, obviously you know, sorry. I'll stop now, promise.

  11. This is a great blog! I doubt my American husband would try to attempt Finnish language... ever! I do feel guilty for not teaching our 6yr old twins my native language. Luckily we're moving to Colorado this month and found a Finnish school in Denver that meets every other Sunday. Kids will have a few hours of lessons and adults can meet up for coffee. I'm looking forward to that and hopefully our girls will catch a few words here and there :)

  12. You might want to check and see if Finnish bears any relationship to Kaviagmiut, Kalaallit, or Naskapi languages. Trading was known among peoples who lived above the arctic circle, whether it was Russia, Finland, Canada, Alaska (before they had those names) etc.

  13. > I saw a bunch of crazy nonsense next to a picture of ZZ Top:

    Why yes, crazy nonsense indeed! Not very many people would consider ZZ Top to fit within a "celebration of culture". But I have an open mind, so I consider modern pop culture to be an important part of our culture as a whole, so it's not that crazy, really. =)

    Oh, and another quaint term related to "ura" (for "career") is "uraputki" - literally, "rut pipe". Some people won't move away from the rut, and some people can't, because they're actually in a pipe. =)

    A great and interesting blog! All the best, and welcome (in advance) to Oulu. =)

  14. I have a few watchmaker estates here in Helsinki if you would like to visit ;->

    Mostly leftover stuff but its fun to go through.


  15. You seem to have made more progress in Finnish in just a few days than I have in, err, for ever. And yes, Finnish is indeed quite weird... Check this out for example:
    Keep 'em coming!

    1. And yes, as you guessed correctly, I am not actually Finnish, Olli Miekka being merely a "nom de blog" so to speak.

  16. "Colors changed, on your suggestion - onko se parempi?"

    Nyt on ihan OK.

    Mikko's translation: "By the way, is that a picture of this chap in the profile? Surely he's going to score with that face in Finland."

    Almost correct. In fact, it's "is that your picture", "you are going to score"... Addressing the other guy as "jäbä" is standard stadin slangi. Interestingly, this bears a reseblance to the old way of addressing people formally: "Tarvitseeko rouva apua?"

  17. Love the blog! Thanks for making my day a little sunnier! Had a few giggles reading it- The language'll get alot easier and the time it takes to break up a word into pallatable pieces gets shorter, too. Keep it comin'!

  18. I just discovered your blog and love your writing ... you have soooo perfectly described my Fear of Finnish and yet I find it completely irresistible. The Ultimate Language Challenge. It did make me very sad that you aren't a fan of Google+ though. You certainly have some new fans there :)

  19. By now you'll have noticed that there are few things Finns love more than reading about a foreigner trying to make sense of Finland ;)

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  21. This should blow your mind (it blew mine, and I'm Finnish..)

    Hope you can see it, since it's from someone's Facebook profile.

    I love your way of seeig things, been reading your Russia blog for hours tonight. Hopefully this Finland blog will become just as great!

    1. Thanks for the kind words. The English ones, that is. The Finnish ones are nonsense.

  22. I've just found your blog, and I'm so impressed by your efforts with what is, by all accounts, a difficult language! :)

  23. Oh this is fun! Since it's my native language I don't usually think about how its .."built". And when I do, I understand that it can be a bitch of a language, but I also think it's fun. I'm pretty gratefull that I don't have to learn it as a second or third (or whateverth) language, though.. :D

    On a side note, Henki can also mean life as in "to lose one's life" is menettää henkensä or the silly old robbery line "give your money or your life" is "rahat tai henki".

    Also, I'm waiting for the post where you get to know the wonderful joys of the differences between single and double consonants and vowels. As a primer: tuuli (wind), tuli (fire) and tulli (customs). Three totally different things, which sound a lot alike in finnish for a foreigner. ;D

    The best of luck with your studyings!

  24. Love this post. I can totally related being a learner of Estonian for the last few years and a new-comer to Finnish. Keep the faith. As we say here on this side of the Gulf, jõudu!

    1. Hei! I just browsed your blog... I think you're learning at ten times my rate. Interesting stuff... though I don't envy you for doing both Estonian and Finnish at once. I dropped into the Estonian cultural center in Turku yesterday, and after reading a few pamphlets in Estonian I decided I would never touch it. Too scary.

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  27. I accidentally found this blog while surfing around Reddit and was immediately hooked up. I already read all your posts and s a Finn I have to admit I laughed out loud multiple times. Also, the amount of work you put for deciphering the word "sisävesiristeilylaivojen" was impressive.

    Keep up the good work!

    And have some new words / phrases to decrypt:

    "Älä rääkkää kääkkää. En rääkkääkkään."


    "Yksikseskös yskiskelet?"

    1. That must be the hardest thing for a Finn to admit, thanks! I struck out on the first phrase - negative imperative, don't ... do something. But the second - military origin? Jetaircraftturbinemotorassistantsomethingofficerintraining? Okay so I struck out on all of them.

  28. Joseph: I'm ashamed I admitted my LOLling. No! Smiling is bad! Laughing is even more bad!

    The first phrase is roughly translated "Don't bully the old guy. No, I'm not bullying him."

    I'm impressed by your success with the second one. Not sure if I'm able to translate that one, either, but that should be something along the lines 'jet aircraft turbine [engine?] mechanic officer trainee', perhaps with 'junior' somewhere there. Anyway, the word can be found from Guinness World of Records.

    The last one is asking you "Are you coughing here all alone?"

    * * *

    If you somehow settle to think learning Finnish can actually be done, I will guide you to learn about our different dialects! No sir, there's not One True Finnish Language around. For example, in Pohjanmaa area 'itikka' is 'a cow', but in Savo area it means 'a mosquito'. Try to figure that one out.

    Even many natives struggle to understand people in Savo. "Mäntyä syötiin hyvästi" means "When we finally reached our destination we had some great food!", but here in Southern Finland we read that as "We ate the pine tree quite a lot."

    OK OK, I'll stop messing up your mind now. Have a good night. ;)

  29. Hi,

    It's always good to see more non-Finns pick up the language. I've enjoyed learning it myself since 1995 and these days I encourage each non-Finn to learn it.

    I try to meet up with people who are just starting to learn the language, and I have seen so many people learn speak very well in just a couple of months that, including my own experience, I easily can claim that Finnish is *not* a difficult language, contrary to the mythical believe that many Finns fervently try to uphold wherever they meet foreigners.

    The only requirement to learn the (any, for that matter) language is the willingness to learn it. That and some good old-fashioned perseverance is enough. Putting yourself in a catch-22 to impress the ladies is one of the best things you can do to learn more. And is very effective when dealing in the tax office, in the police station or just any place with a bit of bureaucracy. Chances that you'll be talking to a woman are very high. Stick to Finnish and smile: your matters will be taken care of before you can say any remotely long compound word.

    I wish you good luck with your endeavors.

    And remember, Finnish is an easy language after all :)

  30. Using the same word for "career" and "rut" makes a certain bizarre sort of sense, doesn't it?

  31. In Swedish you use same the word for six and sex... bizarre or not?

  32. I feel bad for Joseph because of the nasty Finns with their tongue twisters and dialects and other second-priority nonsense...

    I also must agree with what jesterking said: I don't believe Finnish is ultimately that difficult, it's just us Finns wanting to uphold the reputation of a difficult language. Who wouldn't want to master something that's considered super hard? Just keep on learning - läpi harmaan kiven! :)

  33. This came up in Facebook under ulkosuomalaiset group. I just love you style of writing, your humour and your peräänantamattomuus in your language studies. Loved it and will share it with my son- and my daughter-in-loves. Non Finns, natch!

    1. Glad you like it. It seems this post has a long internet half-life!


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