Learn Finnish – puhukaamme! (let’s talk!)
Finnish is the official language of Finland along with Swedish and belongs to the Uralic language family. Finnish has little in common with the Indo-European languages spoken for the most part in Europe. During Finland’s affiliation with Sweden, many loan words were adopted from Swedish. Communicating in Finland is complicated. Finally, you need to know which language to choose: Finnish, Swedish, Sami? Romani or sign language? All have their own official status.
The structure of the Finnish language, which is foreign to us, takes quite a bit of getting used to. Also, there is a big difference between written and spoken language.
As is customary in Scandinavia, people in Finland are on first-name terms, but on official occasions they are addressed only by their surnames out of politeness, or direct forms of address are avoided altogether.
There are other unusual features of the language, for example, a word for “have” is unknown in Finnish.
Those who think they want to choose Finnish because of the majority will not immediately, but very soon, be confronted with the numerous peculiarities of a language that is not even Indo-European. What this means? Well, in practice, especially that you have to listen to the end when a Finn speaks Finnish.
Because often it is only at the end of the word chains that it is explained what it is actually about. And whether it’s a question or a statement. Double-y, extensive grammar with over a dozen cases, and enthusiastic use of participles (what was that again?) of any form in spoken (that’s one!) language may not please every language learner, but it will please every language school.
Because all this guarantees many years of attendance of any language course. Incidentally, there are quite excellent summer courses also in the country itself. Since all Finns have made the pleasant experience that it is indeed possible to master this language fluently and even in your sleep, they are happy to share their knowledge with anyone who is interested.
If you would like to get an impression of this and other not entirely unimportant side effects of everyday life in Finland, you can simply take one or more looks at the “Fettnäpfchenführer Finnland – Wenn der Fisch nicht beißt, spart man den Wurm”. The author Gudrun Söffker informs here and there not only about linguistic peculiarities in the northeastern tip of Europe.
Finnish, Swedish or slangi
The fact that Finnish is spoken in Finland will surprise no one. Not today, anyway. However, since Finland belonged to Sweden until the beginning of the 19th century, this is by no means a matter of course.
Immigrants from the western Baltic regions brought their North Germanic languages with them and settled in the economically interesting coastal regions.
Since 1922, the kielilaki, or language law, has regulated when one, the other, or both languages must be used officially, depending on the majority of the population.
If at least eight percent or 3,000 inhabitants of a municipality speak the minority language, the municipality is bilingual. This currently affects about one in ten.
However, the fact that multilingualism has also long since arrived in the everyday life of the Finns and has motivated them to come up with their very own word creations is shown by the following example:
In Helsinki, there is a district very close to the marketplace, pushed out a little to the east into the Baltic Sea. Art Nouveau architecture, several company buildings, a prison that is now a hotel, and several original carpet hand washing facilities adorn its shores.
In Swedish it is called Skatudden, which roughly means “pointed headland”. From this, at the latest in the middle of the 19th century, the Finnish form katajanokka developed, whereby kataja means juniper, but is probably simply a phonetic transformation of the Swedish skata, while nokka is the translation of udde.
To make the confusion complete, it should be mentioned that the Swedish skata also means magpie, which in turn is said to have something to do with the pointed shape of its rump, but no more than juniper gave Katajanokka its name.
In practice, it is also much easier: locals call the peninsula Skatta for short. This preserves the Swedish s and makes Finnish pronunciation easier with the tt.
Helsinki city slang goes far beyond this, using numerous hybrid forms of Swedish and Finnish, for example, the name for Helsinki itself: Stadi.
Surprisingly simple and always complicated
If you know German or even Swedish and then want to learn Finnish, however, you will be well rewarded for your efforts: there are loan words that make access mutually easier, although the structure of the languages is otherwise fundamentally different.
And the habit of Finns to make these words more pleasant by adding an i is quite helpful. Even the most serious, well-intentioned German-speaking visitor will find it hard to resist an amused feeling when he hears banaani.
But he will be able to resist a disparaging sneer, hopefully. After all, the habit of using the i to belittle is a specific variant of the German language that is not self-evident either.
At least the i in combination with internationally well-known terms such as hotel, bus, bar, tomato or melon definitely facilitates understanding. If you took the bussi to the hotelli, there are probably no tomaatti at the baari, but certainly viini or snapsi.
For Finns traveling abroad, this may also be pleasant. However, if they discover a real Finnish word in one or the other bathing area or hotel, it does not necessarily hide exactly what the Finn suspects behind it.
Not all saunas are the same, even if the word has already wandered through millennia of Finno-Ugric linguistic history in the meaning of spirit, soul and the like. The Central European version with rest, sweat, and shower phases that are circled out to the minute has already moved a good distance away from the original.
The Finnish sauna session is all about personal empathy, the balance of adaptation and individuality.
In the same way, you can also approach the eternal problem of “form of address” and “form of address”. For a long time it was said that everyone was on a first-name basis in Northern Europe.
On official business or other non-private occasions, however, Finland can be surprisingly sober and correct. And if you feel unpleasantly touched by the form of address in hotels, at theater box offices or in restaurants, you should take it as a sign of the respect that belongs to this place of culture and special service or appreciation.
In personal contact, however, being on first-name terms can be no problem – as long as you don’t confuse it with the promise of an unbreakable friendship. With only five and a half million inhabitants, you can confidently look everyone in the face before inviting them in.
Would you like to read Finnish texts, study Finnish grammar in more detail, or are you looking for a Finnish language course?
And even more tips to learn Finnish:
- Learn Finnish – A country and its languages
- Order Finnish phrasebook online
- Nordkolleg – Academy for Cultural Education
- The language institute for Scandinavian languages: OBS!Online
- The Finland Blog Fintastic about learning Finnish
- the Finnish language – an interesting Wikipedia article