...because you thought Sweden was Switzerland!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Saattaa sisältää pieniä määriä pähkinää!*

*May contain traces of nuts!

Finnish – the language spoken by our neighbors out here, of course – must be the weirdest Western language I've ever encountered. The blog title above reads from a bottle of Choco Nussa, a kind of German-made Nutella rip-off. Does it look like an easy language to learn?... Not! Really, two Ä's in a row? Three of them in a single word? Two A's on each side of a consonant? In longer sentences, it just gets even weirder. Finnish doesn't seem to resemble Swedish, Norwegian, nor Danish – uh, basically any of the Nordic languages – all that much. Or in fact, not at all: they belong in two totally different language groups, Finnish being more related to Hungarian. Who knew?

The few words that seem similar to Swedish, as far as I've seen in toothpaste tubes, cereal boxes, pickle jars and such, appear to be those taken from the English – with a line of vowels added in the end. Mint (which is also that in Swedish) becomes mintu; The Sweidhs sirap (syrup) becomes siirappi; soya (in Swedish, soja) becomes soijaa. Noo wonderaa Swedes likeu too maake funuu of thee Finns! (And vice versa, too. Word is that the knife-weilding bark-eating Finnish, who practically live in saunas think the stuttering Swedes are sissies. But of course, I exaggerate.)

Since I hardly understand a word of it (not that Swedes do either), the Finnish language kind of reminds me of the time my sister Lea was cramming on her thesis and ended up sleeping on the keyboard. The word-like gobbledygook that were supposed to have been her thesis ideas turned out to be several vowels and consonants in a row. And then there's also that short passage from one of the first chapters of Foucault's Pendulum – too bad I don't have a copy with me to quote – where Casaubon fiddles around with the word processor and discovers that if you replace all the U's with "ulla" and all the A's with "akka" (or something like that; I don't remember really since I never got past the second chapter or so), you will end up with something that resembles Finnish. I wonder if that book was ever translated into Finnish; then it would be doubly strange, I think.

I would have ended right here on this part of the entry if I had written it a year ago (actually, I did write the first part a year ago – it was backlogged as usual). However, I recently learned that the double vowels that I find strange in Finnish have an advantage, though probably not originally intended by the first speakers. Apparently, according to this book Marcus read, written Finnish varies very little to how the words are pronounced – with its long vowels and all – and that this kind of language affects literacy in a positive way. According to Wikipedia, that is, Finnish dialects don't vary from each other as much as, say, the way I imagine New Yorker or the Southern American English to sound like (or Frankfurter and Bayrisch German for that matter!) And come to think of it, English is just as strange with its silent consonants (like W in "whole"), "equivocals" (like "abstract", where two different pronunciations mean different things) and the unwritten rules that make "bear" and "dare" rhyme but not "bear" and "dear."

Come to think of it, I wonder if a language that looks the way Finnish does can even have homonyms.


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