The Finnish It

“Where’s Minna?”

“It’s at work, I think it gets off around 4.”

That’s an exact translation of a conversation I could have with my mother about my sister, an example of the Finnish it.

Finnish 3rd person singular is a peculiar thing for most languages. Firstly, we don’t distinguish between male and feminine forms. In Finnish there are no masculine or feminine words. There are no articles in front of words; no a, the, la or les. A third person singular is always hän, for both sexes.

But then it’s also perfectly okay to refer to someone as it.

In fact, using hän in some colloquial conversations would seem too formal. Had I used hän in the example above, my mother would have probably given me a quizzical look and thought I was making fun of her for some reason.

If you want to be addressed respectfully, you’ll need to earn it. My sister obviously has a long way to go.

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Languages

Finns take it to extremes with languages and the number of languages we speak is generally met in awe anywhere in the anglosphere.

Let me start off by recounting the languages I’ve studied in my life:

I started English in third grade. German I started in fifth grade, then came Swedish at seventh and French at eighth. At high school I stayed with an Italian family on a school trip, they only spoke Italian. So I learnt the basics of Italian. At university I dabbled in Spanish. And after graduation I figured it would be useful to learn at least the alphabets in Russian. All in all, I’ve studied seven foreign languages.

Mind you, I’m only fluent in Finnish and English.

Now anywhere else in the world I’d be dubbed as a language genius (by myself mostly) but in Finland it’s a fairly normal occurrence. Most Finns will start English as their first foreign language (about 90% according to SUKOL) in third grade. Then comes the obligatory Swedish with Finland being a bilingual country and all.

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Just leave the birds alone.

With already two foreign languages in the bag, it’s easy to add a few more. According to the Teacher’s Union in Finland, about 49% of high school students studied at least three foreign languages.

Now to most this seems rather excessive unless you plan a career in the diplomatic service. But when you think about, you’ll realise that our mother tongue is Finnish. And who speaks Finnish? Yep, only Finns. So if we ever want to venture outside our borders, we’ll need to learn another language. We haven’t got any convenient ex-colonies that we’ve converted to the niceties of the Finnish language.

And after Finnish, all the other languages seem so easy. I laugh at the mere mention of English grammar.

Having studied the language does not, however, mean that you speak the language. Because speaking would require verbal communications which does not come naturally to us.

That said, I can order a beer in at least those seven languages. And surely that counts for something?

Say what? Finnish idioms and phrases

Now I’ve been away from Finland for quite a while and sometimes it’s obvious when I speak Finnish. But it’s never more obvious when people start using random new phrases and I have a huge question mark on my face.

Like in every language, Finns are keen on taking references from popular culture and making idioms/phrases/whatnot out of them. And then there are the golden oldies, referring to a time and traditions long gone making it hard to deduce what it meant to begin with.

I asked on facebook for friends to help me to find some of the more confusing ones and it seems like I’m not the only one in the dark when it comes to the deep, dark depths of our language. These are some of the ones that left us clueless:

Ei mennyt ihan niinku Strömsössä – Didn’t go quite like in Strömsö = Turned out less than perfect (referring to an arts & crafts show where everything always works out perfect)

Parempi pyy pivossa kuin kymmenen oksalla – Better to have a hazel hen in your hands than ten on the branch (I think the meaning is something along the lines of better to have a little at your grasp than a lot of out reach)

Näytän sulle, mistä kana pissii – Let me show you where a chicken pees from = Let me show you how it’s done

Chicken’s pee is a constant source of inspiration

Täynnä kuin Turusen pyssy – As full as Turunen’s gun  = something is too full (apparently derived from an old legend where the infamous Turunen stuffed his gun with money and was thus unable to shoot with it)

Poronkusema – Reindeer’s piss = a measure of distance, the distance you can ride a reindeer before it needs pee. Apparently it can be up to 7.5km

Happamia sanoi kettu pihlajan marjoista – Fox said the rowan fruits were sour (apparentely from a fable where a fox couldn’t reach the fruits and thus bitterly noted that they were likely to be sour anyway, a delightful lesson in Finnish pessimism)

Johan otti ohraleipä – Well wasn’t that a barley bread = a tricky situation (barley bread being inferior to rye bread, it is really serious if you need to eat bread made of barley)

That said, I might simply lack the linguistic witticism gene in Finnish.

When I attended one of the first German lessons in my swanky high school in Helsinki we had to translate the phrase: “Tavataan steissillä.” I was unable to translate it since I didn’t ever understand what steissi was. It means station of course, as now seems embarrassingly obvious.

The epitomy of this is the comic strip Fingerpori. It plays on words and more often than not, I’m left puzzled and confused as to what was funny about it. It usually takes a few hours to sink in or someone to explain it to me. Nowadays I dare not even ask anymore.