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The combination of Finnish and English, or ‘Finglish’, has been spoken in parts of North America for two hundred years. There Finglish was the language of Finnish immigrants who sought a new life and livelihood in the New World. What is most interesting is that while Finglish in North America is dying out, another, newer version is re-emerging rapidly back in Finland. This article is a glimpse at what today happens when two, very different languages – Finnish and English – collide and create new expressions and terms. These new playful, sometimes zany language combinations are, depending on your attitude toward language contact, fun, puzzling, or annoying. We will show how certain sectors of Finnish society – from sex shops to big business – welcome and willingly embrace forming this hip, new language, but how some of the more traditional sectors resist the outside influence of the English language.
Just a reminder to those readers who are geographically challenged: Finland is to the east of Sweden and to the west of Russia. Some people think of Finland as a Scandinavian country, but Finland actually has a more complicated pedigree. Yes, Finland belonged to the kingdom of Sweden from the 12th century to 1809. However, the Finnish language is more closely linked to its Baltic and Russian neighbours. Finnish belongs to the Finno-Ugric language family, with Estonian a close relative and Hungarian a more distant cousin. Many of the other Finno-Ugric languages are spoken by ethnic minorities in Russia.
Over the course of four thousand years, Finnish has borrowed many words from a wide variety of languages. Many of these words have been a result of geographic proximity and contacts. The first loans came from early Indo-European languages and later, mainly from Indo-Iranian, Baltic, Germanic and Slavic languages. Some religious terms have been taken from Russian, such as the words pappi for priest, and risti for cross. The prototypical example of old loan words is the word kuningas for king, which comes from the Germanic proto-word kuningaz. This word shows how Finnish has acted like a linguistic museum or a deep-freeze, preserving the old loans in much the same way they were when borrowed, while the same word has undergone changes in the Germanic languages (cf English king and German König). Of all the Germanic languages, Swedish has contributed the most words to Finnish and they cover several spheres of life, from the term laki for law, to words such as koulu (for school) and huumori (for humour).
But what happens today when a small Finno-Ugric language with its six million speakers worldwide teams up with an Indo-European, mighty Germanic language such as English? And should Finns be worried that their small, unique language will be swallowed up by this multinational giant? Those most alarmed at what is quickly sweeping the country point to a past soft spot in Finnish, a temptation very few other languages have ever succumbed to: Finnish adopted the ultimate kinship term from Germanic – the word for mother, äiti, which then ousted the native-Finnish word, emo. Now for those of you who know a thing or two about the history of borrowing in languages, you are probably dialling emergency services for more oxygen. That’s not all – Finnish also took two other, close kinship terms from the Baltic languages: the words for bride, morsian and daughter, tytär. Even so, some of you are probably wondering what the fuss is all about. Maybe there is cause for concern because some scholars think that kinship terms are the litmus test for language vulnerability. If that is a true index of sensitivity, then Finnish could be under assault from English. After all, other rather profound changes in Finnish seem to be evolving and many point to the Finns’ exposure to English as the reason.
Today English also seems to be affecting two core features of Finnish: passive use and personal reference. Traditionally, Finns have thought it to be great fun to use the passive tense and it is almost like a linguistic national sport. In fact, you could say that all Finns pack a mean passive, especially in conversation. Whereas people speaking in English generally use active phrases, Finnish favours leaving out the people and focussing on the verbs. Anyone who learns Finnish knows the experience of being rather lost in space at first, surrounded by verbs but mysteriously short on subjects. One, pervasive problem in teaching English to Finnish students has been to help them put more action in their prose. Today, however, Finnish students seem to be using the active more in their writing and speech, both in Finnish and in English.
As the Finns shift from using the passive to active, this also brings about a major change that involves naming the actors or doers of the verbs. That, in turn, has had an impact on the use of Finnish pronouns. In the past, unlike English speakers, Finns have tended to shy away from over-using personal names and personal pronouns when speaking to each other. The best thing about this is that at a party, Finns could basically get away with forgetting the name of a new acquaintance because they would not have to use it again if they bumped into that same person again later in the evening.
Think of how often, for example, the Americans use first
names in the course of small talk:
The same goes for personal pronouns. It used to be that when Finns asked strangers for directions the person giving the directions did not usually use a form of the pronoun you. Instead, the verb carried the message. This would be equivalent to saying in English: Go down the street and turn left. Nowadays the Finnish pronoun forms of you are heard more often in these contexts. So currently directions in Finnish could more resemble the English: Well, you need to go to the next corner and turn right. Then you’ll see a yellow building. From the world of passive outer space, the Finns seem to have landed on English usage.
These grammatical trends in Finnish are somehow more subtle and sneaky than the lexical ones. The most obvious changes in Finland have been the coinage of new Finglish terms to reflect internationalism and to be cool and cosmopolitan. This going with the international flow has resulted in some extremely creative as well as ridiculous results. First before we can share some of these pearls, we need to briefly mention some of the types of Finnish-English collisions.
Few words of Finnish origin have been adopted by other languages. The most well-known Finnish word in English is sauna, but English has expanded the meaning of this word. For Finns, the sauna is only a healthy, clean place to relax. Any other kinky associations are inventions in the English-speaking societies. Nevertheless, other words look identical or similar in English and Finnish but they have very different meanings and so are referred to as false friends. Some of these are listed below.
Fortunately, there are not many of these false friends and they are easily taught to students. And from the above list, you’ll notice that the Finnish words all end in a vowel. That is because when Finnish adopts loan words, they are made to conform to Finnish sound patterns. Nouns tend to end in a vowel in Finnish, so foreign words also conform to this: the English words stress becomes stressi, trend goes to trendi, and net changes to netti.
Finnish is also a magnet for new verbs and they are often formed with -ata or -oida endings. Some examples introduced from computers are:
Another strategy that Finnish has is to import wholesale some of the following English words: yes, please, well, OK, sorry, anyway, whatever and about. Granted, English words are adjusted in pronunciation, so that, for example, yes becomes jees. These English words are finding their way into conversation so that people say ihan jees (quite okay), or ihan jees tyyppi (a quite okay type of guy).
As we touched upon earlier, certain sectors of Finnish society are keen to adopt or coin English-like words and phrases. These include business, beauty shops, interior decorating firms, pubs, sex shops, fitness clubs, data technology and the music industry. So strolling down a street in a Finnish city you could encounter places called Hair-Story, Erotic Showroom, City Gym, Axiomatic Teknologies and the Free Record Shop. In fact, Finns are accustomed to seeing English daily. The wildest associations come from unusual word combinations that provide ambiguous or misleading messages. For example, we get inelegant pairs such as Ars Golf and Fani-Trade, where ars harks back to its Latin roots not anatomy, and fani is the Finglish word for fan, not a rude joke. We also found strange pairs such as the unappealing Hair Garage, Intelligent Barber (as opposed to a really stupid barber?), the cannibalistic For Eating Customers Only and the disturbing if not eating-disordered Non-Stop Hamburger Restaurant.
In short, it seems that sectors that tend to have more female involvement or refined tastes also tend to incorporate more English terms. On the other hand, some professions are very resistant to foreign influence, such as the construction industry (including carpentry and plumbing), shoemakers, and undertakers. Could it be that the plumbing and funeral home sectors are not yet perceived as being sexy and refined?
We have shown numerous examples of how English flourishes on the Finnish soil: by making people connect in a more personal way than before, and by lending numerous ingredients into the vocabulary of several sectors of Finnish society. However, as we have pointed out, this is not the first time that Finnish is in contact with other languages during its history. Some of the old contacts were very close, as we can understand on the basis of the word mother being a loan word. The old contacts did not result only in lexical changes but also in structural ones: for example, the tense system was borrowed from speakers of Germanic.
Today, Finns are exposed to English in their everyday lives to a higher degree than ever before. No wonder, several Finnish scholars have addressed the question of the future of Finnish. The darkest visions predict a gradual language shift from Finglish into English, thereby aiming to provoke language awareness among Finns. Is Finnish then truly endangered?
The majority of Finnish scholars question the usefulness of this “discourse of threat”, as there is actually no evidence for a language shift taking place in Finnish-speaking families. The imprints English leaves on Finnish have proved to be superficial and temporary. Currently, a counter-reaction to this influence is also taking place in the naming of shops, firms and restaurants. For example, the most fashionable restaurants nowadays carry a true Finnish name, e.g. Virtanen (‘Smith’), Aino (a female name from the national epic, the Kalevala), Koivu ja tähti (‘Birchtree and star’), Saha (‘Saw’) and, of course, Suomi (‘Finland’).
For those worrying about the expansion of English, it is good to remember that languages have always been in contact. Thanks to contacts, languages such as Finnish have developed and innovations have emerged. But in the end, while some Finns get their hair done in English-sounding shops, allow their country’s kinkier and trendy sectors to adopt English names, the heart of this small country – from carpentry to undertaking – remains solidly loyal to its more traditional past.
‘Suomen kieli, englannin mieli’ [Finnish language, English
mind], Kielikello 2, pp14-17, J. Anhava (2004)
On the Finnish language:
In the next article we’ll take a look at borrowings and false friends between Czech and English.