Monday, February 6, 2012


One of my favorite words in the Finnish language is aina (always, in English).  Also such words as jos (if), koska (because), kun (when), and ja (and).

It’s not because they’re all short and easy to understand, though that doesn’t hurt.  No, what makes these very common words special in my mind is a rare quality they all share – rare in Finnish, that is.  These words don’t change.  Ever.  They always, always look the same.  This might not sound like a big deal to English speakers, blessed as we are with a tongue so simple that even I once managed to get job teaching it.  We take it for granted that English words can be relied on to stay more or less the same, however they’re used.

I only wish the same were true of Finnish, which I’ve been trying to master on-again, off-again for well over 20 years.  The Finnish language is typified by “agglutination”, a word that by the sound of it alone should be a clue that the language is going to be a pain in the ass to learn.  Heavily “agglutinative” languages, such as Navajo, Turkish, and Georgian (not “Peach State” Georgian), form longish words by putting bits and pieces together to express something that we in English would do with several smaller words.  Finnish does this in spades.

Take the simple English phrase “the big red house”.  In Finnish, this is iso punainen talo.  Fine, so far.  If you want to say “in the big red house”, in English you simply add a tiny word, “in”.  Finnish does it differently:  iso punainen talo becomes isossa punaisessa talossa.  To make the house yours, English only adds another small word, “my”.  In Finnish, you say isossa punaisessa talossani.  Tack on another bit (–kin) as in talossanikin and you get “also in my house”.

I often think of the difference between learning Finnish and English in terms of rice or meat.  For a beginner, learning and speaking English is like eating a meal of rice.  If you drop a few grains of rice here and there, you can still get your point across.  Learning Finnish, on the other hand, is like eating big pieces of meat, which must be chewed and chewed before swallowing.  And some Finnish words require a lot of chewing.

I’ve seen it claimed that the Guinness world record for the longest word is the Finnish epäjärjestelmällistyttämättömyydellänsäkäänköhän.  This, as you can imagine, doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue.  And it’s not a word you’ll likely ever see spray-painted on a wall.  Or hear spoken in the sauna or, well, anywhere.  The word means:  “I wonder if – even with his/her quality of not having been made unsystematized”.  I can say without hesitation that this is a thought I’ve never felt compelled to blurt out to any other human being, even in English.  (By the way, as any check of the Guinness web site will show you, this 48-letter Finnish word has apparently been deposed as the world’s longest by a 195-character-long word in Sanskrit, another language I won’t be learning anytime soon.)

Still, Finnish is full of words that can become maddeningly long and variable enough, as you can see with talo.  While English gets by with only four words to talk about a building where people live (“house”, “houses”, “house’s”, and “houses’”), Finnish requires at least 26 different forms of the word, depending on how it’s used.  These are:  talo, talot, talon, talojen, taloon, taloihin, talossa, taloissa, talosta, taloista, talolle, taloille, talolla, taloilla, talolta, taloilta, taloa, taloja, talona, taloina, taloksi, taloiksi, talotta, taloitta, plus some others I’ve only vaugely heard of.

And, talo is a simple case, where the original four letters remain unchanged, unlike the word for “wolf” (susi).  Instead of “wolf”, “wolves”, “wolf’s” and “wolves’”, the Finnish susi can be changed, transformed, contorted into sudet, suden, susien, suteen, susiin, sudessa, susissa, sudesta, susista, sudelle, susille, sudella, susilla, sudelta, susilta, sutta, susia, sutena, susina, sudeksi, susiksi, sudetta, and susitta.

It’s way complicated.  And then there are the verbs.  While English employs only five forms to get across everything you ever wanted to say about “speaking” (“speak”, “speaks”, “spoke”, “spoken” and “speaking”), Finnish forces you to learn at least 37 different forms of the verb puhua.  I won’t list them here, but trust me, it’s mindboggling.

Of course, there's a system to this madness, and Finnish packs a lot of meaning into these different word forms:  taloon means “into the house”, taloihin “into the houses”, talosta means “from the house”, etc.  It takes a little getting used to.  Also, because of all the metamorphosing, the words you see in actual texts may look nothing like their basic, familiar forms.  Even if you know the words for “wolf” (susi) and “speak” (puhua), you might not recognize them in the sentence:  Pidin häntä puhuvana sutena -- “I thought of him as a talking wolf.”  Just try finding puhuvana or sutena in most Finnish-English dictionaries.  You won’t.

Maybe it’s true that Finnish has an elegant logic and an economical way of conveying a lot of meaning in a few, complicated words.  Maybe even those of us not born into the language can eventually learn to appreciate how remarkable it really is, beautiful even – if only we didn’t have to chew so hard on all those elegant, beautiful words. 


  1. That's an excellent post. You have beautifully summarised what has taken me many posts to even scratch the surface of!

  2. Thanks for going some distance in explaining the reason I've always heard that Finnish is so damnably difficult to learn. Even German, which I have taken, creates ridiculous words to get a point across--unlike English which rarely does this. One quote I read from a German officer stationed in Finland during WWII pretty summed up his frustration in trying to learn Finnish: "It's gibberish!". (Not my opinion--only that of a Nazi officer.)

    That said, I'm sure that Finnish is a beautiful language and I hope it has a long and continued existence, as no doubt it will considering the tenacity of the Finns.