Monday, March 4, 2013

Cognates, and Other Relatives

Recently when I had to buy a new ink cartridge for our printer, I was reminded of what an outlier the Finnish language is.

As I searched the selection of cartridges for the one that fits my particular model of Canon printer, I noticed how on the packaging all the relevant models were listed under the text “for/para”.

I thought, “How economical.”

Finland's cousins, the Udmurts.
In a diverse European market, where product information often has to be presented in dozens of languages, Canon could safely get by using just two (English and Spanish) for this purpose. To be honest, to convey such an obvious message as “this cartridge is for the printers listed below”, Canon could have probably just as well used Egyptian hieroglyphics, with no danger of confusing customers no matter what  country they are in. Maybe even the Finnish word “varten” would work.

Still, it made me think how much easier it is to connect to speakers of more “mainstream” languages that share a fair number of similar-looking cognates.

It’s not just an English or Spanish speaker who will effortlessly comprehend (or comprender) the “for/para” on the cartridge package. Speakers of related languages will easily recognize the same words in their own tongue:  für (German), for (English, Danish), voor (Dutch), för (Swedish), pour (French), para (Spanish, Portuguese), per (Italian).

Those languages alone are spoken by roughly three-quarters of the EU citizenry – not counting others who speak one as a second- or third-language.

That might be nice, you say, but what does it have to do with Finnish? Well, nothing in fact. And that’s precisely the problem for many of us trying to learn this language.

Finnish and other modern languages have almost no words in common, other than recent loanwords like katu (“street”, from Swedish), huora (“whore”, from German), lusikka (“spoon”, from Russian), and of course sauna, practically the only Finnish contribution to the English language.

This makes Finnish even more challenging for speakers of English – or of any Indo-European language, for that matter. (Indo-European is the broad linguistic family that includes languages ranging from Albanian to Armenian, from Portuguese to Persian, but not Finnish, which belongs to the much smaller Finno-Ugric family.)

Unlike those lucky students of, for example, German, folks learning Finnish can’t rely on helpful cognates (words sharing a common origin) to give them a hint about a word’s meaning:  Haus vs. "house", jung vs. "young", Eis, vs. "ice" – all of which are much more natural for English speakers to pick up than talo, nuori, and jää.  

In Finnish, you’re not going to encounter any true cognates unless you’re an Estonian or Hungarian speaker, and even then you might not recognize them. While pesa, the equivalent of "nest" in Estonian (Finnish's closest relative), is almost the same as the Finnish pesä, in Hungarian it’s fészek, which doesn’t exactly jump off the page as having anything to do with pesä  or anything else I can imagine.

Modern-day Komi. Photo: Irina Kazanskaya
To be fair, Hungarian isn’t that closely related to Finnish anyway, kind of like the first cousin thrice removed that moved to New Mexico before you were born and you’ve never even heard of.

Relations aren’t that much closer with some of Finnish’s other linguistic kinfolk, such as the Komi, Mordvinic, or Mari, indigenous peoples who live far away in the Russian forests along the Volga River just west of the Ural Mountains.

Recently, Finnish television has been airing a documentary series called Suomensukuiset 30 päivässä (“Finland’s Relatives in 30 Days”), presented by Ville Haapasalo, an actor who is apparently something of a celebrity in Russia, thanks to the dozen or so Russian films he has appeared in. In the series, Haapasalo spends a month off the beaten path touring the ancient homeland of the Finns in the Volga basin, searching out folkloric customs, and meeting his distant linguistic cousins, like the Mari and Udmurt people, who still live there.

In all his encounters with his fellow Finno-Ugric kindred, Haapasalo has to speak Russian, the only language that he and his guests both understand. It’s a shame, isn’t it, when family members have grown so far apart that they no longer speak the same language. 


  1. Not all Indo-European words in Finnish are recent loans, some of them are ancient. Like sata, sanskr. śata or vasara, sanskr. vadzra

    1. There are also some older loanwords about relatives and of course kuningas, which is also a fairly old loan.

    2. That's something I've only recently come to realize, that most of the words in modern-day Finnish have been borrowed from other languages over the centuries. Amazing to think that there are traces of Sanskrit and Gothic in speech heard on the streets of Helsinki today.

  2. I'm a Hungarian, currently learning Finnish and with a bit of former study in Estonian, so it's always interesting for me to read about "us" (Finno-Ugric speakers) from "others" (Indo-Europeans) :) I'd like to share my viewpoint on the same topic.

    I started learning German at elementary school and English outside school so this unfamiliarity of words in other languages were always the norm. The first time when I realized how much help a closely related language can be came at university when I learned Swedish for a while and the teacher often put out a word and asked us to figure it out by its resemblance to its German or English (or both) version.
    When learning Finnish (and Estonian) there's no such help for me, even though sometimes I know the rules by which the sounds changed between the languages I can see only vague resemblance, but this too is restricted to the very basic words (family, body parts, basic verbs).
    Finno-Ugric languages lived for longer and more further apart then the other European ones - thousands of years and kilometres in some cases instead of hundreds. I remember Finnish and Hungarian compared as being as far apart as English is from Persian but with the links of the chain missing between us.

    1. The linguistic close relativity is also a trap, that prevents you from learning proper pronunciation, grammar or turns of speech. It's avoidable but might present too great a temptation: Have you ever heard a Frenchman speak English?

    2. Good point :) Haven't heard many Frenchmen but did hear Germans speak English and yes they did sound like they still spoke half German.

  3. As always, a great essay. Much new knowledge for me.

    1. Thanks! I figure that if I'm learning the language (slowly, eventually), I might as well share of its quirkiness with others ;o)