Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Androgynous and Collective Nature of Finnish

There are a couple of features of the Finnish language that I think are, for lack of a less-embarrassing word, ”neat”.

One is the language’s somewhat androgynous nature. That’s not to say that most Finns walk around looking like David Bowie or Tilda Swinton. Hardly.

No, it’s just that Finnish is gender-blind. Unlike Finns themselves, obviously, the Finnish language, for the most part, does not distinguish between males and females. Finnish words have no grammatical gender, that little detail people learning French or German are forced to remember for each noun in order to use the right article (le or la; der or das or die).

To Finns, they're both hän.
Photos: Jeffchat1 & dalekhelen

We English speakers are lucky that way, because our nouns (as in Finnish) are genderless. The good old all-purpose “the” works for everything. Finnish goes even one better by doing away with articles (almost) entirely (there is no “the” there) and essentially neutering its pronouns.

Finnish uses one word “hän” for both “she” and “he”. This is why many Finns when speaking English use those two pronouns interchangeably. A common experience for newcomers to Finland is hearing their friends here change  in midsentence  the gender of someone they’re talking about, as if Jaana’s brother Pekka went to Thailand on holiday and returned last week as a woman. Such things can happen, but visitors to Finland quickly learn it’s more likely that Jaana isn’t used to the idea of having to specify whether someone, even her brother, is “he” or “she”. At least when it comes to pronouns.

It’s tempting to think that this linguistic “meh” attitude toward gender has something to do with the generally progressive state of equal rights in Finland.

Who knows? But, having a unisex pronoun does simplify some things. When I had a job writing marketing and press materials, a common bugbear was how to politically correctly get around the gender of hypothetical customers.

Using “he” for everybody was, of course, out of the question, smacking as it does of the less liberated mindset of Don Draper and his fellow 1960s admen, as in: “Widget Software Plus allows any small business owner to outsmart his competitors and grind them into the earth, in real time.”

Why should we expect that only men would want to do that?

But, most alternatives to using “he” (“he or she”, or “s/he”, or “they”) were awkward or ungrammatical How much easier it would have been to just use the Finnish “hän”.

Of course, I should mention that not all of the Finnish language is so androgynous. Much like in English, the traditional names of certain professions indicate that it once really was a man’s world.

Job titles that end with the word for man “mies” include plumber or putkimies (“pipeman”), reporter or lehtimies (“pressman”) and speaker or puhemies (“talkman”), as in speaker of parliament. When that post is held by a woman, she is solemnly addressed as rouva puhemies (“Madam Talkman”, or more realistically, “Madam Chairman”). There is no exact equivalent to the English “chairwoman”. The speaker remains a mies, no matter what his or her gender may be.

The other neat feature of Finnish that I like is the way it forms what I’m tempted to call “collectives”. There may be a linguistic term for this kind of structure, but I have no idea what it would be. The way it works is that the suffix –sto is added to the word for some object (for example, kirjat “books”) to create a word that denotes a group of that object (kirjasto, “library”).

It isn’t used for every object (for example, there is no word lehmästö for “a herd of cows”. Still, it does make it a bit easier to remember that a collection of words (sanat) is a sanasto (vocabulary), and likewise for such things as islands/archipelago (saarit/saaristo), ships/navy (laivat/laivasto), men/crew (miehet/miehistö), rooms/apartment (huoneet/huoneisto), and air/climate (ilma/ilmasto).

And speaking of air (ilma), I also like how Finnish forms its word for “world” – maailma. This literally means “land-air”, which to my mind sums it up pretty well. Neatly, in fact. 


  1. It all sounds very tribal. There are definite advantages to tribalism. Depends on how well the loose collective can be held together.

    After 20+ years being immersed in the language and culture, it sounds as if you are now pretty well versed in both. You are definitely one of the few multi-cultural people I know.

    1. I do feel like I've both feet in both Finnish and American culture -- though, to be honest, they're not so extremely far apart. The language I'm still not so immersed in, despite all this time living here. Damn my small brain. And I'm sure that means I'm still missing out on a large part of the culture.

  2. Russians too do not use "the2 and when they speak English they often miss it out and it sounds very funny.

    1. I didn't realize that about Russian. "The" seems to be a mystery to many Finns trying to write in English. I often see it used when it's not needed, and vice versa.

    2. Do Finns tend to speak in present perfect tense the way Russians do? I heard a Russian emigre' once say: "I am going to your house tomorrow."

    3. Yes, Finns do something like that, because there is no future in Finnish (future tense, that is). They basically use the present tense with a time expression to indicate that they're talking about a future action, as in: "I buy food tomorrow".