Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Slow Slog through a Book

In my long slow struggle with the Finnish language, I sometimes run across little examples of what makes it so difficult, for me anyway.

In the past, I’ve looked for books in Finnish that are at the right reading level, yet interesting enough for me to actually make the effort to slog through pages of sometimes baffling text. After some false starts with children’s books (sigh) and detective novels, I’m now trying a little book I found in the library a couple of months ago, “Pitkä kävely Meksikonlahdelle”.

It’s a Finnish translation of “A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf”, an account of legendary naturalist John Muir’s 1867 journey on foot from Indiana to Cedar Key, Florida, on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico.

I was aware of this book earlier, but have never got around to reading it. This feels like a perfect story to hold my interest, even if I have to keep referring constantly to my Finnish dictionary (okay, okay, actually to Google Translate – there, I said it, I am lazy). This classic chronicle by Muir, who went on to found the Sierra Club and was a driving force in the creation of Yosemite National Park,  combines three pet interests of mine: natural history, long treks, and the Southeastern US.

Anyway, on page 34 of the book, as Muir is progressing on his journey from Kentucky into Tennessee, I encountered a couple of examples of what makes Finnish so frustrating.

One was the simple word tennesseeläismaanviljelijältä. That is one word, 29 letters long. Geez. It doesn’t quite trip off the tongue like hölkyn kölkyn (Finnish for “bottoms up”).

As I’ve said before, Finnish often offers up its words in big meaty hard-to-chew chunks. To be fair, the word ”Tennessee” contributes nine of those letters, but the other 20 are down to the way Finnish grammar sometimes packs as much meaning as possible into single bloated monoliths of language.

The word means “from a Tennessee farmer” (20 letters total), which, for me as an English speaker, is much easier to get my head around. If you look carefully enough you can make out the word for farmer (maanviljelijä) in there somewhere. The suffix “-lta” gives the meaning of “from”, and tennesseelais- tells us that the farmer is a Tennessean. (Curiously, while in English we would say “American” farmer, we would never say “Tennessean” farmer. At least, I wouldn’t.)

The other two words that struck me as prime examples of the maddening complexity of Finnish were contained (in bold) in the following passage from Muir’s book: 

Suurenmoisimpia Kentuckyn kasveista ovat sen ylväät tammet. Ne ovat sen rehevien metsien mahtavimmat asukkaat.”
(The most magnificent of Kentucky’s plants are the noble oaks. They are the most spectacular residents of the lush forest.)

In English, if you want to say that oaks are more magnificent than the other plants of any particular state, you just put “most” in front of “magnificent”. Easy. It’s only slightly more complicated if you wanted to heap the same amount of praise on oaks by using a simpler word like “noble”; you would say “noblest”.  

That’s English superlatives in a nutshell. Either add “most” or “‑est”. Again, simple.

Superlatives in Finnish are also simple in theory. All you do is add “–in” to an adverb or adjective as in suurenmoisin (“most magnificent”) and mahtavin (“most spectacular”) and you’ve got the superlative – in the basic form, that is.

In practice, it’s another story, since in Finnish almost no word is spared being from transmuted almost beyond recognition into one of some 20 variations. The original suffix “-in” is used only in one of those variations, and is replaced by “-imm-” or “-imp-” in all the rest.

Still, once you know this, it’s not hard to recognize that words like suurenmoisimpia and mahtavimmat are superlatives. Even I can manage the passive act of reading and understanding those words.

What is still beyond me is actively using such forms properly in written language, and I’m light years from being able to pull a word like suurenmoisimpia out of my brain when speaking. I’ll probably never utter “Suomalaiset saunat ovat maailman suurenmoisimpia.” “(Finnish saunas are the world’s most magnificent.)”.

I doubt I can perform the mental gymnastics needed to figure out on the fly which form of suurenmoinen is required for that particular example, which in this case would be the partitive plural of the superlative. It even sounds like rocket science.

If you are strictly process oriented, you can work your way from the basic form to derive the correct form in four "easy" steps (making the changes in bold):

suurenmoinen (basic form) ⇒ 1. suurenmoisen (genitive)  2. suurenmoisin (superlative nominative singular) 3. suurenmoisimpaa (superlative partitive singular)  ⇒ 4.  suurenmoisimpia (superlative partitive plural)

Of course, you could also simply memorize suurenmoisimpia, accepting it as it is, a perfectly formed word emerging from the dark mystery of Finnish grammar, without trying to understand the convoluted path that brings it into existence.

Or, you could do what I’ll probably do – avoid ever speaking in Finnish about anything that could be even remotely considered to be the most magnificent. At least, that should be easy. 


  1. My hat's off to you for being able to reach even this level of proficiency in your adopted nation's language. I can only imagine the difficulty.

    I have only ever taken lessons in one other language: German. And even though German is similar in many ways to English (both "
    Germanic" languages, of course) learning it was problematic. I got to the point in which I could read and understand some of it, but I never did feel comfortable speaking it. Best thing for me would have been total immersion, I reckon.

    Like Finnish, German tends to create gigantic words out of huge collections of letters. A German friend was telling me how frustrating it was to listen to lawmakers in their government because new laws tended to be made up of new words to describe them--hideous conglomerations of word bits and stolen phrases.

    Anyway, I remain impressed by your progress, slow though it may be. Because I have spoken to people who actually are fluent in several languages, and every one of them have told me that Finnish has the reputation for being one of the world's most difficult languages to learn unless one is brought up in it.

    1. Thanks Bob. Nowadays, I'm feeling a bit better about my Finnish, but still after all this time, I should be fluent. Oh, well, better late than never.

      I studied some German in college (had been keen on it ever since I was a kid), but have never had much occasion to use the little I learned -- except with my wife as a secret language the kids couldn't understand. That can be handy sometimes.