Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Return of the Burning Spruce

There’s an Internet meme that pops up every so often on my Facebook feed that illustrates so perfectly what a maddeningly weird language Finnish can be.

Although this might be an extreme example, the language here is completely normal. The two words Kuusi palaa can and do mean all these various things.

Partly this can be explained by the fact that the Finnish word kuusi is a true homonym, in which the same spelling and pronunciation are used for different words, with different meanings.

Who knows exactly why it should be that kuusi means both “six” and “spruce”? 

Perhaps in the misty recesses of time, the towering tree so abundant throughout the boreal forests of Eurasia looked like a six to the ancient proto-Finns. Chances are, it’s much more complicated than that.

While having one word do the work of two can be extremely economical for a language, it seems a bit rare in otherwise economical Finnish. Only a few common examples come to mind.

There is the case of the cucumber. The word kurkku does double duty as both “cucumber” and “throat”. Again, who knows why, though you can see a certain similarity, or even logic to it, I guess.

And it’s generally not a problem, as there is no room for confusion when someone says “Minun kurkkuuni sattuu” ("My throat hurts."), unless that someone has such an unnaturally close attachment to his or her cucumber that they can sense its real or imagined pain. I don’t know anyone like that. At least, no one who will admit to it. Or is free to wander freely among the public.

By comparison, English seems to be rife with homonyms, such as “pike” (a fish or a sharp stick), “light” (not heavy or not dark), and “crane” (a bird or a construction machine). Finnish comes close to sharing this last one with English, since kurki, the word for the long-legged bird, is also used in nostokurki, the tall machine that is used to lift all kinds of heavy stuff.

As a side note, some people can be surprisingly touchy when it comes to homonyms. Or more to the point, homophones, which are words that sound alike regardless of how they’re spelled (“dye” versus “die”). A language school in Utah reportedly fired its social media specialist last August when he posted a blog about homophones, due to concerns that it might be seen as promoting the “homo-sex-ual agenda”. As they say, only in America.

Besides the homogenous nature of homonyms, what makes the extreme multiple meanings of “Kuusi palaa” possible is the fact that the Finnish word for “moon” is kuu. And if you happen to have a planetary satellite of your very own, you could very well stake your claim to it by adding the possessive suffix “-si” to form kuusi (“my moon”). Which, of course, also means “spruce” or “six”.

As to whether your moon (or anyone’s "spruce" or "six") is burning or returning can be, well, a matter of sheer interpretation because of a quirk in the conjugation of two Finnish verbs that are distinctly different. Or, as it turns out, maybe not quite distinctly different enough.

The Finnish verb “to burn” is palaa (verb type 1), while “to return” is palata (verb type 4). 

As a verb type 1, palaa conjugates to palaa in third-person singular. (The last vowel of the root pala- is simply repeated.) No real change, not even a pesky consonant gradation. So palaa means both “to burn” and “burns”.

Meanwhile, to do the same with palata, as with any type 4 verb, you lop off the last “–a” and change the “-t-“ to an “-a-“ before adding the personal ending -- which for third-person singular doesn’t exist. So you end up with palaa (“returns”).

To confuse matters even more, a completely different Finnish word pala (“piece”), takes the partitive form of palaa when used with a number like the numeral “spruce”, no sorry, make that the numeral “six”. That’s why when talking about “six pieces” of something, you say kuusi palaa

The quantum mechanics of palaa 
(apparently enclosed in some kind of metaphysical blueberry)

The close similarity doesn’t end there. For fun, I was wondering how confusing it might be when using partisiipit (participles) of palaa (“burns” and “return”, not “pieces”). 

Partisiipit in Finnish are derived from the third-person plural forms of verbs, in these cases palaavat (“they return”) and palavat (“they burn”). In both words, the “–vat” is replaced with ”–va". Or maybe it's simpler to just think that the “-t“ disappears. 

In any case, you end up with palaava (returning) and palava (burning).

Imagine that! They’re not completely identical! You can easily tell them apart! Palaava has an extra “a”, which you pronounce as if you’re having a doctor examine your throat (or kurkku, if you will), as in “ahhhh”.

No doubt, simply adding the words palava or palaava will spice up any conversation about spruces. 

You can mystify your spouse or friends or random strangers encountered in the street by solemnly intoning:

          Palava kuusi palaa.” (”The burning spruce returns.”)

Or make the heartfelt declaration (with an extra "a") that: 

          “Palaava kuusi palaa.” (“The returning spruce burns.”)

That, of course, could also mean “The returning spruce returns”. But, then again, that would just be a silly thing to say.


  1. Oh, kurkku is easy to understand, when you realize that cucumber is gurka(n) in Swedish..
    Kuusi (six) and kuusi (spruce) do inflect somewhat differently, as do vuori (mountain) and vuori (jacket, etc. lining).

    English is largely a monosyllabic language so it is logical that it would have more homophones than Finnish. There are only so many meaningfully different ways to pronounce them. Crane (for lifting) I imagine, though, is called that because they look like the other kind with the long neck, legs and all.

    1. Good points. And you’re right, of course, about the different declensions of “kuusi”. It’s something I hadn’t really noticed before, and it’s still not clear to me why “kuusi” takes either the “uusi” or “pieni” form, depending on which of the two meanings of the word you’re using.

      It does, however, help (marginally) to distinguish “spruce” from “six”, as in “kuusi kuutta” (six sixes) versus “kuusi kuusta” (six spruces). Or, “kuusen juuri” (the root of the spruce) versus “kuuden neliöjuuri” (the square root of six). Like I say, “marginally”.

    2. Could be related to the developments of the language. It's not obvious to me at all since I've never had to learn this stuff systematically, but I remember reading somewhere (could have even been this blog) that you can sort of draw a line on the inflection of nouns ending with i at somewhere millennia or two ago or so. Newer words have different inflections. I don't know why that would affect kuusi, though.