Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Small Difference One Little Letter Can Make

To improve my Finnish language comprehension, I’ve been gradually reading through one of my kid’s old lukio (high school) textbooks in history. This sluggish task is made easier by the fact that, in general terms, I already know most of the subject matter. It does help.

So, I was initially a bit confused when I ran across the following sentence about developments in Cuba and the fates of political dissidents (“toisinajattelijat”) there:

Kuubalaisia toisinajattelijoita tuomittiin 2003 pitkiin vankeusrangaistuksiin yhteistyöstä Yhdysvaltojen kanssa.

I understood the individual words well enough and the overall meaning of the sentence, at least the first part. What tripped me up was the word for “cooperation” (yhteistyö). You very often see this word used in the sense of “in cooperation” (yhteistyössä). (The inessive suffix –ssä denotes “in”.)

My first thought was to take that as the meaning for the word in this instance, in which case, the sentence would translate to:

Cuban dissidents were sentenced in 2003 to long prison terms in cooperation with the US.

What? “…in cooperation with the US”? That certainly sounded odd. When did that happen?

After a more careful re-reading of the sentence, I realized my mistake. The word is actually yhteistyöstä, not yhteistyössä, as any idiot could plainly see. 

Unlike -ssä, the –stä suffix, which is used in the elative case, denotes “from” or “about” something, or in this case “for” something. 

The correct translation...

Cuban dissidents were sentenced in 2003 to long prison terms for cooperation with the US.

...makes much more sense.

A tricky language, this Finnish, when a single-letter substitution – buried in a 12-letter word – can turn the meaning of a sentence topsy-turvy.

Side note: the Finnish word for “dissident” (toisinajattelija) is a compound word literally meaning “otherwise-thinker”. I like how plain and descriptive that is. 


  1. I have often heard from others that learning Finnish when you were not raised in it is a herculean task. I can see why.

    1. True. And yet there are quite a few foreigners who have eventually managed to become fluent. Sadly, I'm not one of those.

    2. Some people just have a great facility for languages. I've heard it said that people who are talented chess players often are good at picking up foreign languages. I can't play chess worth a damn. So.

    3. Chess is about weighing strategies and positions and that's where logical and abstract thinking skills help. Languages require a different type of talent, which is about being able to abandon the frame of reference (of your native language) and to adopt a new one. I suppose it's helpful in chess, too, for re-evaluating one's position during the game and not be trapped by your earlier thought and to get inside the mind of your opponent, but that's something you can learn and there's more to chess than just that.
      IMHO the key to learning languages is dropping the prejudice of your earlier languages as soon as possible i.e. accepting and embracing the language you're trying to learn as a separate framework of concepts, phonemes and logic. That and practicing the language, even if you're only doing it inside your head.

    4. JRS, you only think like that because you've been raised to speak a largely monosyllabic language where spelling is optional.

  2. The word "toisinajattelija" allows also for great puns.