Thursday, June 18, 2015

Agent Provocateur

I got a notice in the mail some time ago that read:

”Varaamasi aineisto on noudettavissa valitsemastasi kirjastosta alla mainittuun päivään asti.”

Considering how long I’ve lived here in Finland, I can’t take any special pride in simply comprehending this short passage (though I do just a little bit – take pride, that is). I fully understood the meaning, even without resorting to a dictionary.

“Your reserved material can be picked up at your chosen library until the date mentioned below.”

Looking a bit more carefully at the text, however, I realized that despite understanding the gist of the sentence well enough, two words were in forms that were totally unknown to me.

Varaamasi and valitsemastasi were close enough to the root words (varata “to reserve” and valita “to choose”) that the basic meaning was obvious. But why was there a ”-ma-” inserted in each? Why did those two letters transform the words into “reserved” and “chosen”? It was an unexpected mystery.

You would think that after all my years of studying Finnish, off and on, I would have run across (or at least noticed) every possible quirk of grammar that Finnish has to throw at me. Apparently not.

To discover what exactly was this part of speech I’d been missing all this time, I started browsing through my favorite Finnish grammar book of the moment, Suomen kielioppia ulkomaalaisille, by Leila White. I can highly recommend it.

And there it was. A little gem of grammar I never knew existed – the agenttipartisiippi (agent participle). It turns out it’s very commonly used. Now that I know what it is, I see it everywhere. It haunts me.

After reading the explanation in White’s book, I realized my initial interpretation was slightly off the mark. Instead of “your reserved material”, varaamasi aineisto strictly speaking translates to “material reserved by you”. But, you get the idea.

An agenttipartisiippi is a word, formed from a verb, that modifies something (an object) by indicating an action performed on that object by an "agent". Though that sounds complicated, it does have its uses. It allows you to concisely pack a bit more information into a few words.

In the common Finnish expression (well, not really), lentävä sika, the word lentävä ("flying") modifies sika ("pig"). This is an example of the preesenspartisiippi (present participle), not the agenttipartisiippi, but we'll get there eventually. 

All we can derive from this phrase is that the sika is flying. As far as we know, the pig is simply flying under its own power. Well, why not?

But if we want to paint a slightly more realistic picture, where pigs don’t actually have wings, and talk instead about what (the object) the pig is flying, we can employ the agenttipartisiipi.

For “to fly”, that would be lentämä, which is formed by taking the third-person present plural of lentää (lentävät) and replacing the “‑vät” with “‑mä”. The “agent” doing the flying, in this case a pig, takes the genitive form, sian.

In my letter from the library, the “agent” – which would be me, since I’m the one who reserved the material – is indicated simply by the possessive suffix “‑si” in varaamasi. This allows you to dispense with using a separate word (sinun, in this case) for the agent. Damn simple stuff!

Returning to my flying pig example, all we have to do now is specify what the pig is flying, for example, a jet (or suihkukone). Putting it all together, we get sian lentämä suihkukone, “a jet flown by a pig”.

Another whimsical example would be prinssin suutelema sammakko (“a frog kissed by a prince”), and a much, much more serious one would be ihmiskunnan aiheuttama ilmastonmuutos (“climate change caused by humans”).

To be sure, there’s a certain economy in using the agent participle, though you can also get the same idea across by just saying “a jet, which a pig flies” (suihkukone, jota sika lentää).

That would surely be the easiest approach for struggling Finnish speakers such as myself, especially considering that the day I actually learn to use the agenttipartisiippi in speech – and not just recognize it when I see it – is the day that frogs, kissed by princes or not, will surely fly (Katso, prinssin suutelema sammakko lentää!).

Maybe even alongside pigs, with or without jets. 

A lentävä sika, if I've ever seen one.
Credit: Azu Toth


  1. I remain amazed by people who can learn to speak another language even close to fluency. I know you still struggle with details, but my hat's off to you.

    1. It's easier with immersion.

      OT: Damn I hate this new captcha.

    2. I really do admire (or envy?) folks who can speak/learn different languages. I'm not one of them, obviously, but I'm still working at it.

  2. Not to rain on your parade, but ihmiskunta means (hu)mankind. The gist is obviously the same but the nuance is different, just think of animals and animalkind.

    1. You're right, of course, that ihmiskunta properly translates to "humankind" or "humanity". But, it seems that when talking about climate change in English.we more often use the word "humans", so with that in mind, perhaps I should have given a slightly different example: Ihmisten aiheuttama ilmastonmuutos.