Tuesday, 24 November 2020

A joke explained....

A while ago I posted a bit of an in-joke. An in-joke for students of Finnish. This is an attempt at a partial explanation - I don't understand enough to give a full explanation, and my head and possibly yours would explode if I did.

Now Finnish, or at least standard formal Finnish, is famously regular and logical (I'm aware this is a relative concept, famous amongst the few people who are interested in this sort of thing). For example, every sound has a letter and every letter has a sound - only one sound. An 'e' always makes the same sound (similar to the 'e' in 'egg'). If you want the 'E' sound as in the name of the letter, you use 'i' and 'i' is always pronounced 'E' (a short 'E' sound). If you want a longer E sound it's written 'ii'. There are other examples of this regularity. Such as the names for things. Gone are all the fancy Greco-Latin and French derived words of English. Noooo! Aeroplanes are 'flying machines' in Finnish. Telephones are 'speaking lines'. And even computers are 'knowledge machines'. At least in formal language. Foreigners are 'outside land people' ('ulkomaalaiset', nominative plural). If you don't know the name of something, you can often make a good guess by using words you already do know. Railway? Well I know the word for road and I know the word for iron, so I'll go with rautatie (iron road) - "Good boy! Well done." You might be wrong but at least you will be using descriptive nouns that make some kind of sense. It can actually be one of the things that makes it seem that becoming competent in this language is an attainable goal.

Then when you feel you have got to grips with these things, just when you can see some light at the end of the tunnel, you learn something new. And that kills your confidence. Stone dead. That light was an oncoming train ('juna*'). 

* No idea where that one comes from though. I'd have guessed at 'rautatieauto' ('auto' = car - a rare exception to that 20th century technology thing mentioned above).

Like the case system. I didn't even know what cases were until I had some Finnish lessons (my wife, then my girlfriend had tried to explain that in some situations that noun you'd just learned got changed in a bewildering variety of ways - 'why?' "it just is"). So they give you some of the easy ones to get your head round, like the locative cases. 'The what?!' Well, Finnish doesn't have all those little words like 'to' and 'from', 'on', 'in', or pairs like 'off from', 'into', 'out of/from'. Instead you stick an ending on the noun you're referring to. 

For example, 'pubi' (pub**) would become 'pubiin' when you are going into it, then 'pubissa' when inside the pub. In the pub (pubissa) my mate brings a couple of pints to the table (pöydälle) and puts the beer on the table (pöydällä - notice the change in the ending).  When you'd had enough you'd come out of the pub ('pubista'). Right, got that. I can grasp that. You do the preposition the wrong way round!

** incidentally, pub is one of those few words in Finnish that is recognisable to English speakers. Another one is bar (bari). This gives rise to one of those other 'rules'. If you can't make up a portmanteau word from what you do know, add 'i' to the English noun. Sometimes do it with a 'European' accent so W is a V (wine = viini, pronounced veeny). But beer isn't beeri, it's olut, or kalja.

So I ring my beloved up and (being proud of myself) announce that "Minä olen junalla" (juna + lla - remember train is 'juna' and on is 'lla'). She sounds a little worried at first. "Oh you mean 'minä olen junissa'. We say 'I am in the train.' If you are on the train it means you are on the roof!" OK, so as well as getting some things back-to-front, they have a slightly different way of looking at things. Actually, in English, we say I am in the car, but I am on the train, so perhaps it's us that have got it wrong. Told you Finnish was logical! Right, lesson learned. I'm cracking on now!

'I've learned those locative case endings'. 

"Good! Now that's less than half the cases."

'How many more are there?!' 

"Well that depends." 

'That depends? On what?' 

"Well different grammarians of the Finnish language have different views on how many cases there are. Some don't think that some of them are separate cases. But it's complicated."

'What!! If the experts in the language don't even know, how are we ignorant foreigners expected to know what to do?'

"Just learn what I teach you. Don't worry about what the theorists think. It's what you do that counts.' 

'OK go on. What's next?'

"Well there's the Partitive case. This case is used when...."

Actually there's a long list of when this case is used, and it's not very clear all the time to non-natives when it should be used. Wiki tells me that it is used to indicate a 'lack of telicity'. No me neither. Suffice to say it was described to me as the gambler's choice. It seems to be used more often than other possible cases. If in doubt use the partitive. Significantly you use it for the L word. You love someone in the partitive case. For some reason. Not in the accusative (that case indicates telicity***). Nor in the nominative (basic dictionary form, 'nothing going on here' case).

*** Actually, Wiki does explain. Telicity is when the action or event is in some sense complete.

So getting back to that joke. Here we have a student of Finnish using his new found knowledge.

........is a joke ruined

It's not just us English speakers who suffer with this. The person who sent the joke to me in the first place is French. The secret is not to overthink it. Just submit. Resistance is futile.


  1. I heard a programme on Radio 4 a few days ago about being Scandinavian and braodly speaking, Danes, Norwegians and Swedes can understand a lot of their respective languages. However they all appear to be stumped by Finnish and I can see why now!!!

    1. Yes. It’s in a completely different language group. Scandinavian is much closer to English than Finnish. In fact technically, Russian is closer to English. Finnish and Estonian are up their alone (with Sami).

      In my early trips to Finland I used to have more joy trying to understand signs in Swedish (which is a minority language that has equal status in law) than Finnish. In one small (shipping) museum I went to I was amazed at how many words in Swedish I could understand against none of the Finnish. These days signage is often in English as well.

      Culturally though, Finland is much more aligned with Scandinavia, though they LOVE to beat the Swedes at sport 😄.

  2. An enjoyable post . I learned a lot even if I only understood half of it. I do like the idea of computer etc in Finnish, word for me. Have the Finns embraced management speak by the way. I still recall recoiling at the buzz words that came into education latterly.

    1. Thanks. I don’t know about management speak. I’m curious now. I’ll ask. The other thing is, if they do use it, have they borrowed the English word or phrase or created a Finnish word? I suspect the former since big companies often use English as their business language.

      I’m with you by the way. I can’t stand it. My career has been in commercial roles but I’ve managed to keep it at bay mostly, and I’m lucky that in my current company it isn’t so prevalent. Or maybe I’ve just don’t notice any more!

  3. Interesting, keep practising! Telicity = an action that is 'Finnished' ?
    The R4 program is 'The Invention of Scandinavia' with Misha Glenny and is informative and a little playful too. I have a Danish/British colleague who said they 'caught' the Danes quite well, so hopefully interesting about Finland also.
    Q: if someone who speaks 3 languages is trilingual and someone who speaks 2 languages is bilingual, what is someone who speaks only one language?
    A: English!

  4. Very much enjoying the first series of Deadwind on Netflix at the moment, two things struck me... one, I am unlikely to understand as much as I did of Montalbano's Italian, two, Finnish sounds like Russian with a Swedish accent.. :o))

  5. Oh good, I thought Estonian was totally unintelligible now I see why! Good luck learning Finish, it sounds like you need it!
    Best Iain