Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Running Around Aimlessly

This week, a particular viral picture caught my attention. The reason it caught my attention is because it provides a perfect illustration of why Finnish is such a tricky language.

In other words, this single picture is a neat summary of this whole blog, no less.

The picture shows what looks like a bearded druid against the background of some Finnish version of the Japanese imperial flag. The druid is holding a zither in one hand and brandishing an unopened bottle of Koskenkorva vodka in the other. The significance of the picture is a little lost on me (I think it is a meme originating from the "Finnish Problems" blog - maybe some kind reader could shed more light on this), but the caption above the picture reads:

"I wonder if I should run around aimlessly?"

While the caption below the picture says:

= "Juoksentelisinkohan?"

The Finns who shared this picture on various social networks seemed to revel in the fact that it showed how Finnish is able to express in just one word something that takes 8 words in English.

For me, the picture (or rather its caption) only served to remind me of a number of points I have made about the trickiness of the Finnish language:

  1. Finnish words are long, very long: There aren't that many words in English that have 19 letters, but then English does not typically allow to concatenate words endlessly like Finnish does! In this case, the word "juoksentelisinkohan" (which you won't find in a dictionary) is essentially made up of 3 bits: "juoksentelisin", "ko" and "han"
  2. Finnish has an odd way of forming polar questions: Finnish yes/no questions are formed by adding a "-ko", while the spoken intonation remains pretty flat. So unless you spot the "ko" in the word, you have no idea you are being asked a question.
  3. You can add funny endings to words almost at will: In this context, the suffix "-han" is added to mean "I wonder if" (cunningly, "-han" can also mean lots of other things, including "surely", "after all", "go ahead" and "why don't you?")
  4. Finnish letters are very unstable: It's often pretty tough finding the root of a Finnish word (which you need in order to look up its meaning in a dictionary), because letters appear and disappear almost at will. Here "juoksentelisin" is the present conditional form (as indicated by the "isi"-bit near the end) of the verb "juoksennella" ("to run around"). One can but admire how the "nn" of the infinitive form turns into an "nt", and the "ll" becomes a "l"...
In fact, "juoksennella" is an interesting case in itself. It is derived, as one would expect, from the verb "to run". In Finnish, the ending "-lla" is (in this context) "a deverbal suffix for creating frequentative verbs" apparently. This means it turns a verb into a more repetitive, more leisurely or less goal-orientated version of the original, e.g. "ostella" (to shop) derives from "osta" (to buy). That's how "juoksennella" ends up meaning roughly "to run around aimlessly" and in doing so also perfectly illustrates point 3 above.

One could expect the verb "to run" to be "juoksen-something", But that's forgetting the "unstable Finnish letters" (see point 4 above). In fact, while "I run" is indeed "juoksen", the infinitive (which you need for the dictionary) is "juosta". In other words, the "st" of the infinitive becomes "ks" when conjugated. Similarly, "nousta" ("to rise") becomes.... errr, hold on... nope, it doesn't become "nouksen", it becomes "nousen" ("I rise"), i.e. without a "k".

Finnish logic.

OK, so I have now totally over-analysed a joke... But I do take Finnish very seriously, you know!

Maybe I should go and run around aimlessly to let off some steam now...

19 comments:

  1. I can't provided any explanations for the things you've mentioned, but I can empathize with humorlessly overanalyzing (wow, this is a clause full of American spelling...ack, see what I mean?) things. I think, though, that this will ultimately help us when it comes to learning Finnish. :)

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    1. Hey, I hope you didn't think it was totally humourless!

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    2. Of course not! But I hope you understand what I so humorlessly attempted to explain. ;)

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  2. Thank you so much I would have gone crazy out of curiosity if I haven't found what the word "juoksentelisinkohan" means.
    Again, thank you so much for trying to explain something which is actually so difficult to be broke down for us non finnish speakers.

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    1. I have to say I am always surprise how much interest my blog-posts about Finnish grammar generates! I guess it's about shared pain for us foreigners struggling to learn, and schadenfreude for the many Finnish readers of this blog!

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  3. The Finnish language is enough to make anyone need to run around aimlessly and let off steam.

    Don't forget your zither! :)

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  4. I was looking forward to my language course tomorrow, but now I feel kinda demotivated ;-). How am I supposed to learn words that I can't even read correctly on the first (few) approach(es)?

    By the way, the druid guy is probably Väinämoinen.

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    1. Do not despair! See it as an intellectual challenge! Learning Finnish is fun!

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    2. 4 years and yesterday in the supermarket I had to ask what 'kasvis' is because I couldn't remember it anymore.
      But then, some time ago I had troubles remembering the word 'carpet' and asked first for a curtain and then a cupboard. Every now and then my brain is doing weird things.

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    3. I think you have to come in terms with that fact that reading different languages is different.
      English is largely a monosyllabic language and the crazy spelling makes it easy to "guess" a word. It sort of promotes sloppy reading by Finnish standards, where you rarely have single syllable words and the spelling is essentially phonetic. (Not really, though, stress and intonation aren't marked.)

      I'm not saying that you can't "guess read" words in Finnish, but before running, one should learn to walk or even crawl. The rules are different for different languages. Take your time to do it properly. It'll wait for you.

      Maybe you should try thinking about the pronunciation as you read the word. Try to imagine phonemes and how they sound like or how to pronounce them. That way you're not only reinforcing the two aspects about the word separately but linking them together for a stronger imprint.

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  5. I really like your blog! :)

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  6. Hello, it's not a druid with a zither, it's Väinämöinen with his kannel.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V%C3%A4in%C3%A4m%C3%B6inen
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kantele

    Cheers!

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  7. Yeah, you weren't kidding. Language is a bunch of nonsense. Your Finnish name fooled me, and I couldn't immediately figure out why a Finn would be learning Finnish at such a late age...

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  8. Just a note I made.. the basic form for "to buy" is "ostaa" with two a-letters. With one "a" it's the imperative "buy!".

    This means it turns a verb into a more repetitive, more leisurely or less goal-orientated version of the original, e.g. "ostella" (to shop) derives from "osta" (to buy).

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  9. This is a great blog :) For us Finnish people, it's not so obvious how many version and therefore meanings our words can have. Because we don't really have to think about our own language. So it's really interesting when someone ponders our language.

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    1. I am really glad you like it! I have fun writing stuff, and am amazed so many people (Finns and non-Finns) are actually interested in the subject matter.

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  10. Hey! Have you ever noticed, has your writting style gone any better so far?

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