Top Five Reasons Why Finnish Is Cooler Than English

Tero Ykspetäjä • November 6th, 2008 @ 3:51 pm • Uncategorized

Today’s post is a short one, because I’m just back from a visit to the local sf pub meeting. Nice things, those. You go to the friendly neighborhood (or in this case, downtown) pub, order some food and a beer, sit down with people you know (and some you don’t if you’re lucky and there are new people at the meeting) and talk about stuff. You know, an ordinary pub night. Except with more sf. Which makes it even better.

Anyway. Lists are all the rage on the net, I hear. I’m lousy with lists: I can’t even list my favorite books if asked when I don’t expect it. Or when I do. Normally I just evade the question by starting to talk about the latest book I’ve read and hope the person I’m talking to forgets what they asked. If that doesn’t work, I ramble on until they get the hint and pretend they forgot the question. Or, in a pinch, I change the subject. By the way, did you know that the Finnish cavalry-men, called “hakkapeliittas,” were feared through Europe during the Thirty Years’ War? Apparently this was because they were used to fighting the Russians on the Eastern border and no chivalry was known in those battles. In other words, instead of civilized fighting, they were used to what we today would probably call total war. (My wife is currently preparing a lecture about Sweden as a superpower in the 17th century, and that’s where I got this interesting tidbit.)

So, lists. I thought I’d make a list for you. Something about Finland, or the Finnish language to be more specific. You may not know this, but there are several reasons why the Finnish language is cooler than English. Here’s my top five, at least for today. (It might change tomorrow. As I said, I’m lousy with lists.)

  1. Finnish is more equal. We don’t have gender-specific personal pronouns, there’s just “hän” meaning both “he” and “she”. This is sometimes a problem for translators, but otherwise pretty neat. It also means we don’t have a language-related problem with people who don’t identify either as a he or a she, and maybe are therefore a little better equipped to treat them more normally in other respects too. If you want, feel free to borrow the word from us. We don’t mind.
  2. We have more letters than you do. Your little alphabet ends with z, but we also have Ã¥, ä, and ö. And no, those aren’t umlauts. They are totally different letters that just look like a and o with umlauts. And more is naturally better.
  3. Finnish is elegant and economic. You can say so much more with just one word. For example “epäjärjestelmällistyttämättömyydellänsäkään”. Ok, so that isn’t a word anybody would really ever use, but technically it’s still correct. It means something like, “even with his or her (notice how awkwardly I need to express that) ability to not make others more disorganized”. The downside to this is that if you want to participate in NaNoWriMo in Finnish, you have to produce quite a lot more content.
  4. Finnish is clear and logical. Each letter corresponds with exactly one sound, always. No exceptions according to which letters it follows or where in the word it is. (With the single exception of “ng” which just makes the rule more precise.) No silent vowels either, so you always know how a word is pronounced by looking at it, even if you’ve never heard the word before. And the emphasis is always on the first syllable. If every language were this practical, learning them would be so much easier.
  5. There’s no future tense in the Finnish language. The present tense is used instead. “No future,” as the Tähtivaeltaja slogan says. This makes it easy to seize the day, to live in the moment and not worry about tomorrow. At least in theory. There are some who insist on trying to introduce a sort-of future tense by artificial constructs like “you will come to know this,” but they are clearly in the wrong and should stop immediately.

There you have it. Obviously a superior language, and now that I think about it, everybody should learn it. Really, it’s elegant, logical, and clear. It’s like using the metric system. (What’s up with not using that, anyway? Come on! I can sort of understand the British trying to hang on to remains of days past, but what about Americans? Aren’t you supposed to let go of your parent already and move on instead of clinging to the past? I’ve heard a lot about how it’s time for America to change; couldn’t you change in this regard too while you’re at it?)

28 Responses to “Top Five Reasons Why Finnish Is Cooler Than English”

  1. JES says:

    Hey, this is pretty cool. For somebody who claims to be new at the list-making thing you do a great job.

    The only one I have a problem with is #4, the bit about the accent always on the first syllable — especially in the context of the made-up-but-logical word in the preceding item. I sort of imagine that “epäjärjestelmällistyttämättömyydellänsäkään” is pronounced “eee-mumblemumblemumblemumble.” Aren’t there, like, secondary or even tertiary accents?

  2. Indiana Jim says:

    No no no, the list goes like this:

    1. Nightwish
    2. More Nightwish
    3. Even More Nightwish
    4. Tolkien loved Finnish
    5. Did I mention Nightwish?

    There.

  3. Johanna Vainikainen-Uusitalo says:

    Yes, JES, there are secondary etc accents on *every other* syllable except the last one.

    Did you know that Bruce Holland Rogers is currently trying valiantly to learn Finnish? He’s coming to Finland to teach writing and there’s this short story he is going to read aloud. In Finnish. (I translated it for him, though.)

    One little thing I never understood is why on earth in English you write things DOWN. We Finns do the natural thing and “write things UP”. And what is the body part most loaded with meanings? (I’m talking about homonymes, words that have many different meanings) In English it must be “back”. In Finnish it is without doubt “tongue”, “kieli”…

  4. Larry says:

    Interesting, but does Finnish have a word, like the English “fuck”, that can be 1) a noun, 2) pronoun, 3) adjective, 4) verb, 5) adverb, 6) conjunction, 7) preposition, and 8) an interjection?

  5. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Larry! This is a family blog! About 70% of my readers are under the age of seven!

    Jeff

    ;)

  6. Jukka Halme says:

    Jim: You’ve seen this, surely? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gg5_mlQOsUQ

    Larry: I’m afraid we do. It is also something George Carlin had in “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”. It follows “fuck” in the original list and is in Finnish “vittu”. And it is used pretty much as the translation of “fuck”, really.

    There is a dissertation that partially studies the use of the word “vittu” as an “aggressive” (energetic grammatical mood) – https://oa.doria.fi/handle/10024/29208

    There’s more in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finnish_profanity which pretty much explains everything.

  7. Tero Ykspetäjä says:

    Indiana Jim: That’s not a bad list of good things Finnish, but I’m afraid I don’t value the one (or was it two?) songs Nightwish have written in Finnish quite enough to give them that much dominance on the Finnish language list. (They used to be one of my absolute favorites, though, before they went and got the new singer and their musical style went all over the place; maybe on the next album they again know what they want to be.)

  8. JuhaT says:

    In reference to point 1, colloquial Finnish (at least in the Helsinki area) seems to have taken an even further step in equality. The Finnish equivalent for _it_, se, is also being used in reference to people instead of hän. There are those who are unhappy with this development, becuase they think it is dehumanizing. I am not one of them. I think it would be pretty cool if one day in the future Finnish only had a single third person pronoun for men, women, animals, plants and everything! (If I remenber correctly, Iain M. Banks had something like that in one of his Culture novels).

    As a Finnish-English translator I’m unable to pick which of the two languages I like better, they’re both great in so many ways.

    Keep up the good work, Tero and Jukka!

  9. Vandana Singh says:

    Thanks, this is very interesting. I am particularly struck by the absence of the future tense in Finnish. In Hindi there is a future tense but the words for yesterday and tomorrow are the same — you tell the difference through context. Also even though Finnish is not an Indo-European language, it is so interesting to me how some of your names sound so Sanskritic, like “Hannu Rajaniemi.” According to wikipedia the word for dog is koira in Finnish; in Sanskrit it is kukura. Strange coincidences!

    Vandana

  10. Tero Ykspetäjä says:

    JuhaT: In the area where I live, the local dialect mainly uses “se” of people, but “hän” for pets. Go figure.

    Vandana: yesterday and tomorrow being the same sounds intriguing. It would be interesting to know it this somehow also affects the way people perceive time or if it is just a language thing.

    To my knowledge, the origin for the word “koira” is somewhere in the Ural region, as is the origin of many other Finnish words.

  11. Johanna Vainikainen-Uusitalo says:

    Vandana and Tero: there is another archaic Finnish word for dog, “peni”. To my knowledge, “koira” is also an old word but it has originally meant a male animal. “Koiras” still has that meaning. “Peninkulma” is an old word for roughly ten kilometers, short for “peninkuuluma” – that is how far you can hear a dog’s bark.

    Some Indian place names sound oddly familiar to Finns, like Kerala for example. There are many Finnish names that end -la!

  12. Knowing Only the Present says:

    [...] Ecstatic Days blog recently, by guest blogger Tero Ykspetäjä: the top five reasons “Why Finnish Is Cooler Than English.” Reason #5 (with slightly tongue-in-cheek coda): There’s no future tense in the Finnish [...]

  13. Tristan Miller says:

    I’m with you up to your last point. In case you hadn’t noticed, English doesn’t have a future tense either. It’s got only two tenses: present and past. All other expressions of time are not inflected but rather use adverbs or auxiliary verbs.

    By the way, your points apply just as well to Hungarian. How about another list showing why Finnish is better than Hungarian? :)

  14. Karen says:

    6. I think Finnish has much better swear words. There’s just nothing that comes close to saying saatana and perrrrrkele!

  15. sbalb says:

    You missed out vowel harmony, which is as wonderful as it is pointless, thus turning itself into a little art form set like a pearl in an otherwise nicely functional language.

    Does anyone know of good resources for taking a working-but-rusty knowledge of basic Finnish and turning it into actual comprehension of the written and spoken language? An equivalent of the BBC’s marvellous News in Welsh with vocabulary hints would be ideal. A fast trainline all the way from Paris to Tallinn would be even better, as we don’t fly any more and miss Helsinki.

  16. Tero says:

    Tristan: adverbs and auxiliary verbs count as having a tense. We don’t have even that — a future tense can’t be formed in any way, only implied by context.

    I’m afraid my “Why Finnish is better than Hungarian” list would consist of only one item: I can speak it. :-)

    Karen: totally with you there!

    sbalb: you might want to take a look at the selkouutiset, YLE news broadcast in plain Finnish. It might be useful in training your ear for Finnish — it’s a daily news broadcast (available as podcast) in Finnish intended for people who don’t speak it as a first language; it uses simple language that is spoken more slowly and clearly than usual.

  17. sbalb says:

    Tero: brilliant, thank you. That’s going on my podcast list!

  18. Larry says:

    *idly wonders if Finnish will ever compete with Klingon*

  19. Tero says:

    Larry: well, both have been used in Star Trek movies… :-)

  20. brendan connell says:

    Actually, English has also present perfect, past perfect and it does have a future in the form of a future perfect (will have had). It also has progressive tenses and a ton of conditionals. It is loaded with tenses. That is why it is the coolest :)

  21. Larry says:

    Point taken, Tero.

    But to add what Brendan said, the one really cool thing featured in some dialects in English is the triple modal. But I might should oughta go to bed, even if I useta stay awake longer…

  22. Tristan Miller says:

    To those insisting that English has more than two tenses, I suggest you brush up on your English grammar. :) English has many ways of expressing time with verbs, but only two of these are expressed with tenses. A tense is basically a way of inflecting a verb; that is, by modifying the verb stem itself, such as by tacking on a suffix. Using auxiliary verbs and adverbs aren’t inflections, and therefore aren’t tenses, because they don’t modify the form of the main verb itself.

    So I repeat, if Finnish is good because it doesn’t have a future tense, then English is just as good, because it doesn’t have one either. But by the same metric, Chinese is even better, because it doesn’t have any tenses at all! All temporal information in Chinese is expressed in adverbs.

  23. brendan connell says:

    Tristan, the Wikipedia article you cite actually has a number of tenses listed under “tense”. So it contradicts itself. I actually teach English for a living (not that that really means anything of course…lots of people act for a living and can’t act).

    Anyhow, people can even say “English has no future.” which is sort of correct. But it isnt even really true. Because the “will” or “going to” used to state the future are far different from the present continuous used to state the same thing. Just because we use an auxialliary verbs or modals to state times, does not mean they are not a tense. Past perfect for example is clearly a completely different thing from past simple. It is another tense.

  24. Tristan Miller says:

    Brendan, true, the Wikipedia article later muddies the waters by introducing what it calls “complex tenses”. Someone really should fix that. What it says in the section on English is correct, though. Mind you, it doesn’t say or imply that English has no way of expressing events in the future; just that it has no way of doing so through inflection alone. A tense is, by definition, a form of inflection. I’ll concede that in colloquial speech the word “tense” may be used less precisely to refer to non-inflected temporal forms. But if we’re having a dicussion about comparative grammar, why not use the definition commonly used by syntacticians?

    This whole discussion makes me happy that I’m learning Icelandic from a degreed linguist rather than someone whose only qualification is simply speaking the language… I suppose different teaching methods work better for different people, and that in most cases it doesn’t really matter how you refer to various grammatical features as long as you know how to use them correctly, but as a professional linguist myself I find I can learn languages much faster if the teacher introduces grammatical structures by their “proper” (i.e., as used by linguists) name. That way I know right away what function the structure has, rather than have to figure it out on my own by interpreting the teacher’s vague circumlocutions or parsing a large number of possibly incomplete examples.

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  26. Omar Warns says:

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  27. Maria Vuorelma says:

    This is so true! And this is what I always try to tell people, when they claim that Finnish is difficult! It’s not difficult, it’s different, and that’s not the same thing! :)

  28. Martha says:

    I would like to point out that except for item 3 (Thank gods) Estonian presents the exact same language characteristics AND is easier to learn.

    And to Maria, Finnish is not an easy language to learn, but the difficulties – at least when I was studying it are made infinitely worse by crappy teaching methods.

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